After an encounter with this Ind0-African community in Karnataka, India, I learnt that there are many faces of India and that being ‘Indian’ is more then skin deep.
I remember the first time I encountered members of the Siddi community on a day trip to Karnataka from Goa last year. I was honestly fascinated. It was genuinely the first time I had seen black people in India.
I wasn’t fascinated because of their skin color though, I was fascinated because they were Indian. The fascination I felt myself experiencing towards these individuals somewhat surprised me and made me realize that I hadn’t yet managed to see past my own idea of who an ‘Indian’ was and what an ‘Indian’ looked like.
The sheer diversity of India is one of the things I love most about the country. The Siddis (to me) were a fascinating community of people and coming into contact with its members that day kick-started my quest to not only find out more about them but try to understand what exactly being ‘Indian’ means.
In every way the Siddis are ‘Indian citizens;’ they speak the language, they live the culture, they identify as Indians themselves. They only thing that makes them different to the next Indian is their skin color and physical appearance. Separated by appearance, if not by culture then, outside of their small communities they are largely regarded as ‘outsiders’ in their own land.
The Siddi people are an Indo-African tribal community that descended from the Bantu peoples of Africa. They settled in India in the 7th century in Gujrat, Maharastra and Andhra Pradesh. The arrival of the first Siddis on Indian soil is contested. Some say they were brought over as slaves by the Portuguese whilst others say they came as soldiers with the Arab community.
On first glance, the Siddis look nothing like the locals so they instantly stand out. Despite having lived in India for centuries, the Siddi people have managed to retain their typically African features because they marry within their communities. It is extremely rare for a Siddi to marry a person from outside their community.
Because the Siddi people captured my curiosity, however, I found that in every other sense, they are ‘Indians.’ They dress in the same way as other locals, they talk Hindi fluently as well as the local languages, the men typically work as drivers or security guards whilst the women stay in the home, their staple diets consist largely of rice, dal and pickles. Despite all of this, I also learnt that they are subject to frequent discrimination and once outside of their small communities, they are basically ‘foreigners.’
The Siddi people caught national attention in the late 1980s when the Sports Authority of India decided that because of their African lineage, their natural athleticism could be used to win medals for India at world sports competitions. The Special Area Games Project was set up and a number of Siddi children were selected to be coached as athletes. The programme did a lot for both the Siddi people and for the country. It brought acceptance to the Siddis and enabled them to gain jobs and India won medals. Kamala Mingel Siddi from Karnataka, for example is regarded as one of the best national and international Siddi athletes!
After some years, however, the programme was cut and the Siddis were asked to return to their homes and back to their lives as outsiders.
The experiences of the Siddi people appears to be a case of as long as they are doing something positive for the country, then they are accepted as one of its own. If they aren’t, well then they aren’t and are largely viewed as outsiders. It’s not just in India where such thinking exists. A similar ideology exists to some extent in the UK. Take British-born athlete and Gold Medalist Mo Farah for example. Before he became an Olympic gold medalist and became known as one of the ‘greatest British sportsmen of all time,’ he was an immigrant who moved to London from Somalia at the age of eight and ‘didn’t speak a word of English.’ His outstanding athletic ability and success at winning titles for the country, however, have cemented his status as a Great British athlete and even earned him a knighthood.
The Siddi people want to be accepted as citizens of the nation and if sports is the way that this can be achieved, then they are happy to represent their country on the world stage and win medals for India.
In India, Africans in general have a bad reputation. They are often labelled as drug dealers or the women as prostitutes and are subjected to much hostility and discrimination in society. I am not yet in an enlightened enough position to know where these unjust stereotypes come from (but I would bet that fear of difference and a lack of/unwillingness to understanding may play a part), but i have witnessed enough and read enough to know that they are a problem and need to be addressed.
So then, back to my initial question of what does it mean to be an ‘Indian.’ I still don’t know. But what I do now know though, thanks to the Siddi people, is that there are many faces of India and being ‘Indian’ is way more than skin deep.