Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
India’s Siddi are a large Afro-descendant community of tribes with an estimated 150,000 members in the country, based for centuries in rural areas of Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Very few Siddi families live in other parts of the country.
There is no reliable official source of nationwide information regarding the Siddi population in India and their socio-economic conditions, quality of life and the problems they face. Scattered across Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Tamil Nadu, often in isolated villages and interior forests, the Siddi have their own unique tribal and cultural characteristics. They practise different religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, but some cultural practices and rituals are shared, such as remembering elders (hireru or hiriyaru) once a year. Men wear lungis/dhotis and shirts and women wear sari and blouse.
Though they follow the rituals of their different religions celebrated in the presence of their respective religious leaders, they afterwards celebrate according to their traditional customs; for instance, similar marriage rituals and customs are common to almost all Siddi. Irrespective of their respective religions almost all Siddi are devotees of the deity Yallamma; they may practise openly or perform puja at home. The percussive musical instruments known as the dammam, duf and gumte are popular among Siddi, both men and women, who also dance to the accompaniment of these instruments.
Siddi from the three main religious groups speak either Konkani, Urdu or Marathi as their main language, but both men and women generally speak at least one other language in addition to their mother tongue. After India’s independence, when Goa and Karnataka became separate states, Christians in one area spoke Marathi with Muslims living close by speaking Urdu, but each understood the other’s language. However, Hindu Siddi tend to be more isolated and scattered; they speak mainly Konkani and often do not know other languages.
Nevertheless, while the Siddi clan encompasses all three religious groups and clan affinity is quite strong, considerable differences are also evident. This is seen as an important factor preventing them from coming together as a community to seek mutual help, assistance and solidarity. This is compounded by the fact that their respective religious groups have not made any significant contribution to addressing the issues faced by the Siddi.
Socially, the Siddi are considered one of the most marginalised communities and are largely settled in villages and smaller settlements. While the caste principle of hierarchy is non-existent among the Siddi themselves, they are treated as on a par with the Dalits. Although there is no general practice of ‘untouchability’, the upper castes and a few other communities at the individual house level do observe practices akin to ‘untouchability’. When Siddi are invited to functions and ceremonies such as marriage, food will be served separately and they will be made to clean the floor after the food is served.
Siddi populations have existed since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, and in Gujarat for almost a millennium. Many came over as migrants or slaves from east and south-east Africa before establishing themselves as permanent diaspora communities within India. Despite their long history, Siddi have struggled to have their rights recognized and have faced continued discrimination from mainstream society.
After persistent efforts by members of the Siddi community and by supporters including Kiran Kamal Prasad and MP Margaret Alva, the government of Karnataka recognized the tribal characteristics and socio-economic challenges faced by the Siddi, and in 2003 accorded them scheduled tribe status, which facilitates access to certain extra benefits. This is a significant development.
Aside from their overall marginalisation, the economic conditions and sources of income of Siddi are varied. They live in forest and non-forest areas, but the majority are landless families. With the introduction of the Forest Rights Act 2006, some have become landholders. However, this land is not categorized as Revenue Land but rather as Forest Land that people are only permitted to cultivate.
The majority of Siddi are illiterate, and although the trend of sending children to schools has increased, the rate of school dropout is also on the increase. Girls are not encouraged to pursue education after reaching puberty across all three religions, with the most restricted among them being Muslim girls. Widespread teasing because of their distinct physical features is often one of the reasons given for discontinuation of their education. The practice of child marriage at the age of 14 or 15 years of age is common and is another one of the reasons for girls discontinuing their education.
One side effect of this discrimination is that alcoholism is widespread within the community. As a result, a large portion of family incomes may be spent on alcohol, leading to ill health, poverty, violence against women, and the neglect of children. This also contributes to the need to borrow money at exorbitant rates of interest. Illiteracy, a high school dropout rate, child marriage, child abuse, the neglect of the girl child’s education, the teasing of Siddi children in schools and social discrimination on the basis of ethnicity all still continue. It is in this context that educated youth within the Siddi community have begun to take steps to address these issues.
Siddi engage in different occupations for their livelihoods: for example, both men and women collect minor forest products (such as honey, cinnamon, cloves, tamarind, pepper and soft gum) and engage in traditional occupations such as basket weaving and making bamboo chairs, cots and other goods. All these items require hard labour for their collection and preparation, but they are sold to local merchants for very low prices because of the absence of market facilities. An alternative form of work is daily wage labour, such as in agriculture, construction work and fishing; all these are seasonal in nature and not sustained year-round. Moreover, income from none of these is enough to meet day-to-day needs, forcing those engaged in them to take out loans at exorbitant interest from local money lenders. Siddi work for low wages, particularly women, and child labour is also prevalent. While many work as bonded labourers, some men are engaged in driving tractors, cars and trucks, or working on boats, and women may engage in domestic work.
Seasonal employment and low wages have led some families to migrate to cities in Goa, Maharashtra and Udupi, Mangalore, and sometimes Bangalore. Male migrants mostly work in building construction, farms, and mutton stalls, while women work mainly as domestic servants and dressmakers’ assistants. With the money they earn, when they return home they repay their loans with interest. This cycle of exploitation and low wages has served to entrench their exclusion and is a major barrier to their development as a community.
One of the central challenges has been the limited organization of the community as a whole, leaving them without a collective voice to articulate their shared grievances. Nevertheless, there have recently been renewed efforts to restore a shared sense of identity within the community, led in part by a new generation of young Siddi. The Siddi community is now focusing on how to build its identity, achieve its full development potential and promote greater access to education among its youth. To realize these objectives, it is hoped that a comprehensive survey can be undertaken to get a clearer picture of the community and its needs. There are also plans to support families with enrolment and prevent dropout among school students through material support and awareness-raising campaigns, as well as encourage livelihood opportunities and advocate for fairer markets for forest products and other goods.
In the longer term, activists hope to establish a country-wide Federation of Siddi, to bring together different communities under a common umbrella to lobby on shared issues of discrimination. Drawing on the findings of the survey, a comprehensive development plan will also be developed to promote fuller integration of Siddi into mainstream society, and legal action taken to strengthen land and livelihood rights to prevent illegal encroachments. In addition, schools, sport centres and other facilities will be established, as well as an independent multi-purpose Co-operative Society under the Karnataka Sauhardha Sahakari Act to ensure that the needs of the Siddi community are supported.
So far, with the support of community activists, some steps have already been taken to realize these goals. These include, among other activities, a number of studies and consultations to assess local needs, such as lack of access to education and basic services, mobilizing community members and developing organizations, supporting sick or elderly Siddi and promoting English language learning and other educational opportunities. Furthermore, a number of illegal land grabs and other abuses have now been challenged in the courts with the support of other civil society groups. While progress is still slow, these are promising signs of progress for the community.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in