Gail Omvedt, an America-born Indian, is a social anthropologist trained in the radical academic setting of the University of California during the angry 1960s and the tumultuous 1970s. Her doctoral thesis on the “Non-Brahman movement in western India, 1873-1920” set the stage for her engagement with the subcontinent.
Today, first-rate professionals are making a beeline for the West, but in Omvedt we have an instance of the ‘reverse flow' happening some 40 years ago. After training in the United States, she moved to India, became a naturalised Indian citizen in 1983 and married fellow activist Bharat Patankar with social democratic leanings. Omvedt has authored around a dozen books on different aspects of lower caste assertions, including their cultural, political, intellectual and philosophical dimensions. In a manner of speaking, Understanding Caste, her latest publication, is verily a brief introduction to her oeuvre.
This slim 115-page book has 12 brief essays, besides an introduction and a conclusion. It is common knowledge that, compared to Christianity or Islam, a natural religion like Hinduism lends itself to elaborate ritualistic practices. Omvedt points out that there has been opposition to these rituals from early times. She has brought out the frailties of Hinduism sharply by citing select works of saint-poets and quoting reformers. For instance, in the 12th century, Namdev, a tailor-turned-saint, dared to speak of the possibility of union with God without vows, austerities, and pilgrimages. He is quoted as saying, “hold the name [of God] firmly on your tongue/It will give you a meeting with Pandurang.”
On the place of women in Hinduism, Omvedt cites Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) and her writings to demonstrate the sort of discrimination women suffered. Karnataka-born Ramabai authored a book on the “high caste Hindu women” and established the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune (1882). She later embraced Christianity. Ramabai argued that from the ancient Dharma Sastras to modern poets, all believed that women are intrinsically bad and do not qualify for ‘Moksha' (salvation).
Discussing the impact of development policies and the globalisation process on the inherently inequitable social structure, Omvedt says Nehru's top-heavy, capital-intensive model of development produced a skewed industrial base and some intellectual/ technological islands. The model did not generate much employment, and this she attributes to the Congress party being what she calls a “bourgeois (bania)- bureaucrat (Brahmin) force.” Globalisation may have more than doubled the rate of growth but it has also heightened caste tensions and widened social inequalities, leading inevitably to protests, especially by Dalits and ‘Shudras.'
Omvedt is hailed as a pioneer in ferreting out material about protests against Hinduism, both at the intellectual and religious levels, from the ancient times, and thereby giving depth to lower caste assertions. She operationalised the idea that exploitation is not just economic in nature; it is really an offshoot of social inequality. Therefore, she argued that, apart from the environmental and new farmers' movements, the socio-cultural protests of backward castes, women, and tribals need to be studied as “new social movements.”
It is sad that Omvedt does not come out with her disappointment vis-à-vis the prominent lower caste assertions in our times. For instance, the ‘Yadav resurgence' is farthest from socialism, although Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh, who symbolise it, claim to be socialists. Similarly, in the case of the Bahujan Samaj Party, it may not have gone awry, but there is undoubtedly something amiss about it. How have these infirmities crept into the most promising liberal movements of Indian history? Who — if not Omvedt, who knows so much about the Dalits and is a redoubtable champion of their cause — will be able to find an answer to this question and point out the shortcomings, failures and improprieties in organisations or movements working for the uplift of the oppressed classes?
Omvedt disappoints when she almost endorses the theory of Jotiba Phule (1826-90) that Aryans were a race who invaded and, hence, are outsiders. In Romila Thapar's opinion, Indo-Aryans were a linguistic group, and Henry Trautman says they were a religious group. It is surprising that Omvedt has chosen to overlook or ignore the views of these scholars. The absence of an index is keenly felt because the book has a wide sweep and its contents are diverse.