Siddis- The Lost African Tribe in India.


 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 

(Published first in the Bangkok Post, April 2014)

“ Do you want to see a  habshi?’, asks my guide pointing to an African boy sitting under a tree  as we enter   Gir  in  Gujarat- home to the famous Asiatic lions.

Habshi or  negro are the words used (not pejoratively)  by the locals for Siddis- the people of African origin,  sprinkled  in Junagadh district of Gujarat.

Dark skin, curlicues of hair,  snub nose and thick lips,  the Siddis are unmistakably African. Yet they are as much Gujarati as the next fellow.

They  speaks Gujarati and broken Hindi with the local accent and share the same mannerism and  general demeanor.

“ They say our ancestors were brought here as slaves from Africa more than 500 years ago”, says  Ibhrahim, a Siddi who invites  me in his house  with the familiar Gujarati hospitality.  He is a guide at Gir National Park, and existential issues are the last thing on his mind. He , along with other Gir inhabitants , is engrossed with  the quotidian.    The Supreme Court had ordered some of the Asiatic lions to be sent to Madhya Pradesh (MP) in April 2013. He skips the questions on his pedigree to talk about it.

 

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 

“ The lions will be poached in MP.  Poaching is rampant there. The poachers from MP come here to kill lions.  Two years ago the poachers from MP had killed two lions and two cubs“, he said.

He is however  quick to lay claim  to his African ancestry  to bolster his argument. “African are inextricably linked to the Lions.  Wherever there are lions you have Africans. There are no Siddhis in MP. That is not the lion’s home”, he says.

In Zambur village 20 kms from Gir, where many Siddi families live  together,  it is a   veritable  Africa.  But only from a distance.  The villagers are so culturally, socially and linguistically assimilated to the local milieu   that where they to be transplanted to Africa they would be completely lost.

There are over 50 thousand Siddis in  India  making for a unique racial minority along with the Parsis , Jews and the Chinese . But unlike other groups,  the Siddis  have lived on  the margins of Indian society. They have always been a poor lot and have been eking out a living in rural pockets of India. One third of them live in Karnataka. Others in Gujarat and  a tiny fraction are found in  Maharashtra.  Just like other inhabitants of these states they are culturally diverse from each other. They also do not share the same religion. They are Christians in Maharashtra and are Sufi Muslims in Gujarat.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

The Siddis were brought to India almost 500 years ago as slaves by  Arab and Portuguese merchants. Some Siddis  also came as merchants but most of them worked as slaves and since then  remained in India as part of the African diaspora.  Over time, the  Siddis  were completely Indianised but they kept their African genes alive by marrying within their  community.

Where do the Siddi’s fit in the complex caste system of India? In pre-Independence India they were outside it and were put even below the untouchables in the social hierarchy.. Today, along with several other India tribes , the government of India  accords them the status of a Scheduled Tribe, making them eligible for reservation in government jobs.

But Bosco Kaweesi- President Siddi Educational Society has been fighting for a special status for the Siddis.  According to him the Siddis face discrimination including racism wherever they go in India and the government needs to take some steps to alleviate their plight.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

“ Only a few weeks ago a Siddi man was harassed by a judge when she demanded where he  was from. His reply that he was Indian and had his ancestral village  in rural Maharashtra did not cut any ice with her”, he says.

Most of the Siddis  are farmers  or  laborers  and some like the Siddis of  Gir  become guides or drivers.

In tourist crowded Gir, they have cashed in on their African lineage by evolving a exotic dance which involves fire breathing, gymnastics and a lot of  prancing to the beat of the drums. Tourists are regaled by what they see as an African dance by Africans.

Many however claim that Siddis music has some resonance of Africa in their beats and rhythm harking to the southeast African Bantu tribes to whom they own their lineage.

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

 (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

7 Responses to “Siddis- The Lost African Tribe in India.”

  1. madhumita says:

    This is amazing 🙂 thank you for posting this.

  2. Dr. Fela Amiri Uhuru says:

    Good evening.
    How do i get in touch with Bosco Kaweesi, President of SIDDI Education society? Do you have his direct email and contact information? It would be much appreciated.
    Hope this message finds you well.
    Respectfully,
    Dr. Uhuru~

  3. Avaiya Jigar says:

    can you give further more data about siddi tribes on my mail?
    i want data about their lifestyle and about their economical and social activities.

    -thanks in advance

  4. dama says:

    Thanks Sanjay for the posting I always wondered how black Indians looked just like me but dare not ask them a question now I understand.thanks a lot.

  5. sumanth says:

    thanks for the information
    nice photos
    can we do a study camp from the college
    if there is any NGOs looking forward to contact
    the camp will be to see the and study about the tribes for 4 days

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