Very few Indians might be aware of the fact that Africans and Indians share a large history. With more than 20,000 members of an African-origin ethnic tribal community living in total anonymity in India for over 500 years, there are definite proofs that Indians and Africans are no strangers to each other.
The African-origin ethnic tribe is the Siddi community which is living predominantly in Indian states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka and have started identifying themselves as ‘Indians’.
A lot of them turned to Islam while others chose Christianity as their religion. In spite of the fact that they speak the local languages, follow same traditional values and wear native clothing, they are still treated as ‘outsiders’ due to their ‘appearances’.
They are claimed to be descendants of Bantu people of East Africa whose ancestors were brought to India for the purpose of slavery during the 7th century, by Arabs and later, Europeans during their colonizing of India. These African slaves were originally known as Habshis.
After the abolition of slavery between the 18th and 19th century, the Siddis fled to the country’s dense forests to save themselves from the torture and recapture. There they began to live in small settlements away from the city.
When looked from a distance, there is nothing specifically ‘African’ about the people except their physical appearances that still retain their African origins. Women drapes in colourful sarees and men look like farmers from any other Indian villages.
One cannot miss their facial features and curly hair which can easily confuse them with South Indians. While they marry in their own community, men go to work and women typically stay at homes.
Has India accepted them?
Largely being overlooked by the Indians since centuries, the tribe came into the limelight nationwide thanks to their athletic abilities. As a number of Siddi children were short-listed by the Sports Authority of India to be coached as athletes. Sports became their escape from poverty, lack of education and unemployment. Special Areas Games Project was launched for the African immigrants in the 1980s that assisted in fostering a relationship between the Siddis with rest of the country. However, after a few years, the project was dissolved and Siddis were told to go back to their homes and back to their lives as outsiders.
A Siddi member named, Kamala Mingel Siddi is considered as one of the best internationally acclaimed Siddi athletes. Moreover, a promising group of young Siddis from India is in the forefront to make it to the 2024 Olympics for Soccer.
Although they are more Indian than African, they still tend to follow some of their African traditions involving music and dance customs.