Siddis - A peaceful community oppressed, exploited trying to get into mainstream
Siddis - A peaceful community oppressed, exploited trying to get into mainstream
By Florine Roche
Nov 2: A melting pot of diverse customs, traditions, castes, communities, religions and ethnic groups, India is known for its unity in diversity and diversity in unity. One need not traverse hundreds of miles to get to know the real flavor of this diversity. For every 20 kms, one can find change in the customs, traditions, beliefs, food habits and even in the language adding to India’s unique and vibrant culture.
The physically beautiful and culturally rich district of Uttara Kannada has many feathers in its shining cap. Apart from its lush forests, flat topped hills, perennial waterfalls and pristine pearly beaches the district the many tribal communities of the district have played a pivotal role in enriching its already rich and diverse culture. Their culture, customs, rich folklore, rituals traditions perfectly assimilated with the local culture making Uttara Kannada a conundrum of assorted culture.
One can find ethnic communities like the Siddis, Halakki Okkaligas, Gaulis, Kunabis, Gondasand many other communities in many parts of the 12 taluks that form North Kanara district. Among them, the 40,000 odd Siddis is a major ethnic group which have made Uttara Kannada their home for more than 500 years now. These Siddis are spread over the forest areas Yellapur, Mundagodu, Haliyala, Joida, Ankola and Sirsi taluks of Uttara Kannada district. In the course of my official work, I met and interacted with many of them and realized that the community still remains economically, socially and educationally backward and marginalized.
Looks do matter
This ethnic community attracts our attention at the first glance because physically they resemble the Africans with their thick lips, broad mouth, curly hair, dark skin colour and robust body structure. Those who are unaware that Uttara Kannada is their hometown even mistake them to be Africans but in Indian clothes, speaking local languages like Konkani, Kannada and Marathi mix just like the locals. Till recently people used to call them as ‘Africas Kapri’ or ‘African monkey’ and even today there are instances of people questioning their ‘Indian-ness’. Siddis have taken such jibes and innuendos in their strides and even after being inhabitants of India for over five odd centuries they face suspicious and discriminating gazes wherever they go. In the prevailing circumstances the Siddis found the forests of Uttara Kannada as safe havens and these forests became their home and also their source of livelihood.
It was the Portuguese, Arabs and Dutch who were into slave trade brought the Siddis from East African forests to Goa as slaves during the 15th century. When they left Goa, the Siddis were left behind and they took shelter in the forest areas of Uttara Kannada. There are conflicting reports on how the name Siddi derived. Of course most Siddis are oblivious of their past and their ancestry and simply believe the word Siddi means the community which is ready (Sidha) to do any work considering that they are adept in alltypes of work. According to one theory the word derived from ‘sahibi’, an Arabic term of respect in North Africa, similar to the word ‘sahib’ in India.
Another theory says the name Siddi is derived from the title ‘Sayyid’ which was the name of the captains of the ships which brought them to the shores of India. Subrahmanya Bhat, a Kannada professor in Manchikeri Government Junior College has done extensive research on the Siddis and his narrative is nothing short of a poignant reminder of the struggles, hardships, exploitation, injustice, prejudices, discrimination, racism and humiliation suffered all these years. The dismal conditions in which they have been living all these years deprived of basic education, proper shelter, clothing and other social and economic benefits of the government clearly show that we have failed miserably in providing minimum basic facilities to the weaker sections.
Safer in dense forests
Prashanth Bhat of Dongri in Ankola taluk who has worked closely with the Siddis says, “When the Portuguese left the shores of India, the Siddis who were left behind here found solace in the quiet environs of the forests of Uttara Kannada. They tried to be away from civilized world because of the constant derision they faced at every step. It is a paradox that these people scared of civilization and also the civilized people but they are not frightened of the thick and deserted forests or the forest animals.” As a result their livelihood was based primarily on forest products like harvesting honey, hunting, making baskets, making chairs or cots and other artisan products.
Their dependence of forests deprived them of education and that proved to be their undoing. The constant jibes in schools, poverty and the step-motherly attitude dissuaded the Siddis from attending schools. Deyog Bosthyamv Siddi of Haliyala taluk which is one of the major hamlets of Siddis has now taken up the mantle of leadership of Siddis. He says “The school atmosphere was not encouraging for Siddis. I remember how I was hit on the head with a thick rod by the teacher when some other student had complained against me. My entire head reeled and I could see stars due to the impact and I felt so helpless. The teachers were never kind to us and we were punished for no mistakes or even for the silliest mistakes”. There was exploitation even in other forms says Deyog. Siddis have been able to maintain their
original features mainly because there haven’t been inter caste marriages. “There was exploitation everywhere. Our women were exploited but we could not dare even look at other women.”
Having settled in the forests going to schools was not easy and their poor financial status was an impediment and the Siddis remained educationally, socially, economically and politically backward. When the forest products could not sustain them the Siddis took to agriculture working in the fields of those who had lands and farms. They were badly in need of work and the hapless Siddis became easy targets of exploitation. They were used as bonded labourers, paid very low wages despite working long hours and even their children were made to work long hours. The forest products they made were bought for low rates and much time it is the middleman who enjoyed the fruits of their hard work. As Prashanth Bhat says “The Siddis were in need of work to stay away from hunger and the only alternative was to work for the landlords who used to own huge farms. In return they could avert their hunger but could not improve their economic condition. Many remained as bonded laborers as they could not come out of the vicious circle of poverty. In the process of working with the landlords the Siddis began to imbibe the cultural aspects of the locals.”
Damami - More than a music instrument
Though Siddis have given up their original culture, language and customs by adopting local language, food and dressing, they were always treated as outsiders, something which the Siddis could not digest considering that they have given everything for the country they live. They have given up their original culture, customs and habits to assimilate with the local culture. The only aspect they have retained of their original culture is the use of ‘Damami’ a musical instrument which they use to display their happiness, sorrows, trepidations and during celebrations. No Siddi festivities or celebrations are complete without the Damami. Team leader of Sanskaritik Kala Vedike Juliana Pedru Fernandes points out, “It is the very sound of Damami that makes us we feel we are one whatever might be the religion we practice. During the annual festival of worshipping Siddinyas we come together and celebrate. We dance all through the night to the tunes of Damami. Dance is a must for all Damami beats and every Siddi child learns to play the Damami and also dance.” Their allegiance to Damami can be attributed to the fact that it was the sound of Damami that made the Siddis relate to one another during their turbulent voyage to India in ships, says Deyog Bosthyamv Siddi.
Subrahmanya Bhat points out that the Siddis still consume red ants also called in local parlance as ‘Sauli’ which they grind and make chutney. “Siddi women able to get back to their routine within three days of the child birth because of the red ant chutney they consume and this practice is prevalent among Siddis even today,” he says.
Shining diamonds of sports
The physical structure and their capacity to do any kind of work hard has been the major strength of the Siddis. Their endurance to perform any kind of menial work even with meager food is a major boon to the Siddis. This quality of Siddis was recognized especially at a time when African athletes began to make waves in long distance races in the international fora in the mid 80’s. In 1987 with the initiative of Margaret Alva, the then sports minister, a Special Area Games Programme was started to groom sports talent among Siddis in Karnataka and Gujarath considering their African genetics. Many young Siddi children were selected and groomed and some Siddis like Mary, Siddi, Juje Jackie, Mingel Siddi and others were able to shine at the national level whereas Kamala Siddi went on to win medal at the Asia level.
Despite the success, the scheme came to an abrupt end in 1992-93. According to hushed whispers, it is said that the innocent Siddi girls were exploited in the hostels and hence the scheme had to be stopped though it is still not clear why the scheme was stopped.
Kamala Siddi who now works for the railways talks about the discrimination she faced even in the sports field. She says, “There were athletes who questioned our Indian-ness and many used to chide us with comments aimed at demoralizing us. But our coaches protected us from such insinuations motivating us only to concentrate on our events. However, it is true that sports gave a complete new life to many Siddis including me.” Kamala’s daughters are now continuing the sports legacy of their mother.
As the special area programme yielded desired results in sports efforts are still on to pick sports talent from among the Siddis and groom them. Juje Jacki Hanodkar, who was one of the beneficiaries of this special scheme and works Mumbai in central governments’ Provident Fund office also coaches Siddi children and is channelising his efforts to bring a medal for India in Athletics in 2024 Olympics. India’s last medal in athletics in Olympics was in 1900 and Juje is bent upon filling that one quarter of a century’s vacuum. “Siddis have the natural stamina and their structure is made up for athletics. With some extra efforts, I hope we will be able to win a medal for India in Athletics in 2024 and we have been making earnest preparation for this,” Juje says.
The Siddis have been included in the list of Scheduled Tribe in 2003 and education has also brought in some changes for the better. Let us hope the Siddis will be able to come out of the shackles of poverty and discrimination by showing their true potential and contribute to our rich cultural heritage.
Watch: The African Community That Is India’s Hope For An Olympic Medal
The Siddis are a community that migrated from East Africa to India between the 15th and 19th century. In 1987, the Sports Authority of India set up the Special Area Games Scheme to scout and train members of the Siddi community to perform as athletes for India on the international stage. Despite the glory they have brought to the nation, the Siddis have to battle racism on a daily basis, often being treated as outsiders in the country that they have given their everything for. The Siddis have now settled primarily in the states of Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. They came as merchants, sailors, slaves and mercenaries, going on to even become rulers. Today, they are India’s hope for an Olympic medal in track and field.
The film explores the impact that this programme and its closure in 1993 had on this small community. Through the point of view of Juje Jackie Harnodkar, an ex-athlete from the Karnataka chapter of the SAG program for Siddis, we realise how sports empowered these African-Indians and how restarting the SAG program for its talented youth might just be the way out of racism that this community faces on a daily basis. Winning a medal in the 2024 Olympics might be a great add-on too.
This piece was originally published on 101india.