New Delhi: Although the nomadic Davari Gosavi tribe's philosophy renounces all material attachments, 39-year-old Kalidas Ankush Shinde will cherish a certain 10-rupee note, like a medal, for the rest of his life.

Nearly two decades back, he had travelled around 350 km to a college in Kolhapur to write the entrance exam for a master's degree in social work. Shinde did not have enough money to ride a bus all the way. He first took a lift in a lorry transporting grains and vegetables, and then caught a local bus. When he reached Kolhapur, he had no money left, and hunger brewed in his stomach. He waited dejectedly in a corner for his interview.

The college librarian noticed him. He chatted with Shinde and handed him a Rs 10 note, requesting him to eat something. Though hunger gnawed, Shinde did not spend the money. "In a lifetime spent feeling excluded, it was a rare gesture of encouragement shown to me," he recalled.

In 2018, Shinde became the second person amongst about 800,000 people in his sub-caste, Davari, to earn a doctorate.

He shared this story on a video call from his two-bedroom rented flat in Virar, in Maharashtra's Palghar district. Eleven other family members, including his wife Priya and their two children, share the flat. The house is bursting at the seams, but it is all they can afford.

Although Nomadic and Denotified tribes (NT-DNT) account for nearly 10% of India's population, according to the Renake Commission report, they have historically faced an uphill battle for education, respectable employment and social dignity. Most of them, including the Davari Gosavis, lack worldly possessions such as land, money or community resources. They have little choice but to follow their traditional occupations of wandering and begging, which in turn exposes them to abuse, even attacks, from non-nomadic society.

The stories of the Shinde family highlight the conditions in which many NT-DNT communities exist, living lives that lack the basic guarantees of human rights and welfare. This is the first of a two-part series on their struggle.

The long road to a PhD

Kalidas Shinde (left), awarded his PhD certificate at the convocation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, May 7, 2018.
Photo credit: Kalidas Shinde

Only 12.5% of people surveyed from the Davari Gosavi tribe had studied till grade XII, while nearly 59% had dropped out after grade X, per a 2017 report by the Council for Social Development (CSD-SRC). In 2008, 28% of NT students had access to primary schooling, the Renake Commission had found, adding that this figure dwindled sharply for higher secondary school.

Shinde's parents, Ankush and Kamal Shinde, had neither the will nor the opportunity to access education. They are illiterate and have begged for alms to raise their six children. The Shinde family's plastic tent back home in Maharashtra's Dighanchi village still lacks a toilet and an electricity connection. Nearly four decades ago, that is where Kalidas was born.

As of 2017, 75% of Gosavi households lacked access to toilet facilities and only 7.4% had an electricity connection, according to the CSD-SRC report. The Idate Commission, which was formed in 2015, to assess the development status of NT-DNTs, received over 3,700 petitions and memoranda, over a three-year period. The largest category of requests received, 618, were for providing sanitation and basic infrastructure, such as electricity, roads and water supply.

The Shinde family's tent in Dighanchi village, May 2021.
Photo credit: Kalidas Shinde

Despite the lack of basic amenities, Shinde got a PhD from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai. A monumental achievement--one that has cost Rs 4 lakh in loans, he said.

Education would have been out of reach, but for a lucky break in his life. In 1994, his parents were in huge debt following their daughter's wedding, and decided to resume their occupational nomadism. On Shinde's insistence, his father agreed to send him to a government-aided Ashram school, run for tribal children in Kolhapur. Ashram schools are residential schools which have been functional since 1990-91, and are set up in Tribal Sub Plan areas by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

To supplement his family's hand-to-mouth predicament, Shinde sold ice-cream during his vacations. At the age of 14, he started collecting and selling scrap on his maternal uncle's bicycle. "I topped secondary school that year," he said.

His good grades could not, however, translate into fees for secondary school, and he worked odd jobs to raise money. While he was working at a newspaper stall, a stranger suggested he go to Mudhoji College in Phaltan. Shinde borrowed money from his relatives and put together his college fees. He spent the next five years studying English literature.

College life presented Shinde with worries that were not just financial. Caste-Hindu students would bully him, calling him "dowry" (a distortion of his surname Davari), which compelled him to change it to 'Shinde'. "They would tear my notebooks, and I felt alienated from all groups in class," he said. Pandarinath Kadam, the present principal of the college, expressed shock at this event, when IndiaSpend asked him for comment. "Our college is in a developed part of Maharashtra, and these cases are very rare."

Only 5% of students enrolled in Mudhoji College come from NT-DNTs, Kadam said. In 2018, a special cell was set up for their welfare, but it has received no complaints. While no such cell existed in 2004, Shinde felt that complaining to his professors would have attracted more unwelcome attention from his classmates.

For Shinde, joining the National Service Scheme in college in 2005 was a turning point. He worked with activist Narendra Dabholkar's Vivek Vahini to eradicate the stranglehold of superstitions over society. "It changed my thinking, and I began to articulate my own oppression," Shinde said.

Lack of identity documents

Shinde was admitted into an M.Phil. course at TISS in 2008 in the General Category, as Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservations had not yet been implemented in the college. Kalidas had to pawn his mother's necklace and take a loan to pay the admission fee, and he barely had money to feed himself.

He wrote his M.Phil. thesis on Davari Gosavis and took his initiation, or Diksha, into Nathpantha philosophy. It required him to wear large, silver hooped-earrings. He wears earrings till date, but smaller ones. "I was met with annoying curiosity and judgement from elite students in college, but it felt wrong to detach myself from my identity."

Shinde took out another education loan to finance his PhD. In 2015, he applied for the Ambedkar Pre- and Post-Matriculation scholarship but failed to get it. He explained, "this centrally-sponsored scholarship is only for NT-DNT students, and the Central government has put Davaris in the OBC category". Still, his application received a reply. The Maharashtra state government was instructed to release partial funds for his scholarship.

Kalidas Shinde stands next to Balkrishna Renake (left), and Laxman Gaikwad (right), a photo taken while the Renake Commission report was being drafted.
He accompanied Renake on field visits in Maharashtra and assisted with data collection.
Photo credit: Kalidas Shinde

Kalidas eventually failed to obtain the scholarship, as he was unable to "prove" his caste. His caste certificate was granted only in 2016, eleven years after he had applied. Nearly 70% of those from NT-DNTs face problems obtaining their caste certificate, the Idate Commission report, published in 2018, noted. His application was repeatedly rejected because of a discrepancy in his school-leaving certificate. His family does not possess land records or permanent residential proof on account of being semi-nomadic. Close to 98% of NT-DNT people do not own land, as per the Renake Commission report.

Nearly 93% of Gosavi people lacked documentation such as Aadhaar and ration cards, and only 1.5% had received a daily-wage job card under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), as per the CSD-SRC report. The Idate Commission received 454 requests regarding facilitation of documentation and identity proofs, and 342 requests regarding education and scholarship facilities.

The importance of having a unified classification of caste identity (overriding Centre-state differences) cannot be overstated in the lives of NT-DNTs, Kalidas said. Scholarships are heavily dependent on correct documentation. "Without educational aid, lakhs of students are forced to pursue odd jobs or, worse, go back to begging."

We have reached out to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for comment and will update the story when they respond.

One such student is Chetan, 22, from the Davari community, and a recent English graduate, to whom Shinde is a mentor of sorts. The only Davari student in his course, he cannot afford to pursue a master's degree. "The choice was between my brother and me. I didn't want him to drop out of his bachelor's course on my account," said Chetan, who has reverted to begging for alms, because he did not hear back from any company he applied to for jobs, he said.

Shinde has consistently tried to facilitate education and documentation processes for young people of his community, he said. Since March 2020, he has pooled funds, with the help of other community leaders and members, to pay the educational costs of some Davari girls and boys. "Due to the pandemic, their parents were unable to earn through begging. But dropping out would have put a full stop to their future."

Kalidas Shinde's parents stand in front of their tent, holding Shinde's autobiography, while the "jholi" hangs beside them. May 2021
Photo credit: Kalidas Shinde

Nathpanthi to author

Shinde recently published his autobiography in Marathi, eponymously called "Jholi". It refers to the saffron-coloured cloth bag that people from the Davari Gosavi tribe hang from their shoulders while travelling from village to village and begging for alms. Also called Nathpanthis, they sing ballads to their ancestral deity, Kalbhairavnath.

Historically, Nathpanthis were priests. Farmer and artisan castes respected them. "People would touch our feet and ask for our blessings," Shinde said, "but now the situation is different..don't make Gods of us. No one cares to find out what God's problems are."

In 2018, five Davari Gosavi balladeers were lynched to death by a mob in Rainpada in Dhule district, Maharashtra, on allegations of being child-traffickers. The lynching case is currently being fought at the Sessions Court in Dhule by public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam. "Some videos of the incident were taken by witnesses, which we have presented in court," Nikam said. "The police have identified the accused in the videos as well as in person. But it's still a long wait till the verdict."

Kalidas Shinde offers a copy of his book to a Nathpanthi balladeer, June 2021.
Photo credit: Kalidas Shinde

Currently, Shinde is a guest lecturer at Mumbai University. He feels that his present salary is not enough to either pay off his education loans, or start a community organisation dedicated to the social welfare of Davari students. "Especially for the education of Davari girls," he added. He is simultaneously pursuing a master's degree in Marathi, as the subject is more widely taught and might give him better job opportunities.

In his heart, he nurses one nagging regret. "My parents refused to come to my PhD convocation," he said. "They reasoned that a day of work missed would mean no food for our family that night. The irony… even with my doctorate, there are still days when their stomachs are empty."

Devidas Shinde (centre), with other men from the community, who have started a business of selling imitation jewellery, pictured, May 2021.
Photo credit: Kalidas Shinde

And Kalidas was lucky to get the chance to study. It could easily have been his brother, Devidas Shinde, 43, in his place today, if only he had not sacrificed his own education to fend for his younger siblings.

The eldest of six siblings, Devidas Shinde studied till grade III, then dropped out to supplement his family's income. "I have begged for alms, repaired stoves and kitchen appliances so that my younger brothers could study and my sisters could marry," he said.

Presently, Devidas sits outside a local temple in Virar, with two cows tied to poles beside him, and some fodder in front. "Hindus consider it punya (good deed) to feed cows, but sometimes municipal corporation officers harass us and ask us to vacate the spot," he explained.

His livelihood earns him around Rs 350 per day, of which Rs 100 goes to the stable-owner for the cows he rents. He said he feels ashamed to enter his building in Virar carrying the big bundle of fodder, as other residents have labelled him a "beggar". He would like to start a small business of his own, perhaps a repair shop, and obtain "respectable" employment, but said that his loan application has been rejected on account of not having land or valuable assets. "People always taunt me for begging. But what else can an uneducated person like me do?"

About a third of Gosavis continue to follow their traditional occupation--wandering and begging--as per the CSD-SRC report.

"Babasaheb [B.R. Ambedkar] said that oppressed people find dignity upon abandoning their lowly jobs," Devidas Shinde told IndiaSpend. "If not me, at least my children should do big things."

In the background of the call with Kalidas Shinde, a serving spoon clanked against a pot as the conversation inched into dinner time. It is no mean feat that at least a part of Shinde's family can now afford a home-cooked meal.

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