Gail Omvedt, a leading scholar on caste studies, died in Maharashtra's Sangli district on Wednesday after a prolonged illness. Omvedt, 81, who breathed her last at her village Kasegaon, pioneered caste studies having come as a student from the US and settled down in India in the 1970s. She married Bharat Patankar, a Marxist scholar and activist, and the couple lived in the village. Omvedt, who first came to study caste and Mahatma Phule's movement in Maharashtra as a PhD student, was moved by the caste and untouchability system in India and settled down in Maharashtra to work for the liberation of the oppressed castes.
The American-born Indian scholar, sociologist and human rights activist was well known for her writing on Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis. Omvedt was a prolific writer and published numerous books. Her PhD thesis introduced Mahatma Phule's Satyashodhak movement to the world and her book, Dalits and Democratic Revolution, became popular with young students.
A leading figure in the Phule-Ambedkarite movement, she was actively involved in many movements. Born in Minneapolis, Omvedt came to India after completing her higher studies and plunged herself into the various social movements for the Dalits, poor and downtrodden, farmers, women and other public causes.
The Omvedt-Patankar couple founded the Shramik Mukti Dal in the early 1980s, and she became an Indian citizen during this period. She authored several books on various social subjects, taught in colleges and universities and penned columns for various newspapers, worked for the United Nations Development Programme, Oxfam NOVIB, and other international bodies.
She headed the Phule-Ambedkar Chair in Pune University, under the Department of Sociology. She also taught at the Institute of Asian Studies in Copenhagen. The Dalit Intellectual Collective said she was one of India's most original thinkers who did not let caste and class be erased in the feminist movement. “Time is yet to produce another scholar and incisive and capacious thinker like her,” it said in a statement.
Others who condoled her death included historian Ramchandra Guha, CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury, Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
Thackeray said her contribution to various social movements in India, folk traditions, and her work on women's rights will be remembered. She is survived by her husband, daughter Prachi, son-in-law Tejaswi and granddaughter Nia.