Racism towards black lives is not just a problem for the Western world.
On 3 June last year, a video of three men, Samir Majgul (21) Mustaq Bhalaya (20) and Kanji (20), tied up to a chair being brutally beaten up, went viral on the internet.
As reported by the First Post, these men were visiting Veraval – a hub of fishing industry in Gujarat, Western India, to look for work. And instead of finding work, got falsely accused by the locals, to be involved in an ongoing gang war between two groups of that area.
What transpired later was a harrowing mob attack on the trio, with the crowd jeering, “Thrash them so hard, they bleed” in the background.
These men had no idea what their fault was except for one – “They Looked Different.”
The victims belonged to the ‘Siddi Community’, a diaspora that traces back its lineage from Africa. The ‘Siddis’ are one of many African groups, who were brought to India as a part of the slave trade 400 years ago. Some of them even managed to navigate the Indian social hierarchy and rose to prominent positions of generals, admirals & administrators under the Mughal Empire. Hence, playing an essential role in shaping the Indian history between 15th-17th century.
However, the life of a ‘Siddi’ in modern India tells an entirely different story.
Reduced to a population of 70,000 in a country of billions. The community is now living on the fringes of the society, excluded from Indian culture.
Expressing concerns over the video, Dr. Omar Ali, an award-winning historian of Global Indian Diaspora & Dean of Lloyd International Honours College, dissects the cause of racism and other factors that have contributed to their reduced numbers.
“There is a kind of prejudice for phenotypically darker skin people, even if you don’t identify as a person from African descent. The situation has never been great for these people, but there has been an increased level of insecurity off late.”
He believes the reason why they are disappearing is a function of poverty and assimilation. Siddi’s do not belong to one faith, but have adopted different religions according to the society they settled in. However, a majority of them are practising Muslims.
“This particular moment of Hindu nationalism and racism towards many people are a particular threat towards the Siddi people. There is a sense of defensiveness and fear that many Siddis feel. They don’t see themselves as other than Indians, they see themselves as Indians with African decent, they have been there for generations and even centuries for some families,” expressed Dr.Ali.
Many are residents of the states of Gujarat, Karnataka and Telangana (Western and Southern India). Siddis have fought poverty and discrimination while striving to achieve recognition in society.
In 1987, some Siddis were scouted by The Sports Authority of India to represent the country in the Olympic games. The Indian government had set up a ‘Special Areas Game’ (SAG) programme to push the diaspora into sports because of their ‘African genes’ that they felt were likely to be more athletic than Indian.
Despite the inherent racism evident in this assumption itself, the Siddi’s lived up to ‘expectations’, becoming the pride of the nation by bringing home various medals. More importantly, by producing female athletes, like Kamala Babu Siddi, who broke the record in girl’s pentathlon, at the age of 15. However, lack of structure in SAG’s functioning and bureaucracy took their only opportunity to shine away from them in the following years.
Luke Duggleby, a British Photographer, launched ‘The Sidi Project’ documenting Sidi culture & tradition. He narrates his first experience of meeting a Siddi, that drove him to spread more awareness about the existence of this community through his work.
“I went to visit the communities in Karnataka and flew into Goa Airport. The man picking me up was a Siddi who works as a teacher and has a University degree. At the airport, he was stopped by airport police in his car and they wouldn’t believe he was Indian even though he spoke the local dialect. I know several who have attained master’s degrees. And then, once they finish education they then have the battle of entering the workforce which will often favour other Indians instead,” he said.
Siddis are not the only African diaspora in the Indian Subcontinent. Spread across parts of South-East Asia, they are known by different names such as Habshi, Kafirs or Sheedis.
To understand whether their life was any different in other parts of the Indian Subcontinent, I interviewed Dr. Sureshi Jayawardene, a Social Scientist & Co-founder of Afrometrics Research Institute.
Her extensive study on the current living conditions of African diasporas in South East Asia throws light on the similarities between the people of these communities and their governments in Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.
“In Sri Lanka, there are a lot different cultural festivals that Africans will be invited to for performance, and its all a part of a display of cultural diversity within the country. But does not protect or give them additional access to decent employment, home, or having electricity and education for their children..” emphasized Dr. Jayawardene.
“It has to come from the national government, where they actually care about the community instead of just showcasing their national diversity”, she added.
In the Indian context, she believes the government must ensure enforcement of ‘The Schedule Tribe’ measures for the diaspora, which is similar to affirmative action policies in the United States. To assert the importance of making room for representation, she quotes a statement by a Sidi Woman MPA in Pakistan- Tanzeela Qambrani- who in solidarity with George Floyd, spoke out in public:
“The black community in Pakistan is being punished for sins they did not commit, for having ancestry in Africa.”
Apart from the African diaspora on the Indian Subcontinent, African students who move to India for higher education have also reported differential behaviour towards them, when it comes to renting a house or buying groceries.
Thomas (name changed), a native of South Sudan, is currently in the final year of his law degree at Pune University situated in Pune city, India.
He has been living in India for the past 5 years and serves as the president of the African Association of Students in India (AASI). He has witnessed incidents of racial bias from Indian authorities towards black students, who approach them for help.
“Every time I go and voice the authorities on behalf of the Black society or an African person who is caught somewhere, what I have witnessed is that the African Person is always wrong! And, the authorities don’t want to know the truth about the incident. All they know if African has reported, he/she is a bad person and deserves to go to jail.”
He also raised concerns about black men being portrayed as villains in Hindi movies, which creates an additional fear in the minds of the people.
“Besides in Indian movies, they have many times portrayed bad and corrupt guy as African who is being beaten up by 6-7 Indians. Those movies are seen by kids and women, who after coming out of the theatre, tend to base image of a bad guy as an African, that only increases racism and portrays us as drug dealers.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has led to global awareness of the different layers of racism existing in numerous societies, that still goes unnoticed today.