From Germany. For India

STRONG-WILLED: Dr.Gabriele Dietrich. Photo: S. James   | Photo Credit: S. James

“Everybody must have food and never war again.” This has always been Dr. Gabriele Dietrich's ‘instinctive dream'. For someone born prematurely in civil bombardment in 1943 Berlin and raised in an occupied city of rubble, hunger and evacuations, it is not easy to “dream” of normalcy, she underlines.

For the first five years of her life, young Gabriele was on the run struggling to survive the devastation and scarcities of the post-war years with her mother and grandmother. “I remember the queues for food, the file of army tanks, the tales of rape. My father was a soldier in Hitler's army. He said he never killed anybody. My mother said she never knew about the concentration camps.”

But in school she saw documentaries on the camps. Grappling with the culture of denial, her young mind couldn't fathom the catastrophe of the Holocaust. The difficulty of reconciling what she saw with what she was told propelled Gabriele “to live with open eyes”. The urge to know, remember and be accountable for a collective history marked the birth of an activist and theologist.

Dr. Dietrich became a part of the students' movement in Berlin in the early 1960s and identified with the “free world” that asserted itself against socialist dictatorship. Today, when she sees the crushing of democratic struggles, -- with ordinary people throwing themselves in bravely and collectively -- (she cites the latest Kudankulam protest), she finds her “dream punctured.” But, she marvels at human resilience.

The renowned researcher and professor of social analysis and feminist theology has written on the women's movement, ecology and religion in the last two decades. She has been a naturalized Indian citizen since 1990.

“When I applied for citizenship, someone enquired how I could be an Indian without having a caste. I said, at least abolition of caste system won't be a problem in my case. I don't have to rely on any kinship system.”

Dr. Dietrich is disturbed by people's preoccupations with the politics of their kinship system. “They tend to overlook the strong networks of support structures in social movements. For transforming communities from casteism, patriarchy and communalism, it is necessary to address the problem of marginalization,” she says.

In her work, Dr. Dietrich is recognized for having made insightful connections between patriarchy, caste, class, intensifying violence on nature and increasing militarization of the State.

The tragic situation of the Palestinian people, the Vietnam war, the apartheid- regime in South Africa, the 1989 shoot -out at Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, developments in Eastern Europe, the rise of communalism and fundamentalism under globalisation – all, in her opinion, have failed democratic socialism. “Dictated by weapons, capitalism has succeeded in projecting itself the winner and widened the rich-poor divide,” she adds.


Two things influenced Dr. Dietrich. As a 10 -year -old, she witnessed the uprising of East German workers against the State for raising the norms of output and bringing the unions under strict control. Reading Anne Frank's diary helped her grasp the enormity of fascism and the need to live down racism.

Much to the embarrassment of her family, she enrolled herself at the local church for Bible studies. She realized that even under fascism, the church had actively resisted Nazi tyranny. She did her Ph.D in history of religions and studied theology because she “wanted to work with people.” She read Jewish mystics in Hebrew, Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit and Buddhist texts in Pali.

Her arrival in India in 1972 “was unplanned”. “India attracted me because of its religious and cultural traditions that fed the freedom struggle.”

She came with her husband on a two- year study programme at the Christian Institute for Study of Religion and Society, Bangalore. They befriended many Marxists and Gandhians and advocates of Lohia socialism. During field research on struggles of landless farm labourers in East Thanjavur, they interacted with students from Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, Madurai, who helped them with translations.

Soon the couple received a teaching offer from the seminary. “We couldn't resist and agreed for a five- year stint. It converted into a lifelong commitment,” she smiles.

She set up the department and taught social analysis and feminist theology in a Tamil-medium institution for three decades. She also became actively involved in the women's movement, working closely with the unorganized sector. “It was challenging but rewards make it worth the sacrifice,” she says

Dalit struggles

Dr. Dietrich gravitated towards Dalit struggles intuitively. She worked for two years in Kizhvenmani, where 44 Dalits were burnt in 1968 in a hut where they took refuge during a wage dispute with a violent landlord.

She feels Dalit and Adivasi struggles are most crucial in times of globalisation to protest the dominant development paradigm.

“Organization building of workers in the informal sector is very important because that's where their livelihood is.,” she stresses. From farm workers, tobacco workers, fisherfolk and construction labourers to women activists, she has put her stamp on every movement radiating an uncomplicated spirit of affability.

As national convener of the National Alliance of People's Movements, Dr. Dietrich feels the good thing about the movement led by Medha Patkar is that different streams of socialism, Marxism, Ambedkarism and Gandhism are now coming together for dialogue and mutual understanding. “It is time everybody collectively has a better grasp of the reality we live in. Or else, there will be a war over everything from water to power and food to roads.”

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2021 11:55:17 AM |

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