Gail Omvedt

Gail Omvedt is an American-born Indian scholar, sociologist and human rights activist. She is a prolific writer and has published numerous books on the anti-caste movement, Dalit politics, and women's struggles in India. Omvedt has been involved in Dalit and anti-caste movements, environmental, farmers' and women's movements, especially with rural women.

Gail Omvedt
Gail Omvedt, India.jpg
Born(1941-08-02)2 August 1941
Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States
OccupationWriter, essayist, activist
Alma materCarleton College
University of California, Berkeley
Notable worksDalits and the Democratic Revolution, We Shall Smash this Prison: Indian Women in Struggle, Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India
Notable awardsDr. Ambedkar Chetna Award, Manavwadi Rachna Manch Punjab, August 2003, Savitribai Phule Puraskar, Padmashri Kavivarya Narayan Surve Sarvajanik Vacanalay, Nashik, 2002
(m. 1976)

Omvedt's dissertation was titled Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930.

Omvedt's academic writing includes numerous books and articles on class, caste and gender issues. Besides having undertaken many research projects, Dr Omvedt has been a consultant for FAO, UNDP and NOVIB and has served as a Dr Ambedkar Chair Professor at NISWASS in Orissa, a professor of sociology at the University of Pune and an Asian guest professor at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen. She was a senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and research director of the Krantivir Trust.


Gail Omvedt was born in Minneapolis, and studied at Carleton College and at UC Berkeley where she earned her PhD in sociology in 1973. She has been an Indian citizen since 1983. She currently lives in rural India in a town in Maharashtra called Kasegaon with her husband, Bharat Patankar, her mother-in-law Indumati Patankar and cousins. In recent years she has been working as a consulting sociologist on gender, environment and rural development, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Oxfam Novib (NOVIB) and other institutions. She has been a consultant for UN agencies and NGOs, has served as a Dr. Ambedkar Chair Professor at NISWASS in Orissa, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Pune, as Asian Guest Professor at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen and as a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. She has been a Visiting Professor and Coordinator, School of Social Justice, University of Pune and a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Gail Omvedt is a former Chair Professor for the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Chair of Social Change and Development at IGNOU.


She has worked actively with social movements in India, including the Dalit and anti-caste movements, environmental movements, farmers’ movements and especially with rural women. She has been active in Shramik Mukti Dal, Stri Mukti Sangarsh Chalval which works on issues of abandoned women in Sangli and Satara districts of southern Maharashtra, and the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi, which works on issues of women's land rights and political power.


Omvedt is critical of the religious scriptures of Hinduism (or what she specifically regards as "brahminism") for what she argues is their promotion of a caste-based society.

In addition to her criticism of their purported advocacy for the caste-system, Omvedt has also dismissed the Hindu tradition of venerating the Vedas as holy. In a 2000 open letter published in The Hindu addressed to then-BJP President Bangaru Laxman, Omvedt gives her perspective on the Rigveda:

As for the Vedas, they are impressive books, especially the Rg Veda. I can only say this only from translations, but I am glad that the ban on women and shudras reading them has been broken, and that good translations by women and shudras themselves are available. But to take them as something holy? Read them for yourself! Most of the hymns are for success in war, cattle- stealing, love-making and the like. They celebrate conquest; the hymns about Indra and Vrtra sound suspiciously as if the Aryans were responsible for smashing dams built by the Indus valley people; though archeologists tell us there is no evidence for direct destruction by "Aryan invasion", the Rg Veda gives evidence of enmity between the Aryans and those they called dasyus, panis and the like.[1]

Omvedt posits that Hindutva groups foster an ethnic definition of Hinduism based on geography, ancestry and heritage in order to create a solidarity amongst various castes, despite the prevalence of caste-based discrimination.[2]

Omvedt endorsed the stand taken by Dalit activists at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism that caste discrimination is similar to racism in regarding discriminated groups as "biologically inferior and socially dangerous".[2]

She has called the United States a "racist country" and has advocated for affirmative action; however, she compares American positive-discrimination policies favorably to those of India, stating:

It is a sad comment on the state of Indian industrialists' social consciousness that such discussions have begun in an organised way in the U.S. before they have been thought of in India itself. [3]

and, with respect to perceptions of "group performance", in the United States and India, Omvedt writes:

Whereas the U.S. debate assumes an overall equal distribution of capacity among social groups, in India the assumption seems to be that the unequal showing of different caste groups on examinations, in education, etc. is a result of actual different capacities.

She has on occasion supported big-dam projects[4] and GMO crops.[5][6]

Controversy and criticismEdit

Andre Beteille's criticismEdit

Omvedt's portrayal of caste-discrimination and violence as forms of "racism" was opposed by the Indian government[7] and sociologists in India, including Andre Beteille, who while acknowledging that discrimination exists, deeply opposed treating caste as a form of racism "simply to protect against prejudice and discrimination", describing such attempts as "politically mischievous" and "worse, scientifically nonsense".[8][9] Beteille argues (that):

In the past, some groups claimed superior rights on the ground that they belonged to the Aryan race or the Teutonic race. The anthropologists rejected such claims on two grounds: first, on the ground that within the same human species no race is superior to any other; but also on the ground that there is no such thing as an Aryan race or a Teutonic race. We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it in again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed. The metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or for making demands on behalf of disadvantaged groups.

Marxist critiqueEdit

Omvedt has been criticized for a perceived "anti-statist" bias in her writing as well as "neo-liberal" economic sympathies. Scholars have also questioned the sincerity of her claims regarding the "authenticity" of her work, writing:[10]

In this paragraph, Omvedt is transformed from dangerous American outsider to revolutionary insider, player of a song proclaiming: 'We will cut the throats of the rich!' The chapter strategically ends with these words, which, written and sung though they are by anonymous labourers, can be heard only through Omvedt's (technological) agency. The rest, as they say, is history. The remainder of the book unsubtly suggests what Omvedt does not say explicitly--that she has accepted the leadership role thrust upon her by the initially skeptical masses.


Omvedt's dissertation was on Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The NonBrahman Movement in Western India, 1873-1930 (reprint of 1976 book) (New Delhi, Manohar, 2011).

Omvedt's academic writing includes numerous books and articles on class, caste and gender issues, most notably:[11]

  • Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The NonBrahman Movement in Maharashtra (Scientific Socialist Education Trust, 1966)
  • We Shall Smash This Prison: Indian Women in Struggle (1979)
  • "We Will Smash This Prison!.: Indian Women in Struggle " (Zed, 1980)
  • "Violence Against Women: New Movements And New Theories In India" (Kali for Women, 1991)
  • Reinventing Revolution: New Social Movements in India (M.E. Sharpe, 1993)
  • Gender and Technology: Emerging Asian Visions (1994)
  • Dalits And The Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar And The Dalit Movement In Colonial India (Sage India, 1994)
  • Dalit Visions: the Anticaste movement and Indian Cultural Identity (Orient Longman, 1995)
  • Growing Up Untouchable: A Dalit Autobiography (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000)
  • Buddhism in India : Challenging Brahmanism and Caste (SageIndia, 2003)
  • "Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India " (Penguin, 2005)
  • Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals (New Delhi, Navayana, 2009)
  • "Understanding Caste: From Buddha To Ambedkar And Beyond" (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2011)
  • Songs of Tukoba with Bharat Patankar she has published (translations) (Manohar, 2012)
  • Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India[12]


  • Matoshree Bhimabai Ambedkar Award (2012)[13]
  • BA received Magna Cum Laude, with Distinction in Senior Comprehensive Examinations
  • PhD qualifying examinations passed with Distinction
  • Honorary Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1964–65
  • Fulbright Fellowship as Tutor in English in India, June 1963-March 1964
  • University of California Graduate Fellowships, 1964–65, 1965–66
  • American Institute of Indian Studies, Junior Fellowship for PhD research in India on “The NonBrahman Movement in Maharashtra,” January–December 1971
  • American Association of University Women, Fellowship for research on “Women’s Movement in India,” January–December 1975
  • Savitribai Phule Puraskar, Padmashri Kavivarya Narayan Surve Sarvajanik Vacanalay, Nashik, 2002
  • Dr. Ambedkar Chetna Award, Manavwadi Rachna Manch Punjab, August, 2003
  • ABP Majha Sanman Purskar, 2012
  • Vitthal Ramji Shinde Award, April 2015

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Gail Omvedt, An open letter to Bangaru Laxman - II[dead link], The Hindu, 2000.
  2. ^ a b Gail Omvedt, Hindutva and ethnicity, The Hindu, Feb 25, 2003 Archived 25 December 2010 at WebCite
  3. ^ Gail Omvedt, Mythologies of Merit, Outlook, Aug 29, 2003 (requires registration)(Convenience link) Archived 25 December 2010 at WebCite
  4. ^ "Gail Omvedt, Open Letter To Arundhathi Roy". Archived from the original on 26 October 2008. Retrieved 27 December 2006.
  5. ^ Gail Omvedt, Burning Farmer's Fields (Part 1), The Hindu, 9 November 2010, [1]
  6. ^ Gail Omvedt, Burning Farmer's Fields (Part 2), The Hindu, 10 November 2010, [2]
  7. ^ An Untouchable Subject?, NPR, Aug. 29, 2001 Archived 25 December 2010 at WebCite
  8. ^ Discrimination that must be cast away,The Hindu, June 03, 2001 Archived 25 December 2010 at WebCite
  9. ^ Andre Béteille, Race and caste, The Hindu, 10 March 2001 Archived 25 December 2010 at WebCite
  10. ^ SAPs, Dust, and Hot Air: Gail Omvedt and Liberalization, Ghadar, Nov. 1, 1998 Archived 11 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  11. ^ "Books by Gail Omvedt". Retrieved 30 March 2014.
  12. ^ Omvedt, Gail (11 September 1971). "Jotirao Phule and the Ideology of Social Revolution in India". Economic and Political Weekly.
  13. ^ "Dailyhunt". Retrieved 13 November 2018.

External linksEdit