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The visitor in the hostel

Dalits rights activist and author Gail Omvedt   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The mild knock on the door was good enough to take my mind off from the class note book which was mysteriously looking at me with its long sum of econometrics. Who was that, I could have asked as usual but I moved towards the door and unlatched it. “I am Gail Omvedt,” she said and I quickly shook off the menacing effect of the statistical parameters of my class notes of Delhi School Of Economics that were hovering all around me. It was meant to be as I had the examination paper next day. I quickly responded to her and gave the confirmation that yes, professor Rao had already sent me the message about her coming to meet me in my hostel Jubilee Hall.

I did not have to ask who was Gail Omvedt, where she was from, how she took up the Dalit rights issues close to her heart after coming to my country from the US for research, and how she was in jail during the dreadful Emergency days when she brought the pathetic conditions of jail to the outside. In fact, number of times issues raised by Gail on the caste-ridden society and the dialectics involved were important topics of our discussion at the coffee house.

She apologised and placed on my bed her little child who was sleeping on her shoulder. The child was in deep sleep, looking obviously tired, and I was told by her mother that it was a long trip from Bombay . Gail sat by the child and said to me , “Let’s hear about the latest in your State”.

It was in 1981-82 when Assam was in headline for the long stretched agitation against the illegal immigrants from across Indo-Bangladesh border. The revision of electoral rolls in Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency had opened a Pandora’s box, it was found that a huge number of suspected foreigners got their names as voters in the rolls. The state was burning with mass agitational programmes. The dark smog of news, views and opinions all around had very often made it difficult to have a truthful scenario of the situations outside. There were reports of police actions, violence by miscreants and on top of these huge turnout of peaceful people in the street breaking curfew restrictions. She wanted to know the social classifications, dynamics and the underlying questions of sub nationalism in the context of the mass participation in the different forms of protests programmes.

“Read your article on the multiple issues and the dialectics of the movement,” she said and I knew Gail was referring to my write up Assam Question which was highlighting the inherent economics and other issues concerning the movement like the impact on land and real wage rate due to illegal immigration and the resultant fear of uncertain future by the local peasantry due to the pressure on land. This view was against the ongoing debate that time amongst some analysts regarding overinflated role of emerging Assamese middle class in the movement downplaying the spread of it in the rural areas.

Gail empathised with the toiling masses and the causes they were fighting for. I was awestruck, how an activist, author and a researcher of her stature could come all the way to meet a post grad student to get a first hand briefing on Assam movement and the nationality question of the ethnically diverse North East region.

One would be surprised to see how she had been following the happenings in my State, how a innocuous looking movement to start with was sweeping the entire length and breadth of the State, and to top it all her sincere desire to know the north eastern fabric of multiple ethnic groups and the connected issues of identity.

Gail was appreciating the idea of breaking the iron wall around the problems facing the North East region. We talked about the nonexistence of caste system in this part of the country, and how the virus of caste-ridden society had made a mockery of human rights of the so called low caste masses in some parts of the country.

During these discourses, I recall, how the statistical variables and null hypotheses concerning the econometric model building of Indian Economy were dancing around me off and on, disturbing my attention intermittently, reminding me the examination paper I had following day!

“Time to leave,” Gail said and I looked at the watch, it was nearing 10 at night and I knew time for the late dinner at the hostel dining room was almost slipping out. We walked the stair case down from fourth floor, the little child was still sleeping peacefully on the shoulder of her mother. The three of us moved towards the Mall Road bus stop after having the hostel food. There it was, the night service DTC bus stopped and Gail and her little daughter got into it, the bus moved away with a whimper.

Standing at the lonely bus stop I kept watching the bus disappearing through the dazzling street lamps through the smog, I kept on ruminating about the quick meeting in the past one hour with Gail, the great personality who left her own country to research the issues of Dalit rights and protest movements, fight for their uplift and oppressed masses in our country and joined the struggle for upkeep of human rights!

The news of her death was a shock for me even though in the last forty years we could never get connected. Deepest tribute to her undaunted soul for whom the people were prime.

Kula Saikia, a Sahitya Academy awardee and a Fulbright scholar was DGP, Assam


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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 10:36:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-visitor-in-the-hostel/article37107932.ece

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