Wednesday, 4 March 2015

People of African origin in India -Does it sound strange? - an historical anomoly!

Among the many different ethnic groups and people scattered across the vast Indian sub-continent, perhaps the most unusual  are the Siddis who are believed to be descended from Bantu people of Southeast Africa. Their presence in conservative India is more than an historical anomaly or an accident.
Soon after the discovery of the new world and subsequent establishments of European colonies in 1400s,  there was a demand for farm workers. This led to the  formation of slave trades especially by Portuguese, Spanish and British colonists. African people mostly from west African coast were moved en masse to the New World to work under pathetic conditions  on tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations. A smaller number of Africans were brought (or forcibly taken) eastward to India, mostly from East Africa, and, it is believed, were employed as soldiers, entertainers and slave-laborers by the various princely states of India.

Siddi womwn of African origin,India
Siddis, Indian people of African
People of African origin.Siddis folk dancers

This migration is believed to have lasted from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Sultans of Islamic world  in the 13th and 14th centuries used the African people drawn from the  lower Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan (the Nile area) as slave-soldiers in their armies that won many wars.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Portuguese seafarers, who had established a colony in India, also imported additional black African slaves there for various tasks.
Their long line of descendants  now live in communities mainly in Gujarat and Karnataka in the south and also in  smaller communities  in southern India, Sri Lanka, Goa, as well as Iran and Afghanistan. Despite their long stay in India,their assimilation is slow and  they have their own culture, music and cutom  and are recognized as Africans.

Siddis, forming a small community, are generally very poor and live in isolated areas far away  from from “mainstream.”Many of them are not aware of presence of other Siddis of African roots in other parts of India.Their religion is  mostly Christianity or Islam and do not belong to the Hindu community because of rigid Caste system and its inherent hierarchal sub divisions. They are, in many places intermarry low caste Indian natives.

Despite partial abolition of the slave trade by the British during the colonial time - thanks to eminent British politician like Wilberforce  and Edmund Burke, a small number of male and female African slaves continued to be shipped to the western coasts of South Asia, especially to Makran, Baluchistan, Pakistan and Gujarat, where they were mostly employed as servants and bodyguards at the courts of local rulers.

Some facts:

  - Vast majority were brought to the Indian subcontinent as slaves by Arab and Portuguese merchants.

 - The first batch of Siddis was thought to have landed in India in 628 AD at the Bharuch port and later during  the first Arab Islamic invasions of the subcontinent in 712 AD.

 - Delhi ruler Muhammad bin Qasim's Arab army, called ''Zanjis'' had a large contingent of African slave-soldiers. Mostly they allied with the Mogul Empire in its power-struggle with the powerful Maratha clans..

 - Malik Ambar, a great warrior and prominent Siddi figure in Indian history (not well quoted) allied himself with Marathas  and won them many wars against the moguls and literally became  their "military guru.''Marathas learned the nuances of effective ''guerrilla warfare tactics'' from Siddis against  treacherous Mogul armies and won several expeditions.TheMuslim rulers of India never followed the war norms and were associated with looting, arson civilian killing, etc.

 - The town of Khirki founded by Malik Ambar, became what is now called  Aurangabad city in Maharastra, W. India.

 - The total poulation of Sddis communities in India is 20,000–55,000, the main centers being Hyderabad in India and Makran and Karachi in Pakistan, besides  pockets of Gujarat and Kanataka.

 - ''Members of this community, which predominantly lives in the northern districts of Karnataka, are still treated as untouchable in many parts of the State, according to D. Shantaraju, a member of this tribe.''(vide The Hindu dated July 29, 2011)

- It is quite interesting to note that Siddis believe that the US President Barack Obama shares their gene pool and that they were anxious to gift a bottle of honey to him on his visit to India in 2010 as a token of their purported shared ancestry.

The “lost Africans” of India who carry the  rich legacy of their forgotten original mother land are now part of the Indian society thus adding a new dynamism to this land of diversity and make it more colorful and vibrant. The state and central government agencies should chalk out programs and grants to improve their quality of life and recognize this nomadic community of African origin
on par with other native tribal Indian communities.