Striving for Begumpura: Traversing the Intellectual Activism of Gail Omvedt

​Writer, researcher, life-long fellow traveller of the progressive movements and long-time author with the Economic & Political Weekly, Gail Omvedt passed away on 25 August 2021. In this reading list, we present some of the highlights of her scholarship published in EPW.


Gail Omvedt, writes Surinder S Jodhka, “was very clearly a different kind of scholar.”

Born in the United States, Gail Omvedt arrived in India for the first time in 1963, stayed for a year, and came back to India in 1971 to complete her graduate-level dissertation on Jotirao Phule’s Non-Brahmin Movement. The same year, her first scholarly work, “Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India,” was published in the pages of EPW. In her own words, Omvedt describes the paper as follows:

This paper is, in a sense, a prelude to my doctoral dissertation for the PhD in Sociology, “Cultural Revolution in Maharashtra; the non-Brahmin Movement and Satyashodhak Samaj, 1910-1930.” It is based almost completely upon Phule's own writings and on my general sociological knowledge.

Omvedt’s doctoral dissertation went on to be published as a book in 1976 titled, “Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873–1930,” dealing with the effect of colonial politics on caste and class in the late 19th and early 20th century Maharashtra.

What prompted a young, White, Western scholar to head East and write about the social movements of a developing country’s oppressed? For one, V Geetha writes that Omvedt was perhaps inspired by a teacher during her time at Carleton College, Minnesota—Eleanor Zelliot—the historian of the Mahar movement and a pioneer of Dalit studies, who introduced B R Ambedkar to the West through her 80-odd articles and books on Ambedkar, the Dalit movement, the Buddhist movement, and the poet-saints of medieval India. 

Second, Omvedt’s political awakening occurred in 1960s America. Uma Chakravarti reminds us that in the decade following the 1950s anti-communist witch-hunt by the McCarthy administration, young “left-leaning” students and scholars could wear their political ideologies on their sleeves and still be able to “analyse the world in more rigorous ways.” Omvedt belonged to this generation of youth—who were anti-war, anti-establishment and anti-consumerism. Omvedt had seen, first hand, how demonstrations such as the anti-Vietnam war movement could bring about sociopolitical change. The demonstrations against the Vietnam War and for global peace shaped her politics, inspiring her to come to India, and, as Jodhka writes, look for “questions that would help her engage with the world beyond the US.”

The work that resulted from this engagement was a vast volume of scholarship on topics that ranged from social movements, feminist politics, anti-caste politics, peasant struggles and peasant agitations, postcolonial political developments, environmentalism, capitalism and globalisation. While Omvedt took her scholarship very seriously, she should, more accurately, be seen as a “scholar-activist,” Jodhka believes, who “perhaps liked being an activist more than being an academic.”

Omvedt’s ability to meaningfully combine her academic work with her political or activist work is what distinguished her the most. While she continued to carry out valuable research writings all her life, she also managed to very closely identify herself with those sections who she thought needed justice in an unequal world. Despite her White American origin, she began to be seen as an “organic intellectual” of the marginalised and politically mobilised Dalits and the backwards of Maharashtra, her home state.

Omvedt’s academic activism was always accessible, and in this reading list, we seek to present an overview of her ceaseless effort to know and interpret the world in order to change it. This effort seamlessly moved from understanding the local specificities of Maharashtra—the history and the present, which remained a continuing concern informing Omvedt’s work—grappling with the universal questions pertaining to social structures that emerged from this specific inquiry while foregrounding the centrality of the problematique of the emancipation of the oppressed.

Omvedt on Jotirao Phule and the Satyashodhak Samaj

In the colonial context, Omvedt wrote that there were three types of social movements: a national movement, which arose as a political revolution against the alien elite, and a social movement against the native elite—the upper classes—which took two forms: a cultural revolution against the “caste elite,” and an economic revolution against the emerging bourgeoisie. “In terms of Marxist theory, we might describe these movements as directed against colonialism, feudalism, and capitalism.”

The first expression of social revolution in Maharashtra was the non-Brahman movement, which gained organised form with Jotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj (“Truthseekers Society”), organised in 1873 as a cultural revolutionary movement directed against the traditional caste system and the religious and social domination of Brahmans.

When one thinks of the leaders of “the Indian renaissance”—the first generation of free thinkers under colonial rule—one often thinks of leaders of the national revolution, the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and not of leaders behind India’s social revolution, such as Jotirao Phule. This dilemma that colonial India’s national revolution and social revolution developed apart from each other, Omvedt believed, was “tragic.”

The elite expressed an ideology of what may be described as the “national revolution” it was the nationalism of a class combining bourgeois and high caste traditions. Phule represented the ideology of the social revolution in its earliest form, with a peasant and anti-caste outlook.

As the British solidified their rule post mid-19th century, a new class of the Indian elite developed, drawn from the upper caste, and fed through British education and bureaucracy. This elite class, Omvedt wrote, were concerned about threats from those “below” them and were aware that those above them were “alien.”

They accepted the “Aryan theory of race” which had the implications of identifying them ethnically with their British conquerors rather than the majority of their fellow countrymen, which traced civilisation in India from the Aryan conquest, and which gave a new pseudo-scientific justification for the caste hierarchy by linking varna to race.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahadev Govind Ranade belonged to those thinkers who accepted the Aryan race theory in its “whole racial form.” But, as Omvedt wrote, the majority of Indians were “dark-skinned non-Aryans,” and, according to traditional varna terms, they were “Shudras at best.” Further, where Indian nationalist elites saw “Indian backwardness” as a result of colonial exploitation, Phule and his colleagues saw double exploitation—that by the Brahman elite as well as that by the colonial rulers—and where nationalists saw a “drain” of income from India to England, Phule and his colleagues saw a “drain” from the peasantry to the urbanised bureaucratic elite.

In traditional Brahmanic culture, women and untouchables were the two social groups considered as the lowest. Phule’s first practical social reform efforts, Omvedt noted, were involved in aiding these two social groups.

Phule’s thought represented the fulfilment of the renaissance desire for social transformation along revolutionary lines. In sociological terms it makes good sense that he—and not the later elite thinkers, from Ranade through Tilak—should be seen as the primary renaissance figure.


Omvedt on the Non-Brahman Movement in Maharashtra

In 1973, Omvedt wrote “Development of the Maharashtrian Class Structure, 1818 to 1931,” an article that would serve as the foundation for her papers on the  Non-Brahman Movement in Maharashtra. 

Omvedt begins at the end of the British conquest of Maharashtra in 1818, when a class structure developed, one that was typical, as she puts it, of the colonial model. In her paper, Omvedt discusses the process by which the model was created and what positions various castes held within it, beginning with a class that she believed had been left out of discussions on new elites of colonial society—“commercial bourgeoisie.” 

[W]ith increasing participation in a cash economy, peasants fell into debt to a growing class of moneylenders who became de facto landlords controlling the produce of mortgaged land and frequently actual owners. 

These moneylenders were the primary constituents of the commercial bourgeoisie, dominated by dominant caste groups—Brahmans, Gujars and Marwaris—who were first among upper-class landholders to own more than 100 acres of land which was exclusive of their de facto control over mortgaged land. But moneylenders were not the only ones. Building roadways and railways to connect Maharashtrian agriculture to the world required labour. Post 1850, contracting labour became an important source of wealth for a small number of non-Brahmans who did rise to “a fair degree of wealth.” Despite this, Omvedt wrote that the Brahman dominance was still “overwhelming.”

As teachers their values and orientations dominated and most non-Brahmans felt faced with discrimination in the general expectation of their teachers that the role of non-Brahman castes was to follow their traditional occupation, that they had no aptitude for learning. As journalists and writers they carried on their traditional role of definers and purveyors of culture into the new era. As lawyers and pleaders they dominated the courts, usually in alliance with the commercial bourgeoisie who were their primary clients and some of whom were their fellow castemen. Finally, as Government servants they presented the immediate power of the British-dominated bureaucracy to the peasantry. 

In Omvedt’s next article, “The Satyashodhak Samaj and Peasant Agitation,” which begins where her previous piece, “Development of the Maharashtrian Class Structure, 1818 to 1931” left, Omvedt provided insights into the formation of the Non-Brahman political party. Despite the Brahmin dominance illustrated above, Omvedt wrote that a stratum of “rich” peasants among non-Brahmans did exist, and it was this stratum, together with the educated class of non-Brahmans and some merchants, that provided the basis of support for the non-Brahman political party, which must be distinguished from the Non-Brahman movement.

Omvedt outlined the work of Dinkarrao Javalkar, a “principled Satyashodhak” who became a secretary of the Non-Brahman Party in 1927, in her article on Non-Brahmans and Communists in Bombay. Javalkar, borrowing from Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, wrote that India’s peasants and labourers were being exploited by the “triple domination of capitalism, priestism, and imperialism or bureaucracy—shetji, bhatji and lathji.”

The national movement up to this time, he argued, had not been a real people's movement. Rather it was dominated by “agents of capitalist parasites,” who had made no attempt to emancipate the poor; and all parties, from the Congress to the Muslim League to the non-Brahman party itself, were organisations of that elite.

Though the Satyashodhak movement was “half socialist,” wrote Omvedt, its leaders were confused about socialism. 

In general, it may be said to be a problem of Communism in all colonised societies that Marxist ideas first reach an upperclass intelligentsia. The problem then is for these early leaders to overcome their own class origins and develop a strongly mass-based party. In India, where internal class and caste contradictions were very strong, this was even more of a problem than in most societies.

Non-Brahman leaders were interested only in elections and propagandised against socialism. Omvedt wrote

The truth was not so much that the movements drew apart as that the non-Brahman movement per se—particularly the Satyashodhak Samaj—died away after 1930 as its leaders joined the Congress, while the untouchable drive gathered momentum and retained its radical, separatist impulse. Part of the reason for this was that the wealthier among non-Brahmans lost their need to retain significant social radicalism as they managed to consolidate their power within the framework of the Congress party.


Omvedt on Agriculture and Class in Colonial India

In The Bourgeois State in Post-Colonial Social Formations, Bharat Patankar and Omvedt wrote that since after World War II, imperialism entered a new phase, where most third-world countries changed from colonial states to politically independent bourgeois states and the mechanisms through which the imperialist system dominated the third world underwent a change. These changes, Patankar and Omvedt argue, resulted in crucial shifts in the nature of the class struggle. 

Under direct colonial rule, the native bourgeoisie had “objective interests” in opposing the imperial power and could form a part of the national liberation front. But, in a politically independent state, this national bourgeoisie controlled state power and therefore was not part of the revolutionary movement, but was its “immediate enemy.” 

In her review of Nationalism without a Nation in India by G Aloysius, Omvedt writes that in the studies of nationalism, it is often believed that the peasantry is “rooted in the soil of the nation,” and that peasants are the “core of the people.” However, India’s unique social structure fragments the peasant community, creating and crystallising divisions between the rich and the poor, labourers and landowners, along the lines of caste distinctions, and also in extracting agricultural functions from peasant households and distributing them among caste-defined artisan specialists.

This institutionalised hierarchy in a particularly virulent form and was the main basis on which the upper caste intelligentsia—priests, clerics, administrators, record keepers, genealogy keepers, etc—could maintain their dominance. It was quite natural that the elite never had the goal of breaking down these barriers, uniting the fragments into a true community...

In her article, “Capitalist Agriculture and Rural Classes in India,” Omvedt argued that debates on Indian agriculture’s mode of production are based on little data and that while Indian agriculture was becoming capitalist, debates on the mode of production were centred on the colonial period. Omvedt highlighted the structure and characteristics of India’s main rural classes—“capitalist farmers, middle peasants and semi-proletarianised poor peasants and labourers.” 

At the time of independence, Indian agriculture was predominantly feudal in character, though important elements of capitalism had risen. A majority of the land was cultivated under some form of formal or informal tenancy and was dominated by landlords outside of or at the very top of the village. Inside the village, some form of semi-feudal relations continued to prevail.

Most of those classed as ‘field labourers’ in the colonial period were from untouchable castes who still performed all types of labour service as an obligatory caste duty, though struggles against this had begun and though legal definitions had shifted, by and large their servitude remained in its traditional form.

“Clearly,” wrote Omvedt, “this was a caste-structured form of feudalism.” Prior to the British conquest, jatis were basic units of the social division of labour in Indian feudalism. 

“Twice-born” varnas and other high castes were the landlords and merchants, while the cultivating kisan, the artisan and service castes, and the Dalit labourer who was a “semi-slave” to the system were exploited toilers. 

Because of the particular caste-form of Indian feudalism, the anti-feudal movement was expressed not only through peasant revolts but also in the radical anti-caste movements of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar; the anti-caste and social reform movements often contained attacks on moneylenders and landlords, while the most radical peasant revolts and especially the climatic Telangana revolt took up social issues including the fights against veth begar and against untouchability.

But since independence was won in 1947 was under the control of the bourgeois-dominated Congress Party in a “bourgeois manner,” the states were geared towards the needs of  capitalist development, wrote Omvedt, “rather than for the sake of a thoroughgoing agrarian revolution that those in power set out to destroy the semi-feudal system that dominated in agriculture.” The government had no intention of giving power to the people or land to the tiller.  

The Zamindari Abolition Acts and Tenancy Acts passed in various states in the 1950s did not give land to the landless or land-poor; they were not intended to. They allowed landlords to retain huge amounts of land (usually the best land) and paid generously for what was taken away; and they resulted as often in poor tenants being expelled from the land as in richer tenants getting control of the land. 

Although the laws did not affect the concentration of land, they did, however, deprive big landowners of their village power, pushing them to hire labour and invest in the land. This laid a basis for the bigger tenants and rich peasant cultivators to come to power in the villages and develop as capitalist farmers. Omvedt writes

In conclusion, there seems to be no basis on which we can argue that India's agriculture is not dominantly capitalist: over half the rural population depend on Wages for their survival; all cultivators, including middle and poor peasants, are forced to sell to some extent in the market and their production is governed by the laws of the market; and the means of production in agriculture are how significantly produced industially, acquired through the market, and monopolised by those who depend on the exploitation of labour power. 


Omvedt on the Relationship between Adivasis and Ecological Movements 

In her review of  S N Dubey and Ratna Murdia’s book, Land Alienation and Restoration in Tribal Communities in India, Omvedt foregrounded how, throughout Indian history, tribal communities, who occupied much of the area of India before the British rule and were culturally distinct from caste Hindu society, and who have been increasingly pushed off their fertile land and turned into tenants, bonded serfs and wage labourers, have been the source of much of India’s peasant revolts. 

From Naxalbari and Srikakulam the tempo and Marxist leadership of these movements has deemed to increase, and the immediate pre-Emergency years saw such phenomena as the Santal movement in Dhanbad under the leadership of the Jharkhand Mukti Andolan, the Bhil movement in Dhulia under the Shramik Sanghatana, and the forest movement in Andhra under Marxist-Leninist leadership. 

The connection between tribal communities, women and ecology has been the focus of articles written by Omvedt from the 1970s and well into the 1990s. In her article, “Ecology and Social Movements,” Omvedt wrote about ecology movements, which have had their social base in farming and tribal communities.

The most well known of ecology movements is undoubtedly the Chipko movement. From 1973 its base has been among the low caste Himalayan peasantry and especially the women—for these have been the closest to the forests, the gatherers of fodder, fuel and water, while men have often been away seeking jobs in the plains or getting minor rake-offs from the commercialisation of 'development'.

The basic theme of the Chipko movement, wrote Omvedt, was that control over forests should rest with the local community and not with the state, as they are more capable of responsible management and believe that alternate forms of development must be sought that are not destructive and allow for ecological harmony and self-reliance.

This argument was also echoed in Omvedt’s article, “Capitalism and Globalisation, Dalits and Adivasis.” In this article, Omvedt wrote that a “local control” over the extraction of natural resources would, ideally, mean that the resources are extracted more sustainably, that the local population gets its share of the profits, and that their standard of living is improved. 

Large numbers of anti-globalisation activists today are working in the adivasi belt, where they are rightly noting two tendencies: the increasing extraction of natural resources and their channeling to the world market via multinationals, the state and local powerholders; and the growing “Hindutva-isation” or “Hinduisation” of the adivasis by forces of the Hindu right.

As an EPW correspondent, Omvedt reported on Bokaro Steel City in Jharkhand, which allegedly “changed” the land and its inhabitants by providing employment and developing a planned “green” region. But Omvedt noted that while public sector bureaucrats and private capitalists advertised that they contributed to the local population’s welfare, the reality was the opposite. 

What any visit to the “Steel region”—the larger area within which Bokaro, Bhilai, Jamshedpur, Rourkela and Durgapur are located—shows is a lack of linkages, an enclave culture, the most extreme disarticulation of a third world disarticulated economy. Poverty juxtaposed with wealth, backward non-electrified villages juxtaposed with huge steel complexes with ultramodern continuous casting techniques, a highly unionised factory working class juxtaposed with contract and mine labourers toiling under the most primitive conditions and subject to the terrorism of goondas and corrupt officials, urban enclaves juxtaposed with forested districts whose natural resources are being sucked away by the increasing encroachment of commercial forestry, an illiterate and resentful tribal population unable often to even understand the language of the Bengali, South Indian, north Bihari and Maharashtrian officials, managers, contractors and businessmen who are the ruling elite of the region.

Further, in terms of employment, while Adivasis, women and low-caste locals do find jobs as contract labourers and mine workers, labourers suffer some of the most exploitative conditions in India. It is no wonder that Omvedt wrote that the position of tribal communities was “worsening.” 

Most forest dwellers and tribal peasants in India do not have a surplus of intellectual leadership to articulate their principles. Their own educated sections have tended to become co-opted and brahmanised, while outside left leadership very often tells the local people their problems rather than asks them. 

Omvedt wrote that to achieve a balance between humankind and nature, a “revolutionary movement” would be required. 

The taking up of environmental issues requires the coming together of intellectuals who have the resources of scientific training and access to knowledge with the rural toilers and tribals fighting for the lands and forests so much a part of their lives—as well as the working class with its still untapped ability to transform the world. 


Omvedt on Hinduism, Reservation and Class Politics

Omvedt’s paper, Hinduism and Politics, examined the role of Hinduism in the socio-historical development of the Indian subcontinent, how there was, and continues to be, a process of constructing a “Hindu” community which is being rendered increasingly “militant.”

What is clear is that since the end of the nineteenth century, in a line running from Tilak, Savarkar and others through the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS in the pre-independence period, and the RSS, Bharatiya Jan Sangh-BJP (and all connected organisations) and newer, increasingly aggressive organisations like the Shiv Sena the ideology of identifying India as Hindu and Hinduism as nationalism has gained increasing weight and power—at the cultural, social and political level. 

As this “Hindu identification” grew stronger, Omvedt believed, its traditional forms of hierarchy and subordination “updated” and became less liberal and reformed. 

With regard to women, for instance, this can be easily seen. The BJP has a few scattered women leaders and MPs, and its women activists are to be found in women's organisations in many places. Yet its leaders are the main defenders of such traditions as the horrifying revival of sati—Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, considered the BJP 'strongman' in Rajasthan, was the main organiser of the pro-sati forces in that state. It mainly uses its work in women's issues to make the demand for a “common civil code” a platform against Muslims, who are clinging in turn to their religious personal law as an affirmation of their identity.

Similarly, in the case of caste, the organisations speak of Hindu “solidarity” and try to incorporate the lower castes and Dalits into their fold, but there is subordination and reassertion of hierarchy, expressed subtly. Omvedt wrote that the colonial period saw the rise of nationalism and of militant Hinduism interpreted as nationalism, as well as increased Hindu–Muslim rioting and caste tension.

Hierarchy is also continually re-established in social reality, with the greater access to wealth, education and political influence allowing upper castes (and traditional, even feudal, elites) to retain control of the organisations of militant Hinduism.

In her piece defending the Mandal Commission, Omvedt discussed the influence that upper castes, particularly Brahmans, had in politics. The Brahmans, Omvedt wrote, had a “caste monopoly”—the percentage of government jobs they held was disproportionate to their percentage in India’s population. The three upper-caste groups, the Brahman-Bania-Thakur, or “twice-borns” argued for an “economic criteria” in reservation over a caste criterion. Omvedt argues against this.

We have some evidence that where “socialeconomic backwardness” replaces a caste criteria the twice-born tend to re-establish their caste monopoly within the reserved quota since it is so easy to get a false certificate.


Omvedt on Women, Gender, and Patriarchy 

Omvedt wrote often, and wrote extensively, on women’s issues, struggles and sociopolitical movements. The period between 1975 and 1985 was seen as the international decade of women, but in India, despite the growth of organisation and consciousness, women continued to experience increasing violence, rape and dowry deaths. Omvedt reported that women continued to be excluded, in increasing numbers, from work in the organised sector, continued to be marginalised as labourers and peasants, and continued to have their economic and reproductive contributions unrecognised. In 1988, Omvedt wrote about a common perspective held by feminists from various factions in India—that the state is “the main upholder of patriarchy and women's subordination.”

Growing religious fundamentalism and goondaism seek to push them back under patriarchal control to keep them propertiless and resourceless and to deprive them of all rights as human beings. So many efforts to organise women against atrocities or to fight their economic and political exploitation and come up against seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

State-sponsored women’s subordination was a theme in Omvedt’s report on the emergence of a women’s party in Maharashtra’s Zilla Parishad elections in 1997. “The obstacles to women’s equal participation in governance in South Asian countries,” Omvedt remarked in a more recent article, “are embedded in socio-cultural patterns of living and the intensely competitive nature of politics.” These sociopolitical patterns have, since the beginning of state society, excluded women from political power, which, according to Omvedt, is “more marked than their exclusion from ‘productive’ work or even property rights.” The contemporary era is no different.

This exclusion has certainly increased the marked helplessness of women to combat atrocities and violence, whether coming from within the family, social groups, private goondas or the state and police itself. Yet the last decade has also seen the growing aspiration of women to change these, even among the supposedly most dependent and suppressed rural women.

Omvedt’s political thoughts on gender, patriarchy and caste were often revealed in her numerous reviews on books dealing with the said issues. Her review of Sharad Patil’s Dasa-Sudra Slavery: Studies in the Origins of Indian Slavery and Feudalism and Their Philosophies, begins with foregrounding Friedrich Engels’s seminal work, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State writing that it questions how and when male domination came into existence. “Upto today,” Omvedt remarks, “with all the advances in scholarship, the question is still ignored by standard historiography and archaeology.”

What then is the origin of women’s subordination and when did men gain power? With these questions, Omvedt opens her review of  Gerda Lerner’s “exciting” book, The Creation of Patriarchy. Continuing her comments on Engels’s synthesis, Omvedt wrote that his arguments “have been proved factually wrong.”

The most important of these was his assumption that there was a natural division of labour in which women were “producers of life” while men were producers of goods and thus the primary producers in hunting, agricultural and herding societies. Today we know that women play a major productive role in hunting-gathering societies (contributing 55-80 per cent of total tribal food in such types studied) and in early agriculture and that they were most likely the inventors of agriculture and with it of pottery and other storage facilities.

In her piece on how Omvedt influenced her work, Uma Chakravarti mentions that it was Omvedt’s review and “extensive” engagement with Lerner’s book that introduced her to Lerner’s theoretical framework on the creation of patriarchy. Omvedt’s review set Chakravarti on a “serious exploration of the interpenetrative nature of caste and gender” which led to her seminal paper, Conceptualising Brahminical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste Class and State. According to Chakravarti, it was Omvedt who “responded most positively to the paper” and who popularised and legitimised the term “Brahminical patriarchy.”

On Lerner’s framework, Omvedt wrote: 

Lerner argues that biological differences proved basic for an early gender division of labour and that once agriculture began, this gave men the opportunity to seize control. “Elders” came to dominate over “juniors” and men over women in a lineage society that included patrilineal kinship and the exchange of women. This puts the origin of patriarchy in the 8000-3000 BC period, when early agriculture yielded a surplus and the beginnings of militarisation helped males to seize control of the surplus and the main producers of labour power, women.

But even this logic was questioned by Omvedt, and she argues that “archaeological evidence” did not corroborate with the correlation between agriculture and patriarchy. 

Further, what of the creation of patriarchy in India? Omvedt’s review of Uma Chakravarti’s book, Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai, provides some answers. Omvedt wrote that in her book, Chakravarti emphasised her theory of Brahmanical Patriarchy, a concept she introduced for the first time in Indian scholarly literature in her 1993 paper, Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India. Omvedt writes:

The Indian scholarly tradition in general, especially the part of it influenced by Marxism, has been adept at using the concept of “class” as a structure of exploitation and seeing this exploitation and the struggles around it as a major driving force in society. But both caste and the “oppression” of women have been viewed, from their perspective, simply as part of the “superstructure,” something influenced by but not causally influencing and shaping other social institutions. Feminists for some time have been insisting on treating “patriarchy” as an autonomous structure of exploitation and analysing gender conflicts—but they have not looked much at caste and have not been ready, in turn, to see the caste system as an autonomous social institution in the way that the use of the term “brahmanism” signals.

In her report on the ​​ divorced and deserted women of Sangli, Maharashtra, who mobilised to demand that the state recognise their existence as individuals and as heads of households, Omvedt wrote that their “struggle to survive” as propertyless and resourceless women is due to the existence of a “Brahmanic social law.” 

Whatever the law of the land, it is in reality the Brahmanic social law which holds in the rural areas, and is applied to women of any religion and any caste (with the partial exception of Adivasis): “As children, women should be under the control of their fathers, when adults, under the control of their husbands, when old under control of their sons; women should never be independent!”

When women are not considered “head of household” they are seen as “dependents,” subsumed, as Omvedt notes, under the care of their male family members even if they are not getting any economic support from them.

[W]omen struggle from a highly disadvantaged position. They have little knowledge of the law; and due to the negative nature of the propaganda about common civil code, most Muslim women do not know that they have any rights at all. Government-provided lawyers for the poor are rarely energetic, and “free legal aid” is never free.

Omvedt wrote that  men were quite ready to exert their power over property and send their wives away, or, as Omvedt highlights the common Marathi term for it, “throwing them away.” This “patriarchal kinship structure” renders women as landless and homeless, further making them “the poorest and the most exploited” half of the population. 

Studies for example, show that while women agricultural labourers earn about half of what men do, they contribute slightly more to total household expenses—not to speak of their unpaid household labour and child care. Of course we do not really need academic studies to show that men spend a good portion of their earnings on tea, cigarettes, and liquor and an occasional mutton dinner while women—except perhaps a bit of oil for their hair—give almost all their earnings to the household.

Omvedt, as Jodhka wrote, also “took on the mighty human rights activist of Hyderabad, K Balagopal, during 1986–87 in an extremely interesting debate on agrarian politics, defending the populist framing of it by the Shetkari Sangathana in the pages of EPW.” In an article part of the very debate, Omvedt concludes that Dalits, women and peasants were not “marginalised by capital; their blood, sweat and tears (their labour power) have been central to the accumulation of capital. They have been marginalised by the categories of the traditional left.”

It does seem clear that neither the left nor any of the social movements will really give priority to the needs of women in defining revolution until women organise themselves with some kind of autonomous power inside and outside of all the existing popular movements and organisations.

Chakravarti in her tribute to Omvedt points towards the irony of an American woman who came to India to study but stayed on as a committed scholar of Maharashtra. Omvedt’s genius, as Chakravarti also notes, was in the dialogue she enabled between feminism, socialism and Marxism. Through her academic pursuits as well as her engagement in public life, Omvedt transgressed and redefined many boundaries: between the outsider and the insider, theory and praxis.  


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