Harichandra Sawant sometimes wears a policeman’s uniform, but he’s no law enforcer. If anything, he feels targeted. A bahurupi kalakar, an artist entertaining crowds wearing disguises, Sawant has kept his uniform packed away since July 1 in his ‘pala’, a makeshift tent of old sarees and tarpaulin sheets that serves as his home right now, in Dehu near Pune. On July 1, five men were lynched by a mob in Dhule district, triggered by rumours that they were child-kidnappers. All five men, like Sawant, belonged to the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi nomadic tribe whose members have been living in fear since the attack.
“What if the rumours spread again? We go out in search of livelihood from one place to another. We are easy targets,” says Sawant.
This fear is rooted in a history of living on the margins — community members say they have often been the first suspects when a crime occurs in their vicinity. “If any offence takes place in a village where we have set up our palas, the police come to question us. They come in the middle of the night or multiple times in the day. They throw around our belongings or ask us to relocate. Why should we be suspected, we have never had a single criminal case against us,” says Prakash Sawant, one of the senior members at the settlement at Dehu. He laments that the state has never recognised them as artistes, leaving them out of any welfare schemes.
Over 60 palas are set up in Dehu currently, with natives of Ahmednagar and Satara having settled for the time on land owned by a temple trust. Most members have not ventured out since July 1. Women, working in nearby fields or collecting scrap, are the only source of income currently, making barely enough only for two meals a day, or sometimes one.
The Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community is one of the over 40 nomadic tribes in Maharashtra, with an estimated population of around 6-7 lakh. They are also known by other names like Davari Jogi, Nath Jogi with multiple sub-groups. They are bound by their worship of the Kal Bhairavnath deity. Community members say their wandering ancestors kept alive an oral tradition of narration and singing of ballads, stories, songs, kathas, bhajans, gondhals. Many gave up all worldly comforts and adopted a nomadic lifestyle, surviving on alms wherever they travelled. Members also refer to their contribution during the period of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, when their ancestors wore disguises to help collect information on enemies.
The still-nomadic community has even today only a small percentage of homeowners, and those few usually have temporary huts on available land. Most continue to move from place to place throughout the year, returning to their villages once or twice a year. While on the go, the community sets up their palas, sewn together by women over a week. Before they set up their settlement, they seek the permission of the gram sabha or the land owner.
“Sometimes, after we have set up the pala, we are asked to leave, either by the village authorities or the police. If there is money to hire a tempo again, we do that. Many a times, if there is no money left, we walk to the next village, walking many kilometres with our belongings till we find a place,” says 25-year-old Vaishali Ingavle, currently residing with a few families at Nazri in Atpadi taluka, Sangli. Women say that earlier, childbirth too happened while on the go, with women expected to move even within a day of delivering a baby. Today most deliver their babies in the nearest government hospital .
Dinkar Shinde, a 64-year-old resident of Shetphale in Sangli district of Maharashtra, plays the davar, a hand-held drum-like musical instrument, twice a day during aartis in the village temple. Dinkar’s family is in charge of this responsibility as per the community’s tradition. According to members of the Nath Panthi Davari Gosavi community, this responsibility is given to one family each year. Apart from the aarti, the men of the community are also expected to sing kathas or ballads of Bhairavnath.
“It would bring the entire village together. People would sit and listen to the kathas late into the night. While leaving, the villagers would give foodgrain, including jowar, rice and wheat, to the Davari family in charge that year. Now, barely anyone comes for the kathas, so the practice is not conducted any more. People prefer staying home with their television sets and mobile phones,” says Patangrao Pandurang Gaikwad, member of the temple committee at Shetphale.
Shetfale is actually home to over 100 families of the Davari community. Most homes, however, remain locked. As the duty of village temple is given to one particular family in a year, the other members of the community take up the nomadic life for their livelihood. Many families have travelled to different parts of the country. Tai Ingavle has just returned from Jalandhar, where she stays for most part of the year. She sits with a cow on a city street with people buying fodder from her to feed the cow, considered an act of devotion.
Another resident, 70-year-old Bhimrao Shinde, says as seeking alms was considered God’s work, it was viewed with respect. He began feeling shy of going to his neighbours to seek money or foodgrain in exchange for singing bhajans and began looking for another means of livelihood. He eventually saved some money to set up a small tea stall at the village centre. Over the years, the stall grew into a shop and he managed to build a house nearby. But his pride is his teenaged granddaughter’s karate skills and the many medals she has won. “I did not like how people viewed our community as alms-seekers. Without access to education, livelihood, it is not possible to get out of the margins we are pushed to for centuries. Our children are our only hope,” Shinde says.
Many in the community are now banking on their children to get educated and take up new livelihood options. Sundara Shegar, for instance, wakes up at 6 am each morning and begins with chores at her pala, including making multiple trips to the nearest source of water, kilometres away. She goes to work at a nearby farm or collects scrap, earning roughly Rs 150 per day. She puts aside as much as she can to send to her son, who is studying in a residential school in Ahmednagar, even if it means skipping meals herself. “I manage to send Rs 3,000-4,000 to him each month.” She hopes he can soon find a job.
Kalidas Shinde knows this struggle too well. He grew up in Dinganchi village in Atpadi, roaming with his family in search of livelihood. Kalidas, 34, eventually was enrolled in an ashram school in Kolhapur. After completing school, Kalidas returned to Phaltan in Satara, where his parents lived in temporary tents. He completed his graduation there, while struggling to meet expenses, working alongside and giving up tea and breakfast to save money for books. He subsequently enrolled at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and completed his PhD this year, having written a thesis on his community, perhaps the first in the country.
He says that in Maharashtra, his community is categorised with 45 other nomadic tribes for a 2.5 per cent reservation in education and jobs. “Given the marginalisation and inaccessibility, this number proves grossly inadequate,” Kalidas says.
Many youngsters also currently remain determined to join the police force from the community. At Diganchi village, 21-year-old Dhanashree and, at Dehu, 19-year-old Shivaji are aspiring to join the police force. Both wake up early morning and practise running to compete in the physical training rounds for the job. “There are only less than ten seats for all the nomadic communities usually. It is very difficult to get through,” says Dhanashree.
In 2015, the central government appointed the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic, Semi-Nomadic Tribes. Among the recommendations made by the Commission was extending the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to members from Denotified Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes. Currently, comments have been sought from various state governments and Union territories on the recommendations. Similar recommendations made by a previous commission under the chairmanship of Balkrishna Renke in its report submitted in 2008, too remains unimplemented.
Members say there has been no effort to implement or help the community access regular government schemes on pension, healthcare, education and affordable housing.
At Nazri, 38-year-old Navnath Shinde, a BA in Arts, who, after struggling to find a job, is currently back to performing on the streets for a livelihood. Navnath has recently written a song on the Dhule lynching, hoping that the generations ahead remember the extreme costs the community bore. “This is the first time that the community is demanding something. It’s out on the streets protesting. We hope this brings about a revolution for our future generations,” says Prakash.
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