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These wanderers were once part of India's mainstream. They meshed comfortably with the villagers who lived along their annual migration routes. In the 19th century, though, attitudes began to change. British administrators disparaged them as vagrants and criminals, sowing prejudice that survived colonial rule. The rapidly modernizing India of call centers and brand-obsessed youth has scant use for tinkers or bear trainers, and pastoralists are in a losing battle with industry and urban sprawl. Fragmented by caste, language, and region, the nomads are ignored by politicians and, in contrast to other downtrodden groups, have reaped few benefits from social welfare schemes.

Just defining the term "nomad" is problematic in India. Many groups that once unambiguously fit the category have clustered in slums in a process anthropologists call sedentarization. Yet India remains a rigidly stratified society in which birth is often synonymous with destiny. So, mobile or not, India's nomads are united by a history of poverty and exclusion that continues to this day: arguably the biggest human rights crisis you've never heard of.

To the lonely few who have taken up the nomads' cause, a big part of the solution is to provide them with roofs over their heads, or at least an address, which would make it easier for them to get welfare benefits and enroll their kids in school. But such efforts have met fierce resistance from villagers and local politicians, who see the roamers as grubby outsiders. Practical obstacles aside, a larger question looms: Do the nomads have to stop being who they are in order to survive?

AFTER THE RUCKUS over the soap, my morning arrivals were easier. The next day the camp was quiet except for an occasional racking cough. Smoke rose from a crude earthen forge, wom​en took turns at a goatskin bellows while men and boys pounded scrap metal on small anvils, shaping it into cooking spoons, axheads, and other simple wares.

My interpreter and I counted 23 people among four Lohar families, all related. They carried their belongings in five open carts built from acacia and teak and decorated with lotus-blossom carvings, brass studs, and painted Hindu swastikas. All were baffled by my presence, and some were unabashedly hostile. "Whatever we say, whatever we do, you write it down!" one woman complained. But a few were more welcoming. Lallu and Kailashi were a couple in their 40s—the Lohar could only guess at their ages—with four children. Dressed in a grimy cotton dhoti, Lallu was small and wiry, with gold earrings shaped like seedpods and an amulet dangling from a cord around his neck. Kailashi was thin and hollow-eyed, her breastbone tattooed with om symbols and her matted hair covered by a purple shawl. Both had bad teeth and frequently interrupted their labors to light cheap, hand-rolled cigarettes known as bidis from the embers of their forge.

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