India's Sidis, a forgotten diaspora of Africans

Sunday September 14 2008
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The Sidi Goma troupe of India. Photo/WMJ van KESSEL

When Farida al-Mubrik reported for work on the first day of her new job with the bank in Bhavnagar, in the Indian state of Gujarat, she was referred to the foreign exchange counter, having been mistaken for a tourist.

It took some effort on her part to convince the staff that she was a new colleague reporting to work.

When Juje Sidi goes to the market, he gets the same treatment with vendors asking him to pay in dollars.

On a visit to the Taj Mahal, one of India’s top tourist attractions, the ticket clerk assumed he was a foreigner and charged him 750 rupees ($17.60), the rate for foreign tourists.

Sidi protested saying he was entitled to the much lower rate for citizens. The ticket clerk laughed and asked how a “black” visitor with dreadlocks could possibly be an Indian. With the help of bystanders and his identity document, the clerk was finally convinced.

Returning from an overseas tour, members of the Sidi Goma musical group met with suspicious looks at the immigration control desk of Delhi airport. The officers wondered how they get hold of Indian passports... Nigerian forgery, no doubt!


The history of the Sidis of India goes back many centuries. Indians with African features are known as Sidis or Habshis. According to ethno-linguists, Habshi is derived from the word “Abyssinian.”

The meaning of Sidi or Siddi is more controversial however. One view is that it simply means slave, while others argue that it is derived from a phrase meaning “master.”

The African ancestors of the Sidis are said to have been taken to India as slaves, domestic servants, concubines, palace guards and soldiers, or ventured there as sailors and free merchants, considering the commercial interaction between Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and eastern African.

“I would like to know more about Africa, but thus far I have not found the answer,” said John Kosta Siddi, chairman of Tadia (The African Diaspora in Asia), a society of African-Indian descendents and international scholars.

Tadia was established a few years ago to research on the history of the African-Asian communities and come up with ways to help them overcome social and economic discrimination.

In January 2006, African-Indians and international scholars held a conference in the Indian state of Goa in an effort to understand the history of the Sidis.

“Why did our ancestors come to India?” asked John Kosta Siddi. “Where did they come from? I have been posing these questions for over 25 years, but I have not found the answers.

Why are we called Sidis? On the basis of our looks, we are called Africans. We have been told that in the old days, our brothers and sisters were sold here as slaves and that’s why we are here.

We Sidis are internally divided into Muslims, Hindus and Christians. We speak different languages, Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, Kannada, Konkany, and therefore it is difficult for us to speak with one voice.”

The search for African identities is also a big issue in the Black Atlantic, the African Diaspora in the western hemisphere, which also has whole communities of freed slaves, of African descent.

African-American scholars at the Goa conference seemed convinced that the very diverse African-Asian communities in different parts of Asia are somehow part of the “Black experience,” but as much as many agreed, they said they have other priorities: “I work 12 hours a day, I don’t have time to think about Africa,” said a black woman in Bombay in the documentary movie Voices of the Sidis.

Moreover, other Sidis made it clear that they do not want to be identified as Africans, because as “Negroes” they would stand little chance of getting a job. On the other hand, there is a widespread recognition among Sidis that “We are Indians now, but we do have African blood.”

India is currently home to some 30,000 Sidis or Habshis. The number of people of partial African descent no doubt exceeds this figure, but many have been assimilated in the diverse Indian sub-continent.

At the Goa conference, Sidis from various parts of India met for the first time. Delegations came from Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka to celebrate their African heritage with songs and dance, but most importantly to strategise for a better future.

The Sidis have found their niche in the complex Indian caste system, but their station in this hierarchy is near the bottom, slightly above the dalits, the “untouchables.” Indian society tends to foster negative stereotypes of Sidis, as lazy, potentially talented in music and sports, but incapable of intellectual endeavours.

FOR MANY YEARS, THE SID-is have lobbied to obtain the coveted status of “scheduled tribe.” To compensate for the ingrained inequalities of the caste system, the Indian constitution introduced preferential treatment for historically disadvantaged sections of the population.

Dalits, mountain tribes, indigenous peoples, Sidis or Habshis and other marginalised groups campaign passionately for recognition as “scheduled caste,” “scheduled tribe” or “other backward classes.” This coveted status provides access to reserved quotas of government jobs, quotas in state schools, bursaries and subsidised housing.

In 2003, the Sidis of northern Karnataka gained recognition as “scheduled tribe,” largely due to the untiring efforts of Margaret Alva, Member of Parliament for the Congress Party, who came to Goa to open the Tadia conference.

Since 1979, when she was approached by three Indian Jesuits who drew her attention to the deplorable condition of the African-Indians, Margaret Alva has campaigned for the Sidi cause.

But so far, the Sidis of Karnataka have seen little tangible benefits of their legal recognition as “backward.” Millions of Indians belong to one or other “scheduled caste” or “scheduled tribe,” which means that the benefits have to be shared among ever more people.

Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, symbolises the success story of modern India, with horizons of high rise buildings where highly qualified Indians keep the books of American enterprises and man the call centres for companies in the Anglophone world.

More to the north, in the same state of Karnataka, Sidis battle to keep access to their lands in the forests. Hundreds of years ago, their ancestors fled from slavery in Portuguese-ruled Goa to the inaccessible forests of the interior.

They built villages, just like the maroons in the Caribbean and lived on forest produce and tilling small plots of cleared forest land. Now environmental activists regard them as encroachers, who should be evicted from the protected forests. It is hoped that a “scheduled tribe” status will strengthen their claim to the land.

More than in Karnataka, the Sidis of Gujarat have preserved elements of an African heritage, expressed in music, songs, stories and uniquely African musical instruments.

These performances are closely linked to Sufi cults, a mystical version of Islam that allows for culturally heterodox practices. These black Sufis venerate a black saint, Gori Pir.

Local oral tradition has it that Gori Pir came to Gujarat in the 15th century as a merchant from Africa, accompanied by his sister and several brothers.

Gori Pir shrines in Gujarat, as well as in Bombay, are not only frequented by Sidis, but also by other Indians — Muslims and Hindus alike — who seek the wise judgment and the solace of the saint, which is mediated by temple servants.

Some of the best known performers have joined together in the Sidi Goma group, which has already made several international tours. Their performance opens with mystical Sufi chants and accelerates later into rhythmic African dances. Sidi Goma has turned its African heritage into a relative success story.

Before Indian independence, the Sidis of Gujarat made their living mainly by mining and trading in agate — precious stones that are in high demand in India and East Africa.

When the newly independent Indian government nationalised the mines in 1946, the Sufi shrines became an ever more important source of livelihood for Gujarati Sidis.

Independence was equally unwelcome news for the Sidis of Hyderabad, who served for many generations as soldiers in the army of the Nizam, the local ruler. Independence heralded the end of the princely states, and of the many princely armies. Mostly illiterate, the Sidis did not qualify for service in India’s national army.

Yet, for the sidis of hy-derabad, the military past of their African forefathers is a source of pride. They like to see their forefathers as soldiers, not slaves.

To date, many such African descendants live in a quarter of the city known as AC Guards or African Cavalry Guards. Currently, they mainly work as drivers, mechanics, electricians and fruit vendors. The women mostly work as domestic help.

For the African-American scholars and activists who attended the Goa conference, the issue was not just about African ancestry but the quality of life for the community.

The upsurge of interest in Sidi identity and African heritage was considered all very well, but the question was: what if the African-Indians were being saddled with a newly invented African identity that would only complicate their integration and assimilation in Indian society?

The Sidis also made it abundantly clear that what they needed most was jobs, housing and better education opportunities for their children. “I can’t eat your books and movies,” said one Sidi woman in Bombay to documentary film maker Beheroze Shroff.

But the daily experiences in Indian society nevertheless keep reminding many Sidis that they are different, even if they are indifferent to their roots. Certainly, at least some Sidis have a sense of connection with Africa. They follow with avid interest the successes of black sports heroes.

In 1984, a few hundred Sidis in northern Karnataka gathered for a rally to demand the release of Nelson Mandela. They had read media reports that Mandela was a champion of the rights of black people and wanted to know why he was in prison for his beliefs.

In early 1990, Krishna Siddi learnt of Mandela’s release from Robben Island and he wrote him a letter explaining that the Sidis of India also faced discrimination. “If you ever come to India, please come and visit us Sidis,” wrote Krishna Siddi.

The letter reached its destination through the Indian embassy in Pretoria. Mandela duly replied, asking for more details. But there was no reply because Krishna’s English interpreter had left town. Mandela eventually paid several visits to India, but Krishna Sidi from northern Karnataka was not among the people he met.

In honour of the famous guest from South Africa, the government in New Delhi staged a performance by a Sidi musical group from Gujarat who dressed in fake Zulu outfits and performed Zulu dances.