“People often look at me as if I am different, and hard to be trusted,” Zaharaddeen Muhammed, a Nigerian student studying in India confesses at the New Delhi Africa-India solidarity forum. “I try to be friendly. I speak Hindi and always laugh. But when I offer biscuits to the neighbours’ children, they don’t accept.”
Muhammed’s acknowledgment of discrimination in India towards African immigrants is a step in dismantling caste system ideologies that are prevalent in India, but the African presence in the country is not recent. The Siddi community represents a direct link back to the continent.
The Siddis are descendants of Bantu people from East Africa, originally brought to India through the Arab slave trade in the seventh century, and then later by the Portuguese and British. After the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th century, Siddis “fled into the country’s thick jungles, fearing recapture and torture.” Siddis were originally known as Habshis, a term which refers to an Abyssinian, the previous name of Ethiopia. Currently, Siddi describes all African descendants in India, of which 60, 000 to 75, 000 live in Gujarat and Karnataka.
While Siddis receive some affirmative action benefits, as they are classified as “scheduled tribes”(specific indigenous peoples acknowledged by the Indian government), they remain one of the poorest and most marginalized groups in India, according to BBC:
“Despite such glaring vestiges, Siddi history has been startlingly erased throughout India. Today, stymied by government indifference and ridicule at the hands of fellow citizens, Siddis lead marginalized lives, while aspiring for a fighting chance at better prospects. Largely working as farmers and manual labourers, Siddis lack sustainable work opportunities.”
The cultural histories between Africa and India are facing erasure due to the history of English colonialism and the caste system. Such erasure and historical amnesia is helping to fuel violence against African immigrants, instead of understanding how India’s past and future is directly tied to the continent.
“There’s today little interest in uncovering African-South Asian relations, unless it serves neoliberal projects. This stands in stark contrast to how many South Asians remember and write about their relationships to Arabs, Persians, Turks and European colonisers, and, importantly, how many South Asians claim ancestry based on such long, complicated and often times violent histories,” Indian writer S.Varatharajah says on Medium. “For South Asians, the Indian Ocean that connects us to East Africa is only relevant when talking about Arab traders or European Invaders. African-South Asian histories find no space within it.”
Through sports, Siddis find escape from poverty, unequal access to education, and unstable work opportunities. The late 1980s saw India investing in an athletic program for African immigrants, and while the program didn’t last, it assisted in fostering connections with Siddis from different places in India.
A promising group of Siddi youth in India are today playing soccer in hopes of making it to the 2024 Olympics, a win that they dream will “uplift the Siddi community, revive its forgotten history and bring much-awaited acceptance to the Siddi people.”