Indian nomadic pastoralists sound the alarm against historical injustices and draconian colonial laws.
Saurabh Hatkar with Kanna K. Siripurapu
I was born into a Dhangar family, belonging to one of the traditional nomadic pastoralist communities of India. My native place is Hiwarkhed, a village in a hilly, drought-prone area of the Vidarbha region of the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Vidarbha is infamous for India’s highest number of farmer suicides due to indebtedness and frequent crop failures. I am the first in my family to pursue a university education.
Etymologically, the word dhangar has many meanings — hillock, cattle herder, sheepherder, cattle wealth, and so forth. What characterizes my community above all, however, is our mobility. Traditionally, Dhangar people and their livestock migrate from place to place in caravans. Once, I saw a young woman with a caravan carrying an infant in her arms, and that piqued my curiosity about my own birth. I asked my mother whether I was born in a caravan too. She smiled and said that when she was pregnant with me, she stayed home and did not join the caravan. It was a different case with my siblings, however, as they were born in a forest.
When I asked my mother about my date of birth, she answered that she doesn’t remember the date, except that she knows it was a Thursday and that she offered special prayers to Saint Gajanana Maharaj (local saint in Maharashtra) and to Nagi Kushi Mata (a traditional goddess of Dhangars, locally known as Kuldaivat) for a safe delivery and a healthy baby. Thursday is believed to be dedicated to Saint Gajanan Maharaj.
In my naivete, I was also surprised to hear that I was delivered at home and not at a clinic. Unlike today, there were hardly any health clinics or doctors available in the vicinity. Shocked, I asked my mother how my umbilical cord was severed. Patiently, she explained that during pregnancy most shepherd women carry a metal blade or sickle with them for this very purpose. But often such equipment gets contaminated, causing infections in both newborn babies and mothers. Fortunately, she told me, there is a substitute for the blade. She kept a dried and sharpened stalk of indigenous sorghum (known locally as perkund) to sever my umbilical cord soon after I was delivered, with the help of my aunty Rambha Bai, and then she laid me down on a wheat sack.
The story of my birth left me shaken, and I was further shocked to hear that my mother was neither vaccinated nor took any medication after the delivery. She did not even take any “maternity leave” after the delivery and resumed household chores right from the very next day of going into labor with very little support from family. She recovered her strength by eating a nutritious porridge called pat, made from jaggery [a type of unrefined sugar], sorghum flour, and water.
At the end of her story, my mother told me that this is the story of any pastoralist mother and child. Pastoralist women often undergo labor away from the safety of home and security of a health clinic. Whether during a heavy thunderstorm or in scorching tropical summer heat, whether inside a forest or in the open desert, a pastoralist woman gives birth to a new life at risk of her own. Vanvas, she exclaimed — a life of struggles in the wilderness — is a pastoralist woman’s destiny right from the time of her birth, which she carries dutifully all her life.
Perhaps I was one of those few lucky pastoralist kids who were born in the comfort and seclusion of four walls — but what if my mother had developed health complications during or after labor? What if she had lost her own life while giving birth to me?
My birth was not accidental but was blessed with a purpose.
The story of my birth and my mother’s struggles during labor inspired me as much as it shook me to the core. It moved me to work to uplift my community. As I see it, my birth was not accidental but was blessed with a purpose: to empower my community, reclaim the traditional rights of pastoralist people, and fight to undo the historical injustice meted out by the British and perpetuated by the government of independent India against the country’s Indigenous Peoples. Ever since, my dream has been to ensure that no pastoralist woman will suffer or lose her life from unprotected and unassisted labor in the wilderness and that no child will be placed on a wheat sack after birth. This is the beginning of the journey of a mirda — a shepherd leader.
My early life was like that of any Dhangar kid born into a pastoralist family. I finished my primary education at a government school in my village and then wanted to pursue higher secondary education at a well-reputed school in Maharashtra. To support my aspirations, my father and uncle paid a huge admission fee and got me in. But all my excitement fizzled away in no time! Unbearable hazing at the student hostel left me traumatized, and I quit school within a year, returning home.
My parents then enrolled me in a high school closer to my native place. After that, I finished my diploma in computer technology at a local college, where I took part in and won many elocution and debate competitions, which boosted my confidence.
After finishing my diploma studies, I was admitted to an undergraduate course in computer science and engineering in Maharashtra. I delivered talks both on and off campus on democracy, the constitution, the caste system, and ideologies of great social leaders like Mahatma Phule, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ahilyabai Holkar, and the great Maratha Emperor Shivaji Maharaj. In recognition of my oratory skills and leadership qualities, I was appointed as the spokesperson of the state’s anti-superstition committee in 2015 and 2016.
Around the same time, in 2014–2016, crucial developments took place for the Dhangar community. Demonstrations broke out across Maharashtra, with Dhangar shepherds demanding “scheduled tribe” status for the community. Local politicians joined the protest for their own political interest and advantage, putting shepherds and their livestock at the forefront and parading them as poster children. Ironically, though, while shepherds gained a lot of media attention and visibility, they remained “visibly invisible”: their voices were muted, and the local politicians and Dhangar elite did all the talking. On public occasions and in political platforms, Dhangar shepherds were left without ownership of and self-representation about their own issues and problems. A lack of leadership from within the Dhangar shepherd community relegated them to the role of “invisible poster children” in their own battles.
A lack of leadership from within the Dhangar shepherd community relegated them to the role of ‘invisible poster children’ in their own battles.
Simultaneously, there was an increase in harassment and atrocities by the forest department, the police department, and settlers against nomadic pastoralist people. Forest department officials openly and repeatedly fired on shepherds. Due to a lack of leadership and constitutional backup, however, Dhangar people were unable to tackle these injustices. I was frustrated to witness my people’s lack of leadership, visibility, and voice. The despair I felt only emboldened me to take things into my own hands. With a resolve to make a difference in the lives of the Dhangar people, I decided to bid adieu to a career in the technology sector and pursue a career with the federal government of India. And so it was that I started preparing for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) entrance exams.
The UPSC preparation exposed me to a lot of new knowledge and information about India’s constitution. I learned about the lack of constitutional backup for the pastoralist, nomadic, and denotified tribes in India. I realized that the pastoralists of Maharashtra had not created a single organization to represent them. To fill this gap, Anand Kokare, a fellow Dhangar from Pune, and I established Mendhpalputra Army (Army of Shepherds’ Children), a community-based organization of pastoralists, by the pastoralists and for the pastoralists of Maharashtra.
I started uniting shepherds, empowering them with information, and encouraging them to demand that the state government grant constitutional validity to pastoralists and denotified tribes.
In consultation with the shepherd pastoralists, the Mendhpalputra Army developed a manifesto for the empowerment, economic development, and welfare of pastoralists in the state. Through Mendhpalputra Army and with the support of a few like-minded individuals, I started uniting shepherds, empowering them with information, and encouraging them to demand that the state government grant constitutional validity to pastoralists and denotified tribes — a fundamental step toward the implementation of socioeconomic development programs for such communities.
In 2019, a virus led to the unfortunate death of fifteen thousand sheep and goats, leaving the shepherds in despair. The state government did not announce any compensation for the victims. In response to the state’s apathy, I started a protest. It was the first such systematic agitation involving advocacy for the constitutional validity and legal recognition of the customary rights of pastoralist communities in the state. The protest was successful, and the state government acknowledged the situation and started prioritizing the pastoralists’ issues.
Today there are many shepherd pastoralist-based organizations in Maharashtra, which are based on the vision we developed for the socioeconomic prosperity of pastoralists in the state. We initiated a mobile hospital and helpline for pastoralists, and the state government adopted and formalized them. We have been advocating for setting up mobile medical camps and regular free vaccination of livestock by the government. Over the past three years, I succeeded in getting fifty thousand animals a year vaccinated, with help from the authorities at my tehsil (district administration). But that is not enough. More concrete efforts are needed to secure constitutional recognition and backup for pastoralist people and denotified tribes in Maharashtra and in the country.
Theories of sustainable development and equality should be reflected in concrete actions on the ground.
Theories of sustainable development and equality should not be restricted to classroom discussions and textbooks; they should be reflected in concrete actions on the ground. This realization prompted me to launch two major protests in 2022 for the welfare of pastoralist communities: the shepherds’ Aroli (Alarm Call) Protest and Tapal Satyagrah (Postcard) Protest.
Some historical background on these protests: In the nineteenth century, the British colonial government forcefully took away the land of over 200 nomadic and other Indigenous tribes across the country, depriving them of their livelihoods. When the tribes challenged the British, the British enacted the Criminal Tribe Act 1871, labeling such rebellious tribes as “criminal tribes.”
Later on, the colonial government introduced the Criminal Tribe Settlement Act of 1908 to bring “reform” to such communities. Three-layer fences were erected around the tribes’ settlement camps to control their movements and prevent them from causing further threats to the colonial regime. Finally, on August 31, 1952, five years after India gained independence, the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, broke the fencing erected by the British at the settlement camps and declared the liberation of more than 200 tribes.
Since then, the tribes have been known as the “denotified tribes.” But the question remains: did the nomadic and denotified tribes get their due freedom in a true sense? I think not, even to this day! And that’s what gave birth to the Aroli protest.
In the Dhangar shepherds’ language [a dialect of Marathi], aroli means “alarm call.” It is a kind of vocalization that shepherds use to inform and alert other shepherds and their livestock about a lurking danger. Through the Aroli protest, I intend to do the same — alert my fellow shepherds about the lurking danger to our traditional occupation and livelihoods as a result of the country’s exclusionary and regressive conservation laws. That forest department officials brazenly fired on the shepherds is a sign of the colonial mindset and its legacy, which has permeated independent India through a form of internal colonialism. The Aroli protest, organized on September 26, 2022, was meant to let the forest department know that it is time to stop their atrocities toward the Indigenous and nomadic communities and refrain from violating human rights. It is time to undo the historical injustices done to those communities since the colonial period and restore the fundamental rights and livelihoods of the pastoralist and other livestock-keeping communities in the country.
I intend to alert my fellow shepherds about the lurking danger to our traditional occupation and livelihoods as a result of the country’s exclusionary and regressive conservation laws.
To advance this cause, on October 2, 2022 (Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary), we also launched the historic shepherds’ Tapal Satyagrah (Postcard Protest). It was inspired by the Mahad Water Satyagrah protest led by Ambedkar in 1927 and the Salt Satyagrah led by Gandhi in 1930. Our aim was to collectively send 11,111 letters to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra demanding the recognition of pastoralists’ traditional rights, the repeal of the draconian colonial forest protection acts, and the introduction of appropriate welfare schemes for mobile pastoralists in the state. The Tapal Satyagrah protest received an overwhelming response from community members, and the number of letters sent to the Chief Minister exceeded fifteen thousand. In response to my call for the protest, even children wrote letters to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, demanding that pastoralist and other shepherd communities be freed from the colonial forest policies and laws and from the atrocities of the forest department.
On December 20, 2022, the Maharashtra state government acknowledged the shepherds’ Tapal Satyagrah protest and convened a meeting with the state’s shepherds. Devendra Fadanvis, the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, invited us to discuss the issues. About eight thousand pastoralists joined the gathering. At the meeting, I questioned the validity of the archaic and exclusionary colonial forest laws and of the highly discriminatory top-down approach to biodiversity conservation, which is responsible for killing hundreds of tribal people, pastoralists, and other resource-dependent poor people. We, the pastoralists and Indigenous people, are not responsible for the loss of biodiversity, forest destruction, and climate change; then why should we bear the cost of biased biodiversity conservation laws and inappropriate climate change policies?
As a young leader of my pastoralist community, I condemn the top-down bureaucratic and elitist approach to biodiversity and forest conservation and the implementation of inappropriate climate change policies at the expense of the Indigenous communities, their culture and identities, and their traditional livelihoods. I am learning more about the conventional science-driven biodiversity and forest conservation laws around the world and their inherent discrimination and bias against Indigenous Peoples and their traditional knowledge and rights. I want to help put an end to this predicament.
Indigenous communities are the least responsible for climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Climate change adaptation or forest conservation should not happen at the cost of our lives.
In my view, Indigenous communities are the least responsible for climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Climate change adaptation or forest conservation should not happen at the cost of our lives, identity, culture, traditions, knowledge, and traditional livelihoods. I will fight till the end of my life for the right to livelihood and the right to live with dignity for my community. My dream is to secure the democratic and constitutional validity of my Dhangar community, as well as the other pastoralist communities and denotified tribes in India.
Saurabh Hatkar, a young leader from the Dhangar pastoralist community of India, is pursuing a PhD in South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He is the co-founder of Mendhpalputra Army, a community-based organization of the pastoralists, by the pastoralists and for the pastoralists, which advocates for the identity and constitutional validity of pastoralist and denotified tribal communities of India.
Kanna K. Siripurapu is a researcher interested in the biocultural diversity of the Indigenous nomadic pastoral systems and agroecological systems of India. He is associated with the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), based in Telangana, India. He publishes through his informal project, Indie-Narratives. He assisted Saurabh Hatkar in writing his story. Read more from Kanna K. Siripurapu.