In the 7th Century, during the Arabic conquest, hundreds of African people migrated to India with the Arabs as slaves. These people belonged to the diverse groups of the Bantu tribe, which originated from the Central and Southern Africa, therefore being known as Zanji (a reference to the Zanzibar Channel in southeastern Africa). As late as the 19th Century, since the origin and twilight of Mughal reign in the subcontinent, the Bantu people were referred to as Habshis, Persian for Abyssinia (ancient Ethiopia).
These Bantu people were designated as royal slaves. Considering their loyalty and natural strength, they served as royal guards for the Mughal royalties. Some Habshis climbed the ladder of hierarchy and even governed princely states and cities under the Mughal flag.
Consequentially, they earned the title of sahibi (Respect in Arabic) or sayyid (Captain in Arabic). In the present era, the Descendents of the Indo-Bantu tribe are known as the Siddi people, and researchers believe that their tribe’s name is a loose derivation of the aforementioned Arabic titles.
To escape slavery, the Siddis scattered across the woodlands of the Indian subcontinent, and now they are prevalent in the rural areas of Gujarat, Karnataka, and Hyderabad. Throughout time, the Siddis have inhibited the local Indian languages and culture, while preserving their African heritage through rituals, dances, and the Swahili language. Although they religiously practice indigeneity, the majority of Siddis are Muslims, while some have converted to Hinduism and Catholicism.
Today, the Siddi’s are recognized as the Scheduled Tribes. The Siddis, predominantly, live in secluded villages with very few visiting the urban areas to earn a standard of living. They are an endogamous group; hence, they preserve their ethnicity through cross-cousin marriages.
The highest populace of the Siddi people resides within the Gir forest in Gujarat. The United Nation’s documentary The Siddis: India’s Forgotten Africans, showcases the economic lifestyle of the Siddis in Gujarat. The documentary revolves around Imran, who is a direct descendent of Bantu slaves bought by the Nawab of Junagarh from the Portuguese in the 19th Century.
Today, Imran lives in a village within the Gir Forest and works as a safari tour guide. On the weekends, Imran and his friends perform ethnic African dance in hotels as entertainers. This opportunity provides a platform to spread awareness about their existence and become an additional source of revenue.
In 1896, the Government of India’s Department of Youth Affairs and Sports initiated the Special Area Games (SAG) Scheme. The Sports Authority of India implemented the scheme with the sole purpose of identifying and training sports persons from tribal, rural, hilly and coastal regions of the country. Since 1900, India had never won an Olympic medal in track and field. Hence, SAG was an excellent avenue to utilize the natural strength and athleticism of the young men and women of the Siddi tribe to achieve glory in the forthcoming Olympic events.
Kamala Babu Siddi is known as the most prolific athlete produced by the Siddi community. At the age of 15, she was the National Record holder in the junior girl’s pentathlon. She later won one bronze medal in 100m hurdles in 1993 SAF Games, Dhaka, and three gold medals in World Police Fire Games at Melbourne in the same year.
Unfortunately, the SAG was scrapped six years later in 1993 with many criticisms. In 2014, some former athletes and representatives of the Siddi community, like Philip Anthony Siddi, successfully persuaded the Union Government to revive the SAG scheme with a budget allocation of 11.5 crore rupees. Still, despite their attempts, the revival of the scheme has been a failure due to a lack of facilities because of the inefficient allocation of resources.
Since pre-independence India, as the subcontinent was urbanizing under the British rule, millions migrated from the rural areas to urban areas, giving up their land, and became part of the labour force. The tribal communities who stayed with their land were looked upon as wild, barbaric, and unruly (Aier, 2013).
Post-independence, the tribal communities (recognized as Scheduled Tribes) are classified in the lowest strata of social hierarchy. Asha Stuart’s award-winning short film The Lost Tribe of Africa highlights the life of a Siddi man in Karnataka narrated by Ramnath Siddi, a social activist.
Ramnath Siddi unveils that Siddi’s are marginalized as untouchables by the upper class like any other ST communities. Ramnath Siddi and his fellow Siddi were born in India. They legally hold Indian citizenship and speak the local languages fluently, but they are alienated by fellow Indians because of their African lineage. People call their skin dirty and their physiognomy ugly. Despite legally owning their land, the Siddi’s face the challenge of being illegally forced out of villages they live in by local communities.
The tribal communities are the foundation of the Indian race, but they are stereotyped as wild, uncivilized, primitive beings who live in trees, wear leaves and hunt their food. People of tribal communities who live in urban areas are victims of such stereotypes and face racial slurs in the form of monkey chants and hateful questions. The caste system is not the only source of discrimination; the quota reservation for ST, SC, and OBC in universities and jobs fuels such hate.
I belong to the Oraon tribe of Jharkhand through my father’s lineage. I have been brought up as a secular person, and I have never used a quota to avail of a seat in any university or company. I was born in a city, I live an urban lifestyle, and I have been educated in the top schools and colleges in the country. But I have experienced racism in big cities of Bangalore and Pune, as well as in my hometown, Jamshedpur.
The moment people figure out my ancestry, they have questions like- “Do you live in proper houses or trees?” “Do you dance like monkeys around a campfire?” All of these have come from well-educated, privileged people. Such ill-treatment makes me question myself- “Am I cursed to bear my father’s title?”
The problem with the case of racism in India is that we have normalized it. Words like Kallu, Chinki, and Adivasi are so casually used as an insult that neither the user nor the victim understands the degree of felony. The entertainment industry is a major culprit of normalizing racism in India.
The ridicule of characters with black skin, aspects of tribal origin, fat people, and above all, women, for a comedic purpose, has concealed the evil of racism. Racism in India is different from racism abroad, and it is difficult to eradicate because we the people of India don’t want to accept that we are racist, especially towards our tribal people.