New Delhi: Priya Kalidas Shinde had just finished preparing, and eating dinner, when she told me: "This is my time to study--my first semester exams are going on, but it's okay if we talk."

Priya, 26, belongs to the Davari Gosavi semi-nomadic tribe, who were historically balladeers, with the traditional occupations of wandering and begging. Today, most have few worldly possessions, and struggle to get educated, especially the women. Priya cooks and cleans up after 11 other family members, her exams notwithstanding. "But it is a big ask from husbands to let us continue studies after marriage, so we are definitely lucky," Priya, who is enrolled in a bachelor's degree course in Marathi in Babasaheb Deshmukh College in Sangli, said.

This is the second of a two-part series on the Shinde family and their struggle for education, a livelihood and dignity--the predicament of many of India's Nomadic and Denotified Tribes (NT-DNTs). The first part told the story of Kalidas Shinde, who became the second person in his around 800,000-people community to get a Phd. This second part is about the particular challenges that women of the community face, and how the youth of the community thinks about their future.

While specific data do not exist on the pan-India educational attainment of women from the nomadic tribes, or for Davari Gosavi women specifically, there is a gender disparity between boys and girls from the NT-DNTs accessing residential schooling. In 2008, only four girls were living in hostels, as against 224 boys at the primary level and 220 at the upper primary level, according to a 2017 report by the Council for Social Development (CSD-SRC).

Nearly 62% of women surveyed from the NT-DNTs in Delhi were illiterate, according to a 2016 report submitted to The National Commission for Women, by Sarthak, a Delhi-based NGO. That is, the literacy rate is lower than the average literacy rate for women in India (53.7%), as per the 2011 Census.

Priya Kalidas Shinde poses for a photo at a wedding function.
Photo credit: By arrangement

Women need to always have a 'male guardian'

Priya studies along with her sister-in-law, Pratiksha Shinde, who is 19. "We can only study if we are going to the same college. Otherwise, our parents wouldn't allow it."

Women are expected to remain under the wing of a male guardian at all times. "First her father, then her husband, then her son… are we not our own people?" Priya asked.

"It is still a taboo to send girls to school," said Machindra Chavan, deputy superintendent of police in Solapur district, who is also an activist from the Davari Gosavi community. "Most parents believe that a girl must get married off by 13 and run the house."

Only 9% of education loans taken out by people from the Davari Gosavi community were for girls, per a 2017 report by the Council for Social Development (CSD-SRC).

Caste panchayats also have a role in restricting the social freedom and rights of women. They are usually headed by elderly men of the community, and may be conducted wherever there is a large gathering of the community, either during marriages, birth ceremonies, or funerals.

Caste panchayats are not inherently negative in their scope. Chavan explained the "beauty" of these panchayats, saying, "It is like our organic path to justice. They have been crucial in mediating disputes and ensuring harmony within the community, centuries before the IPC [Indian Penal Code] or CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure] existed."

However, patriarchal attitudes within the modernising Davari community have often turned these panchayats into forums for denouncing and punishing women for their choices. "In case a woman is seen talking to men outside the sub-caste, or if they complain of their husbands being abusive under the influence of alcohol, the woman's family will be excommunicated by the panchayat," Priya explained.

The panchayat's diktats do not permit women to divorce or remarry, as long as their husbands are alive. Priya was angry that panchayats never passed harsh rulings on men who misused their privilege. "They are free to bring home a second wife, or abandon their wives and children. What about our welfare?"

Baburao Chavan, an elder of the Davari community who sometimes opines in caste panchayats, said that if a woman marries outside the sub-caste, it is not just her, but her parents who have "sinned". "Women marrying into another caste means we have one less member in our vulnerable group. Strength in numbers…," he added. However, Baburao Chavan has, on occasion, also stayed away from these panchayats. He feels that men should treat their wives with respect, and women should not have to suffer on account of their husbands.

The lack of government support makes things harder for women. For instance, anganwadi centres, which provide vaccinations and cooked meals to mothers and children, are not usually located near settlements of nomadic tribes, which are usually in the outskirts of villages. As a result, only 28% of nomadic communities had access to anganwadi centres, according to the Renake Commission report from 2008.

We have reached out to the Women and Child Development Ministry, and will update the story when they respond.

Priya shared a problem confronting Dipali, her brother-in-law, Devidas Shinde's daughter. She is 14, and studies in grade IX. "Her parents are a bit sceptical about sending her to school, as she has hit puberty," Priya said.

Priya's husband, Kalidas Shinde, is trying to convince Devidas to let her study. "That will set a good example for my daughter, Shreya," she said. Shreya, all of five years, waved at the screen excitedly on hearing her name, and grinned with a set of broken milk teeth before jumping out of frame.

Priya studied as a day-scholar at an Ashram school. 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. "Cases of rape and molestation of hostellers by teachers and staff have been reported at these Ashram schools", Priya said. It was for these reasons that Priya's parents were hesitant to send her to school, she said.

We have emailed the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, and the story will be updated when they respond.

Caste atrocities

It is not just patriarchy and poverty that Davari Gosavis have to contend with. They are subjected to caste atrocities, especially while pursuing their traditional means of livelihood.

"I have seen my mother bleed from her head after being hit with bricks, when we had gone to beg at a wedding function. The wedding party assaulted and beat her," Devidas Shinde, Priya's brother-in-law, recounted.

Priya said her grandfather, aged 70, had been falsely charged with theft by dominant caste members while begging for alms. Police had ransacked their tent, whisked away her grandfather and beaten him brutally. As the case is 13 years old, the current police officer at Karad police station does not remember the case, they told IndiaSpend.

Chavan, the police officer, explained why this might have happened. It is common practice for nomadic tribes to give "haziri" (attendance) at police stations whenever they temporarily shift to a new district. Sometimes the police take undue advantage of this knowledge. "If a crime is reported in the area, they round up innocent tribals and interrogate them."

On January 19, 2022, Mohini Nitin Jadhav, niece of Tarabai Jagtap of the Shiv Sena, who was contesting elections in Sakri village in Dhule district, was injured and died in a scuffle, between the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party, after Jagtap lost the election. Jadhav belonged to the Davari Gosavi community. Rekha Chavan, an advocate associated with a community organisation for the welfare of Davari people, visited the village on a fact-finding trip the next day. She said, "six witnesses told me that Mohini was molested and murdered. The police are not investigating the case seriously." Prashant Bachav, additional superintendent of Dhule, told IndiaSpend that they have arrested four people in the case, but are waiting for the post-mortem report. They suspect no foul play, and believe the deceased, "slipped and fell amidst the rush and then died," he said.

Violent atrocities against people from NT-DNTs cannot be redressed under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. No separate atrocity act exists to protect NT-DNTs and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not record data on atrocities against NT-DNTs separately. In 2020, the rate of conviction for atrocity cases against STs was 28.5%, and the court pendency rate was 96.6%, the NCRB report noted. Community members say they are demanding a separate act for atrocities against NT-DNTs.

We have reached out to the Ministry of Social Justice And Empowerment, the Ministry of Law and Justice and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for their views on a separate law and for data on atrocities against NT-DNTs. We will update the story when we receive a response.

The educated young await change

The ambitions of the educated young are bigger than what the world currently offers to the community. 32-year-old Arun Lahu Shinde, Kalidas Shinde's cousin, has worked as a journalist in the past. Now, he sits outside a temple with a cow, hoping devotees feed it and pay him for this service, as Hindus consider it charitable to feed cows. Even with a master's degree in communication journalism, Arun is left with no other choice of work.

Until a month back, he was working as a delivery valet for the gig company Zomato. "I earned Rs 400 over a 12-hour shift, doing deliveries. I had borrowed a bike from a friend, but he needed it back," he said.

At different times, Arun has also worked as a daily wage-labourer and as a security guard to finance his education. After graduating, he worked as a journalist in local Marathi newspapers. "My employers at the local newspapers did not pay me for travel expenses…It was exploitative." He then worked as a marketing executive at the newspaper, the Indian Express, during the pandemic. This job had been difficult to come by but it did not cover his costs. "I had to be out on the field monitoring the sale of newspapers, trying to increase its circulation," he said. By the end of the month, he could hardly save Rs 1,000.

Arun Shinde, during his college days, 2015.
Photo credit: By arrangement

Arun has been applying for various jobs in the media and the social work sector. No one has reached out to him with an opportunity yet. This is not because he lacks skills or qualifications, he said; a short film directed by him won an award at a film festival in Thane.

Pigeonholed into realms of desperation to merely exist, the Shinde family's stories carve out the contours of other Davari Gosavi, and the NT-DNTs in present-day India.

Once, Arun points out, he was writing news reports about people's problems. Now, his problems are being written about. "I don't know if that's a good or bad thing," he remarked, "but I need a respectable job, that's for sure."

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