In 2012, Kiran Singh Sankhla, then a teenager, witnessed government authorities evict her family, and demolish their makeshift house in west Delhi’s Khyala area. The family had been evicted from temporary accomodations many times, but this eviction was particularly harsh on Sankhla—she was appearing for her tenth-standard examinations at the time. Some of her books went missing during the eviction and some were damaged. “It affected my career badly,” Sankhla, now 23 years old, told me. “Our entire community has been suffering from such evictions,” she added. Sankhla’s family hails from the Gadia Lohar community, a historically nomadic group of blacksmiths with its origins in Rajasthan.
Like many Gadia Lohars in Delhi, Sankhla and her family spent a good part of their lives recovering from such demolitions while they struggled to make ends meet. Some of the challenges they have faced are the basics of everyday life, such as access to toilets and drinking water. “Mainly, male members spent their time in arranging food every day,” Sankhla said. In such a scenario, “who cares about education?” she added. Despite this, Sankhla aspired to become a lawyer while growing up. She studied even “in odd hours, in the light of lamp post.” But Sankhla could not fulfil her dream—she ended up completing a bachelor’s in arts through a correspondence course from the University of Delhi. She told me that she has not come across any other graduate in her community barring herself and a friend, Reena Gadia Lohar, a 25-year-old woman.
In 2018, Reena and Sankhla started participating in a study by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a non-profit organisation, on the Gadia Lohars in Delhi. HLRN surveyed fifty eight settlements of the community, with an estimated population of at least twenty-five thousand. It published a report titled, “Mapping the Marginalized: Delhi’s Gadia Lohar Community,” in September 2019. The report bore out Reena and Sankhla’s lived experiences—it stated that 64 percent of the surveyed Gadia Lohar settlements did not have access to toilets; 44 percent did not have access to schools; and 41.4 percent did not have access to drinking water.
According to the historian Rima Hooja, Gadia Lohars have been victimised by “both history and the present,” in spite of their contribution to “the material culture of India.” In my reporting from over ten Gadia Lohar settlements, it was evident that the government’s failure to provide the community with basic facilities has marginalised them to Delhi’s roadsides. The community’s cultural identity, which is built on their traditional blacksmithing work, is also being washed away as their profession now provides bare minimum sustenance. “Their rehabilitation is the most important thing in the places like Delhi. But, they have been ignored,” Hooja told me.
According to the community’s legends, the Gadia Lohars worked as blacksmiths in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh area during the sixteenth century, under the Rajput king, Maharana Pratap. In particular, the Gadia Lohars were skilled craftsmen of swords and shields. When the Mughals captured the Chittorgarh fort in the late sixteenth century, Pratap and his subjects had to leave the city. The blacksmiths vowed before the king that till they defeated the Mughals and reclaimed the fort, they would not come back to their home and forgo everyday necessities such as having a house, sleeping on a cot and lighting a lamp during night.