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The Untold Story of Afro-Indians

The Untold Story of Afro-Indians
Video Caption: 1 Diplo’s 2019 VMAs, Themed Suit

Wada Village in India and Vanga Village in Kenya

If you are African and you take a stroll through a Yellapur Market in India’s Karnataka State, you will bump into the occasional Afro-Indian as she shops for vegetables and spices that abound in the market. She will speak to you in an Indian accent, because she is Indian. If you don’t know about Afro-Indians, also known as Siddis or Habshi, you will wonder why she is both Indian and black. You will see young black men with box haircut. If they remain silent, you will be convinced that they are from somewhere in Africa. But you will wonder why they look quite at home, not tourists like yourself. Then they will respond to your greetings in a distinctively Indian accent and again, you will fold your brow in puzzlement.

Yellapur is frequented by Siddis because the forest adjacent villages that many of them inhabit are near the town. One of these villages is Wada. Walking into this village feels like walking into Vanga village in Kenya’s Kwale County. The same palm trees, same dusty pathways and similar laid back atmosphere. As you wade deeper into the village, you will come across old men and young boys herding goats, carefree, just like people in Vanga. But at a deeper psychological level, the Vanga and Wada communities are worlds apart. 

In Vanga, the local community has a deep-rooted sense of identity and belonging. They don’t have to prove their Kenyan status to anybody. They don’t live on the margins of society. They are not discriminated against. But for the Siddi community in Wada village, identity is a slippery creature. India is the only home they know yet it doesn’t quite feel like home.

If you spend quality time with them, you will sense their African vibes. They are Indian and you are African, but your ancestors were related. You can feel it in the warm handshake and the curiously intimate gaze in their eyes. Yet they are Indian. They even have that uniquely Indian side-to-side head-tilt.

Some of their fellow Indians, those who are losing their humanity, refer to them as bander, Hindi for monkey. I learned this word back in 2016 when there was a spate of racist attacks in India. At that time, many Africans in India reported multiple instances in which they were referred to as bander. Even more tragic, in May that year, Congolese teacher Masonda Kitanda Olivier died in an attack in Delhi. A week later, six Africans, including two women and a priest who was on his way home with his wife and baby, were attacked by men with cricket bats.

Why am I bringing this up, seven years later? Because racism doesn’t stop just because it’s no longer headline news. And also because the Siddi can’t just depart India and hopefully forget about any racist instances. India is their home. They are India.

There are an estimated 150,000 Afro-Indians who have been living in India for centuries. They mostly live in the rural areas of Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Hyderabad City in Telangana State.  The neighboring country of Pakistan also has Afro-Pakistanis who are known as Sheedi.

Afro Indians boast of roots that stretch back to East Africa’s Bantu people. Arab slave traders ripped away their ancestors from East Africa’s tropical terrain as early as the 7th Century. A few centuries later, the Portuguese took the slavery baton before eventually ceding ground to the British. Today, they stand as a testament to the enduring spirit of a people who, though scattered by the winds of fate, have woven themselves into the tapestry of India's rich history.

However, their Indian History is rooted in East Africa. That’s why when you meet the Siddi, you might think that they are from Kenya or Tanzania. Although their ancestors were basking in African sunshine hundreds of years ago, today one third of India's Siddi Community lives in Gadgera, Karnataka State. Although this is the only home they know, Africa flows in their veins and screams on their faces. Yet many of them have zero knowledge about Africa.

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A Siddi Girl - Indian but also African

The first Siddi Lawmaker in India

In July 2020, India’s ruling party – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – nominated Shantaram Siddi to the Karnataka legislative council. He became the first Indian lawmaker from Karnataka’s Siddi community. It’s telling that Shantaram Siddi was also his community’s first graduate. These two historic incidents exemplify the Siddi community’s marginalization.

After Shantaram’s election, a fellow leader from the Siddi Community uttered words that capture the unfortunate plight of the black Indians, “We are thrilled that after so many years of being part of India, having given our sweat and blood to the country, our community has finally been recognized.”

It boils down to recognition. Being seen and heard.

Another Siddi who has similarly spotlighted the Siddi is Jayaram Siddi, the community’s first ever lawyer. In 2011, he graduated from law school in Bangalore. As fate would have it, he was encouraged to study Law by Bosco Kaweesi, a Ugandan activist for African immigrants in Bangalore. In so doing, the Ugandan national, who has lived in India since 2004 and is married to a Siddi woman, played a vital role in granting the Siddi community their first lawyer.

Despite living in India for centuries, members of the Siddi community continue feeling invisible to the mainstream Indian society. That’s why the recognition that came through Shantaram’s election, led to those powerful six words, “our community has finally been recognized.”

However, this recognition will only make sense if India embraces the Siddi fully. Indeed, India’s State and National policies must unlock the doors of integration and empowerment for the Siddi. There are two policies that have attempted to do this albeit in a half-hearted manner.

The first policy is known as Scheduled Tribe status. For years, the Siddi Community has been fighting for Scheduled Tribe status. For them, this Status isn’t just about paperwork and political maneuvering. It’s about claiming their stake as full members of the Indian society.

In Gujarat State where many Siddi reside, the State has only granted tribal status to Siddis living in Saurashtra region. Those living outside this region are only considered Siddi but not tribal yet they are exactly the same as their counterparts in Saurashtra region.

Consequently, they are deprived of all the benefits that are due to tribal communities from both the Central and State Governments. Gujarat State Budget caters for tribal welfare schemes so the Siddi who are not part of this don’t enjoy this critical benefit.

That’s why this Scheduled Tribe status is vital to the Siddi community and must be granted to all of them.

Furthermore, Scheduled Tribe status will be a long-overdue acknowledgment of the Siddi's unique heritage and distinct cultural identity. It will be a stamp of approval, a validation of their existence as a distinct group within Indian society.

In addition, Scheduled Tribe status unlocks a door to a treasure trove of resources and opportunities. It paves the way for affirmative action programs, educational scholarships, and economic support initiatives. This translates to better healthcare, improved educational prospects, and a chance to break free from the shackles of poverty. It's like handing them a key to a brighter future.

Furthermore, Scheduled Tribe status isn't just about material benefits; it's about safeguarding their cultural heritage. It grants them the legal framework and resources to preserve their traditions, and customs. Imagine their vibrant music, their captivating dance forms, their rich storytelling traditions - all fading into oblivion without the protection this status provides.

In a nutshell, the Siddi community's fight for Scheduled Tribe status is a fight for recognition, opportunity, and justice. It's a fight for their rightful place in the Indian narrative, a fight to be seen, heard, and valued as integral members of the Indian Society.

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Shantaram Siddi

India’s Usain Bolt

The second policy that has had a direct impact on the Siddi community started back in the mid-1980s when Margaret Alva, the then Sports Minister introduced the Special Area Games Programme under Sports Authority of India. This Programme sought to discover sporting talent amongst the Siddi. In setting up this programme, the Indian Government was acknowledging that the Siddi’s African ancestry gave them a natural aptitude for sports.

Although the Programme produced numerous Siddi sporting stars, it was stopped abruptly in 1993. It then took twenty eight years for this Programme to experience a rebirth of sorts.

In 2021, the Sports Authority of Gujarat (SAG) visited twenty Siddi villages in the State to scout for sporting talent amongst the Siddi Community. They shortlisted 48 men and 38 women. Considering that there are about 12,000 Siddi in Gujarat, this is a pretty impressive percentage of potential athletic stars in this African-Indian community. India has never won a track and field medal in the Olympics. They hope to change this through the Siddi youth.

Karnataka, home to a sizable Siddi population, is also hunting for sporting treasures amongst the Siddi. It's playing matchmaker, setting up a public-private partnership that's already unearthing hidden talents within the State’s Siddi community. Take Ravikiran Siddi, a 21-year-old sprinting phenomenon who's just a hair's breadth away from Usain Bolt's world record. He's living proof that with the right support, the Siddi community can sprint past the finish line not just in sports, but in every field imaginable. Just imagine: Usain Bolt 2.0, hailing from the vibrant Siddi community!

This isn't just about chasing gold medals; it's about rewriting narratives and dismantling stereotypes. The Siddi community, for too long, has been marginalized and underestimated.

So, watch out world, the Siddi community is on the rise! They're no longer content to be overlooked or underestimated. They are ready to claim their rightful place on the global stage, and they're doing it with grace, resilience, and a whole lot of talent.
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Ravikiran Siddi. (Courtesy: Bridges of Sports)

The Siddi Community’s Heroic Roots

As the Siddi community rises to its full potential, it can draw inspiration from its ancestors. Not just the African ancestors whose identity and lives were rooted in East Africa, but also Siddi heroes like Malik Ambar.

Malik’s name rings like a freedom bell in Siddi hearts. This guy, originally from East Africa’s Oromo community, went rose from a helpless slave to a powerful military leader to, basically, Prime Minister of an Indian region in the 1600s! Talk about defying the odds!

So, how can the Siddi community recapture the spirit of this legendary figure?

For starters, the Siddi should reconnect fully with their history, make it a strong part of their social fabric. Malik Ambar was proudly Oromo, the populous community found in the Horn of Africa. There are millions of Oromo in Ethiopia and Kenya. In Ethiopia, The Oromos are the largest ethnic group. The Siddi community needs to rediscover this African heritage. This isn't about forgetting their Indian identity; it's about embracing their full story, their unique blend of cultures. It's like saying, “We're Indian, yes, but we also carry the strength and resilience of our African ancestors.”

Ambar wasn't just a warrior; he was a strategist, a diplomat, a leader. He rose to the top because he was educated, knowledgeable, and resourceful. Today's Siddis need to prioritize education, not just for individuals but for the entire community. Knowledge is the key to unlocking doors, breaking down barriers, and achieving success. That’s why its quite encouraging that there are increasingly more Siddi graduates. Away from formal education, the Siddi’s indigenous knowledge is so rich that the world will be better off by tapping into it.

Ambar didn't shy away from challenges. He fought for what he believed in, even against powerful enemies. Today's Siddis need to find their voices, to stand up for their rights, and to challenge discrimination and injustice.

Ambar wasn't a lone wolf; he built alliances and mobilized people to achieve his goals. The Siddi community needs to do the same. They need to come together, build alliances and work collectively to improve their lives. Unity is strength, and it's the foundation for any successful movement.

Ambar didn't settle for the status quo. He set his sights high and achieved the seemingly impossible. Today's Siddis should embrace this ambitious spirit. They should set audacious goals, chase their dreams, and never let anyone tell them they can't achieve greatness.

Malik Ambar is a symbol of hope, a testament to the fact that anything is possible with courage, determination, and a little bit of ingenuity. By embracing his legacy, the Siddi community can write a new chapter in their own story, a chapter filled with self-reliance, success, and pride. They can become the architects of their own destiny, just like their legendary ancestor.

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Painting of Malik Ambar

African Identity and Music

When society treats a section of its people as invisible, those people sometimes go the extra mile in search of societal recognition. Maybe that’s why during their centuries-old sojourn in India, the Siddi have adopted local languages, belief systems and way of life. Sadly, there hasn’t been much reciprocity from the mainstream Indian society. Thankfully, the Siddis remained somewhat true to their roots by guarding distinctly African components of their music and culture. When you see the Siddi’s play drums and dance, you will know instantly that they are our African brothers and sisters. They’ve got the beats and dance moves!

You can see vibrant African moves in their Goma dance. They perform it wearing colorful clothing and body paint. In Swahili, ngoma actually refers to drums that accompany dancing. Yet another cultural memento that has stood the test of time amongst the Siddis.

Other Siddi dances and music are encapsulated in Dhamaal, a mix of Sufi and East African musical and dance traditions that are at the heart of certain aspects of their spirituality.  

Dhamaal is a conversation with their ancestors, a celebration of their unique identity. It's a way to say, ‘We may be here, but our roots run deep across the ocean.’

Thanks to an innate attachment to the ocean, the Siddis begin almost every Dhamaal song by blowing powerfully into a conch shell. As their lips blow into this dazzling shell, their hands bang into musindo drums – cylinder-shaped, two-sided drums that are said to be originally from Kenya. They also play three other percussive musical instruments - damam, gumte and duf. Whenever they play them, you can almost feel the ancient roar of their ancestors.

Siddi dance is a raw, visceral expression of joy, sorrow, and everything in between. Their feet become instruments, stamping out intricate patterns on the earth, their bodies swaying with the wind. It's a language anyone can understand, a story uttered through movement and passion.

Their music is a melting pot of African melodies and Indian influences. Swahili rhythms mingle with Hindi verses, creating a powerful soundscape that's both familiar and exotic. Their songs declare of the ocean they crossed, the land they now call home, and the stories whispered down through generations.

Siddi dance and music isn't a dying art form preserved in dusty museums; it's a living, breathing tradition passed down from elders to children. It's a cultural inheritance that ensures the Siddi Afrobeat will continue to echo for generations to come.

The Siddis aren't just entertainers; they're ambassadors of their heritage. Their music and dance bridge the gap between cultures, sparking conversations and breaking down stereotypes. They're showing the world that Africa is alive and well in the heart of India, not as a relic, but as a vibrant, dynamic force. In doing so, they have been Africa’s ambassadors to India, even if they did not perceive themselves as such.

So next time you experience Siddi dance and music, remember this: it's also a testament to the enduring power of culture, a reminder that even after centuries, the rhythm of Africa still beats strong in the hearts of Siddis.

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Siddi Dancers in Gujarat State

Forest Guardians

The Siddis enjoy a special relationship with the Karnataka forests of Uttara Kannada. More than 500 years ago, their ancestors escaped from slavery and hid in these lush forests. They are the original inhabitants of these forested lands. They flourished there as hunters and gatherers. To date, many of them still live deep in the forests. Their lives are intricately woven with the fate of the Karnataka forests of Uttara Kannada. For over 500 years, these forests have been their sanctuary, their source of sustenance, and a testament to their deep ecological knowledge.

Centuries ago, fleeing the shackles of slavery, the Siddis found solace in the verdant depths of these forests. They learned to thrive in this unfamiliar environment, becoming skilled hunters and gatherers, attuned to the subtle rhythms of nature. They developed a profound understanding of the forest and its inhabitants, forging a bond that transcended mere dependence.

The Siddis are not merely residents of the forest; they are its custodians. Their traditional practices, rooted in sustainability and respect for nature, have been instrumental in preserving the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Their knowledge of medicinal plants, for example, has not only sustained their community but also provided valuable insights for modern medicine.

The Siddis' deep understanding of the forests holds immense potential for social and economic development. Their expertise in sustainable agriculture and resource management can be harnessed to develop eco-tourism initiatives and promote responsible forest use. This can not only empower the Siddis but also contribute to the conservation of the forests, creating a win-win situation.

The Siddis' connection to the forests extends beyond mere survival. They hold a deep spiritual reverence for nature, viewing the forest as a sacred space. This inherent respect for the environment makes them ideal partners and leaders in conservation efforts. Their involvement in forest management programs can be crucial in tackling deforestation and promoting sustainable practices.

The story of the Siddis and the forests offers a compelling example of a symbiotic relationship. It underscores the crucial role indigenous communities play in environmental protection and sustainable development. By recognizing and empowering the Siddis, India can unlock a wealth of ecological knowledge and build a more resilient future for the forests, its inhabitants and Indians as a whole. Forest ecosystem services benefit an entire nation, not just a select few.

Indeed, the Siddis can be the bridge between the increasingly urbanized mainstream Indian society and the natural world. Their nature-based wisdom can be one of the drivers of the nature-based solutions movement.

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A Siddi Man inside a forest in Karnataka State, India. (Courtesy The Lovepost)

Siddis of Talala: Where Faith and Ancestry Intertwine

In Talala, Gujarat State, the Siddi community, also known as Habshis, carry within them a potent blend of African heritage and Islamic faith. This faith isn't just a spiritual anchor; it's a vibrant thread woven through the fabric of their cultural identity, a whisper of their ancestral past across the vast Indian Ocean.

Islam, for the Habshis, is more than just a religion; it's a living link to their African roots. Centuries ago, their ancestors, brought to India as slaves, carried with them the seeds of this faith. These seeds, nurtured through generations, have blossomed into a unique expression of Islam, infused with the rhythms and traditions of their African homeland.

Many Siddis are Sunni Muslims just like millions of East Africans. They also speak the occasional Swahili word. More than 200 million Africans speak Swahili. They are drawn from multiple countries in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. In this regard, the Siddis may be a minority in India but they are part of a majority in Africa. 

Siddi-East Africa similarities are even more pronounced in social functions like weddings.

Attending a Siddi wedding is just like attending a wedding in Mombasa, Kenya’s largest coastal city or Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest coastal city: the women seated on one side resplendent in dazzling gowns and bedecked in heena body art; the vibrant music that demands to be danced to; the mountain of delicious food. It’s all there.

As an East African, I appeal to our governments to set apart some land to welcome Siddis who wish to build a second home in the motherland. At the very least, we should sponsor Siddi visits to East Africa. It’s the least we can do to give them a sense of rootedness.

Back to Faith, the Siddi’s harmonious interplay of faith and ancestry is evident in their distinct musical traditions, their soulful Sufi rituals, and their vibrant festivals. Imagine the call to prayer echoing through the streets, carrying the melody of both Arabia and Africa, a testament to their unique heritage.

The Habshis, with their deep understanding of both Islam and their African lineage, can play a crucial role in enhancing religious and racial harmony in India. They can be bridges between communities, fostering understanding and respect through their shared faith and cultural heritage.

They can engage in interfaith dialogues, organize cultural exchange programs, and serve as ambassadors of understanding, dispelling prejudices and fostering a more inclusive society.

The Habshis of Talala, with their rich history and unwavering faith, can help in actualizing a more harmonious India. This role is particularly vital given India’s vulnerability to religious violence. The Habshi story serves as a reminder that amidst diversity, there exists the potential for connection, understanding, and a shared future. By embracing their unique identity and sharing it with the world, the Habshis can pave the way for a nation where differences are celebrated, not shunned, and where unity becomes the cornerstone of progress.

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Siddi Community Members in Gujarat State, India

Discrimination is a Daily Reality for the Siddis

Even as they contribute to progress in the Indian society, Siddis have to contend with the subtle and explicit discrimination that comes with this dreaded tag – untouchable.

Although India’s caste system was officially abolished in 1950, the 2,000-year-old social hierarchy imposed on people by birth still flourishes in many aspects of life. Siddis are widely considered to be untouchables in India’s caste system. They are at the very bottom, together with the Dalit community.

Consequently, the ‘untouchable’ label burrows into the Siddi soul like a barbed wire worm, twisting with every interaction, every judgmental glance. From birth, whispers of "impure" stain their sense of self, weaving shame into their bones. Schools become battlegrounds of isolation, playgrounds echo with taunts, and dreams shrink under the scorching sun of prejudice. Every denied sip from a shared well, every forced detour around "clean" paths, every averted gaze is a searing reminder of their supposed worthlessness. This constant negation probes deep, twisting trust into suspicion, hope into apathy. It saps ambition, leaving calloused hands and weary minds, a legacy passed down like a tattered shawl, generation after generation, whispering, ‘you are less, you are other, you are nothing.’ It's a psychological prison, built from centuries of exclusion, where even reaching for the sky feels like an act of defiance.

This feeling of detachment and rejection from the mainstream Indian community has pushed many Siddi children from school. They simply don’t feel like they belong in school and often drop out. It doesn’t help that there are very few black teachers.

These Siddi children must now grow up in an India that celebrates them, not an India that tolerates them. Should they choose to reconnect with Africa, the motherland’s arms must be wide open, ready to embrace them. In fact, Africa should do more than that and walk towards them not to reclaim them, but to infuse into their lives an additional layer of security and humanity.  
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(All photos, unless otherwise attributed, are from Wikimedia Commons)

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A Siddi Woman. An African Princess. An Indian Queen.

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