In ‘Modern’ And ‘Inclusive’ India, Why Is The Siddi Tribe Still Not Indian?

Posted by Aishwarya Chaturvedi in Society
January 18, 2018

“Victor Frankl, a prominent psychiatrist, often begins by asking his patients who suffer from a multitude of torments, “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answers he can often find the guideline for his psycho-therapy: in one life there is love for one’s children to tie to; in another life, a talent to be used; in a third, perhaps only lingering memories worth preserving. It is strange sometimes, to imagine one’s life without these key indicators of identity which shape the way we look at and exist in this world.

Dr. Frankl lived in isolation for a long time in a bestial concentration camp at Auschwitz. His father, brothers and wife were sent to gas chambers, and barring his sister, his entire family died. How could he— every value destroyed, with every possession lost, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination —how could he find life worth preserving.” – Viktor E Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

A month ago, while reading the above-mentioned 98-page masterpiece, I was reminded of the discomfort I had to face during my stay in Africa for about three years. Despite getting to lead a very lavish lifestyle, all I craved for was to return back. I identified such a craving as being rooted in my failure to identify myself as one of the people living there.

I found myself lucky enough to be able to return back to India at will, but have since been troubled with thoughts of the plight of people who neither have the resources, nor the freedom to do so. “Do such people exist in India?” This was the question that popped up in my head, to which, sadly, the answer  was, “Of course they do.”

This piece aims to critically examine the conditions under which a few selected tribes of African origin exist in our country. After thousands of years of existence on the Indian soil, what makes them ‘alien’ and us ‘Indian’? What are some of the key parameters to be considered while making a choice to tag or strip one of their national identity?

The answers to these questions can be best found in analysing cases of systematic omission of tribes, such as the Siddi tribe of Gujarat and the Jarawas, the Onges and the Sentinelese of the Andaman islands (who are credited as being the first migrators from east Africa who have resided in India for more than 60,000 years), by the State and the so called citizens of India. We should also analyse how these tribes fit into the discourse of development among marginalised societies in India.

I feel, in the aftermath of recent ‘political assassinations’ (as I choose to call them) of Gauri Lankesh – a prominent journalist who dared to have an independent political opinion in our so called ‘democratic’, ‘secular’ and ‘tolerant’ nation and that of Mohammed Afrazul – a Muslim migrant labourer from West Bengal, who was butchered and put to flames in Rajasthan, that questions surrounding the dual standards with which our society operates have become extremely relevant. In today’s era of globalisation, where even basic amenities of food, healthcare and education remain inaccessible for a large section of the underprivileged in our country, the repeated attacks on cultural and religious minorities by upper class and upper caste Hindus have made it really difficult for a large section of our society to relate to their national identity of being an Indian.

John F. Kennedy once said“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Considering the injustices faced by the weakest sections of our country, such a notion is by far the most detrimental to our growth. By acting on ideologies such as this, we have bluntly absolved ourselves of all the crimes that we commit against the most unfortunate and needy children of our motherland.

The time is ripe to equip these underprivileged masses of our population with a voice loud and deafening enough to actually be able to stare us in the face and ask for their rightful share in the Indian growth story – to ask, “What the hell has their country done for them?”

Juje Jackie Harnodkar, who happens to be from the Siddi community, worked with the Central government in Mumbai for more than 12 years. He was reduced to tears by the questions of a fellow department officer: “Are you African?” “What is the purpose of your visit to India?” and “What is your opinion about Indian hospitality for foreigners?”

This speaks largely about the flawed nature of our definitions of nation, nationality and citizenship. Juje’s story of years of systemic oppression is one among many and is enough to pose serious questions about how inclusive and accommodative ‘the land of diversity’ actually is.

In the words of professor Ashis Nandy, a prominent anthropologist and social scientist at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, “These tribes which occupy one of the most backward and remotest areas of India are supposedly placed even below the untouchables. They were brought to India in the 10th century as slaves and have remained so over the years and have been thus subjected to social, political and economic injustice.”

It is not that efforts have never been made by subsequent Indian governments to integrate the Siddi community into the fold of mainstream Indian society. But sadly, all such efforts have gone in vain. The problem has largely been that of a noble intention to rehabilitate them. In the 1980s, when the Siddi were given the status of a Scheduled Tribe, the intention was not to recognise them as Indians, but to make them win medals for India in the track and field events of the coming Olympics. In 1987, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) under its SAG (Special Area Games) program, categorically targeted the Siddi community and picked up the likes of Juje Jackie Harnodkar, Kamla Babu Siddi, and Philip Antony Siddi to form a regiment of Indo-African athletes. All of them did substantially well at district, state, national and international levels. After this, they were offered government jobs.

Kamla Babu Siddi, then a 15-year-old athlete, now a mother of two, vividly remembers her days during the camp sessions in the late 1980s, and thereafter, at the 6th South Asian Games, Dhaka in 1993, where she represented India. She says, “I have possibly done more for the country as compared to an average Indian, but have not been able to get even half the privileges an Indian gets.”

Today, being completely forgotten by the sports fraternity in the country, Kamla, in spite of being of African descent, identifies herself as an Indian and takes immense pride in her achievements. When posed once with the awkward question of why she doesn’t sell off her medals and jersey from the South Asian Games in 1993, she replied “This is all I have. They (medals) not only belong to me but to the entire nation. I would rather die than sell them off.”

This speaks largely about our failure to give respect, acknowledgement and the rightful place to these Indo-African tribes. They have put in years of silent effort into building this great nation called India.

The examples above, and many others, speak volumes about the double standards we Indians have managed to put in place. Somewhere in our minds, we are intimidated and embarrassed by a bunch of ‘pure African-looking’ people marching under the tricolour.

Having read about the Bantu warriors (of which the Siddis are the descendants), there seems to be no difference between them and the hundreds of Indian labourers who went to the Caribbean and whose descendants made the West Indies the best cricketers in the world, because they had pride in their history and their ability to survive. Unlike Indians, the indigenous West Indians, being less hypocritical in nature, have let the migrant communities become one of them over centuries.

When Bosco Kaweesi came to India in early 1980’s from Uganda to write a case study on the Siddis, he was shocked to the core to know of the plight of the Indo-African tribes in general, and that of Siddis in particular. Out of 50,000 inhabitants, not a single one of them had been educated. Now, as the president of the Siddi Education Society and the legal advisor of the All Africa Students Association, Bengaluru, Bosco decided to stay back and fight for the rights of the invisible sections of our society.

India is a nation where social evils such as class and caste hierarchies have been existent for centuries. Claims have been made for long that efforts have been made to move towards a more egalitarian society in the future, which would be free from the stigma of caste, creed and colour. In such a situation, the fact that it still takes an activist from Uganda to relocate to India to bring the plight of the Siddis to the limelight is an issue worth worrying about.

As per professor Ashis Nandy, “A common belief behind keeping the Indo-African communities under deep deprivation is the fact that these communities are taken to be intellectually incapable of engaging in any other activities apart from music and sports.” Here, the problem is not one of giving these communities ample opportunities to grow. Contrary to this belief, the Indian diaspora, on the other hand, which was initially believed to be a part of an inferior race in the United States, makes for one of the richest and the most successful classes today. The average annual income of an Indian-American is much more compared to an average American citizen today.

There have been similar cases of individuals who have fought against all odds to make a mark for themselves, in spite of coming from the Siddi community. Suntan Birji Siddi, who holds a masters degree in commerce, wants to enrol for a PhD and thereafter return to Kenya to contribute to the growth of his own land – one which is more accepting of him. At least Suntan is relieved at the thought of not being differentiated on the basis of his colour and looks.

This is both a sad and serious problem in India. Even educated Indo-Africans have failed to identify themselves as Indians, despite their ancestors living in India for centuries. But not all are as lucky: David Bastian, a 20-year-old Siddi, was forced to drop out of an engineering college in Tamil Nadu, primarily due to racial discrimination and economic deprivation.

In a country like India, where three million students availed education loans to the tune of ₹63,500 crore in the year 2015, a student from the tribal community is made to drop out. Even after centuries of existence, tribals hardly have any right to own property in India. In this context, Bastian’s argument of returning back to his own country – his motherland (Kenya, not India) – seems to have much merit and legitimacy.

Another interesting fact that makes people from Siddi community a little more Indian is their will to truly uphold the Indian value of secularism. Just a handful, approximately 55,000 Siddis, out of a 1.3 billion, practice religions ranging from Sufi Islam to Hinduism in Gujarat and Roman Catholicism in the south. Hiriyaru, or one’s ancestors, is a factor that binds all Siddis together, irrespective of religion.

A larger question then becomes that of identity. Here, it needs to be realised that an individual’s national identity can broadly be classified as being both psychological (identifying oneself with the broader idea of bharat mata and what it takes to be a part of it) and legal (falling in the framework of caste and class; created legally, such as the SCs and STs). Too many people around the world are prevented from accessing legal and social protections because they lack a legal identity. From countries like Kenya and the Dominican Republic to Macedonia and Nepal, insecure legal identity determines and sustains socio- economic and political exclusion.

Without the primary documentation needed for legal identification, basic rights and services like social allowances, health care, school enrolment, the right to vote, bank accounts, mobile phones, and the ability to move within and outside countries are often restricted or held out of reach. For these reasons, the right to a legal identity is fundamental to inclusive development. Identity documents serve as the very basis of social inclusion. The lack of access to a legal identity is by no means confined to Dalits. It is a right denied to many. A lack of legal identity hinders the ability of women and marginalised groups to exercise their civil and political rights and secure socio-economic benefits from the state. Administrative hurdles, poverty, limited awareness, and discriminatory legal provisions bar women and vulnerable groups everywhere from securing their citizenship or registering their marriage or child’s birth. This story is representative of how governments, the international community, and local civil society organisations all over the world can work hand-in-hand to secure real change.

Tribes such as the Siddis have been categorically denied access to this legal identity, making them reside at the outermost periphery of Indian society. As discussed earlier, it is only at the intersection of governments, the international community, and local civil society organisations, that solutions promising equality and justice to these sections of the society can be discussed.

Another way of looking at solving the above stated problem of social inclusion of marginalised sections of Indian society may be through the lens of race and nationalism. In his famous essay on nationalism, Rabindranath Tagore states, “It is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

India, in its efforts to imitate the west, has never been able to build the society which it has dreamt of. Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the west as the gospel truth and have lost their faith in humanity. We must remember, whatever weakness we cherish in our society will become the source of danger in politics. To this, Tagore says“The same inertia which leads us to our idolatry of dead forms in social institutions will create in our politics prison houses with immovable walls. The narrowness of sympathy which makes it possible for us to impose upon a considerable portion of humanity the galling yoke of inferiority will assert itself in our politics in creating tyranny of injustice.”

It needs to be taken into account that when our nationalists talk about ideals, they forget that the basis of nationalism is demanding – and should you choose to pursue it without rationale, it will take its toll on you. It is also interesting to note that the very people who are upholding these ideals are themselves the most conservative in their social practice.

We must remember that when we Indians try to draw nationalistic ideas from the west and apply them to the Indian context, we are already making a mistake. Despite race differences in the west, the peoples have solidified into a nation. Yet, we must remember that in the western countries the races can mingle, they can intermarry. In India, there is no common birth right. And when we talk of western nationality, we forget that the nations there do not have a problem like the caste system. These differences that have permeated so deep in the Indian society over centuries prevent us from giving the tribes such as the Siddi their rightful place in the society.

Nationalism and nationalistic identities can further be analysed from the lens of two broad ideas – ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism.

Ethnic patriotism/nationalism characterises the country or a nation in terms of ethnicity, which constantly incorporates elements of descent from past generations – that is, genophilia. It also incorporates thoughts of a culture shared by the present generation and its ancestors, usually through a common language. Enrolment in the country is hereditary. The state infers political authenticity from its status as the country of the ethnic group, and from its obligation to ensure national aggregation and encourage its integration.

On the contrary civic nationalism is the form of nationalism in which the state derives political legitimacy from the active participation of its citizenry, from the degree to which it represents the “will of the people”. As per my understanding, India, as a country, should adhere to the ideals of civic nationalism so as to be able to build a more egalitarian society for its diverse sets of citizens.

Quite contrary to this, we have always focused on identifying quite closely with the ethnic form of nationalism. Since independence, we have refused to identify ourselves as a Hindu nation despite a majority of our population being Hindu. But time and again, we have failed to overcome the distinctions of caste, class and creed to come to a common ground of development.

In light of the above issues, it is extremely difficult for India to be able to lay the foundation of an egalitarian society which promises a rightful place to tribes such as the Siddis. Various stakeholders must be willing to question  the voids deeply embedded in our society, and must be willing to solve them at their roots in order to build a society which is more inclusive of the interests of all of its citizens.