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LIKE OTHER NOMADIC GROUPS, the Gadulia Lohar occasionally have been targeted for attempts at rehabilitation. In 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, argued in a famous speech at Chittaurgarh that the blacksmiths' honor had been restored with the establishment of Indian sovereignty and appealed to them to cease their wandering. Thousands who had traveled to the fort by bullock cart and train watched as Nehru ceremonially righted an overturned cot, then invited them to enter by traversing a bridge strewn with rose petals. A boarding school for Lohar boys was established nearby, and housing and employment schemes were launched.

The initiatives never came to much. A settlement where the blacksmiths were supposed to learn farming was abandoned after two girls died of illness—interpreted as a warning to those who would violate Lohar tradition. Others fizzled because of corruption and poor planning.

But the nomads' cause was kept alive by human rights groups, and in 2005 the Indian Parliament formed a temporary commission to address their plight. Its chairman, Balkrishna Renke, was uniquely qualified for the job: Born into a group of mendicants, he spent his early childhood roaming among villages in western India, literally singing for his supper, before a charity took him in and gave him an education.

For Renke the goal is clear. "If they want to have a right of citizenship, education, and participate in modern progress, they have to settle," he says. Renke is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge. India's creaky but expansive social welfare system has long been geared toward redressing the inequities of caste. Because the nomads are dispersed among many castes, they have garnered few of the affirmative action benefits—and none of the political clout—that have accrued to other persecuted groups, such as the Untouchables. "There is no organization. There is no awakening," Renke says. "They are unheard people."

AFTER A WEEK in the Lohar's company, I was beginning to understand one reason: They were not easy to be around. Although I had made clear at the outset that I would not give them money, I tried to remain in their good graces by dispensing small gifts—usually bags of lentils and flour—and regularly treating them to chai from a nearby vendor. But for some it was never enough. Kartar, Lallu's older brother, badgered me constantly for kalakand, a kind of milk pudding, and sulked when I failed to oblige. His wife, Pooni, was no less insistent. "Give me money for chai!" she said by way of a greeting one morning, and whenever I caught her eye, she plucked at her ragged tunic or signaled her desire for bidis by raising two fingers to her lips. I learned not to catch her eye.

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