Ten kilometres from the Yellapur taluka, in the woods of Uttar Kannada, there is Siddigav village, a settlement of Siddi people, where Dinith Siddi lives. Dinith, who is the President of Karnataka Siddi Association, was keen on his mobile network becoming available, so he could to talk to me. He had not been able to complete his conversation with me due to network problems on an earlier day.
Before I could end my first question about the major issues the Siddis face, he told me, “If government wants to take the forest rights from us, then they should provide us ration grains entire year. Forest is the only thing which kept us fed for generations. They shouldn’t take it from us. We protect forests much better than forest officers.”
Siddi’s complaint isn’t very different from the many forest-dwelling tribes of India, who complain about big companies and the government taking away their right to live and earn from the forest. However, the history of the Siddi tribe is slightly different from most Scheduled Tribes of India. In that history lie their present woes, and it is the difference therein that makes Dinith Siddi not hope much from why he doesn’t have much hope from a government-run sports programme that has been restarted in the area on the community’s request.
Siddi people are said to be the descendants of Bantu people of East Africa. In India, they live largely in the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. They were bought to India by Arab traders in the 7th century and subsequently the Portuguese brought them as a product of slave trade. After slavery was abolished, the Siddis in Karnataka chose the forest for safety, but became isolated from the rest of India in the process.
The Siddis in Karnataka are spread in the ghat regions of Uttar Kannada, Dharwad and Belgavi districts. In Uttar Kannada where their population is concentrated, the Siddis reside in forests near Yellapur, Haliyal, Ankola and Mundagod talukas.
Although Siddi people have adopted speaking Indian languages and wearing Indian attire they still retained their culture in Daaman and Dhammal (their dance forms) and cuisine. They seldom marry with outside their community. So their physical features make a large part of Indian population to mistake them for Africans. The sufferings of Siddis range from abuse by forest authorities inside the forests to racist abuse when they step outside the forests. Since after independence they preferred not to step out of forests, the Siddi community is largely illiterate. According to a research paper from JNU by Surendra Kumar, some of the Siddis lost their lands to landlords, who took advantage of their illiteracy.
Some empowerment of the community happened under former sports minister Margaret Alva, who introduced the Special Area Games Programme under Sports Authority of India. The first project was launched under the programme in November 1986 with an objective of nurturing a population group which has ‘natural’ aptitude for sports by giving the group an exclusive training in well-equipped SAG centers.
The programme was borne out of the idea that the performance of African origin people in the field of sports and especially athletics is good. Though the plan might appear casteist or racist, but Alva thought that the plan is good as it would only bring empowerment to those with fewer opportunities.
Juje Jackie Harnodkar Siddi, born in Wada village of Karwar district in Karnataka, was one such athlete among some 30 from his village who were selected in the second round of selection in 1989. After 2 months of training in New Delhi, they were brought to Bengaluru where they were able to continue with sports along with their education in Kannada medium.
Even in a big city, people weren’t any less racist. “While studying we faced (a) lot of discrimination from all angles. That (is) the reason we never mixed with the local community,” Juje told me. He however says his immediate coaches and managers were supportive.
Siddi athletes like Louis Siddi, Philip Anthony Siddi, and Kamala Babu Siddi did win medals in State and National level competitions. Former athletes were able to purchase farms, fund their children’s education, and get self-employment. Those who performed exceptionally well were selected in future programs of Sports Authority of India.
However, according to Juje Siddi, they faced setbacks a few years later. “Government started (this) as (a) trial…because many experiments (were) done,” he told me.
Candidates who didn’t perform well in a particular game were pushed for another one within a few months, Juje says. “That’s the reason some athletes didn’t perform well. Finally they thought there is no hope. Better to discontinue programme. In the year 1992, they closed down hostel,” he told me.
Despite the good intentions, the programme ended up like a science experiment, and the members of the tribe it’s unfortunate subjects. After being hauled up for training, those who didn’t perform well were sent back to the village.
“That’s the end of Siddi kids in sport arena. Because lot of odd problems back home, you can’t practice there or do sports there. That’s (the) reason I didn’t want to come back to village,”Juje says. He was one of the many athletes to return from the programme crying. But Juje preferred to stay in the city, started working with the Benguluru Police, and later at an EPF office in Mumbai.
But even now, the appearance of an African means he is taken for a tourist or racially abused as an ‘African’. In a video by 101 India he recalls how his son was called a chimpanzee.
In 2014 former athletes and community representatives were able to convince the government to reconsider restart of SAG program in Siddi regions. They started with 20 candidates with the goal of preparing for the 2024 Olympics. The central government has allocated Rs. 16.44 crore for the programme, which also caters to other Scheduled Tribes, for the current financial Year.
There are now 30 athletes under training in Mundagod. But Louis Braig Siddi, one of the trainers, complains about the lack of facilities, like a proper ground and athlete’s diet, which are creating hurdles in running the programme. Juje Siddi, therefore, expects adequate and direct funding for the program. He suggests that if the government is incompetent, it should privatise the programme.
Dinith Siddi on the other hand asks for internal reservation for Siddis in the quota for Scheduled Tribes. As the Siddis never left the woods, and especially after the 1993 closure of the SAG program, the new generation doesn’t have the capability to compete, he says.
The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.