siddi tribe

Siddis: The story of a lost tribe

The Siddis of India might have been African, but they have left no stone unturned to feel Indian. With a hope to belong to a culture and a milieu, they adapted to and adopted what was once alien to them. In conversation with two Siddi lawyers, who broke through social barriers to establish themselves in the mainstream society.

Around 600 hundred years ago, they had an identity. They were the Bantu people living in Central and Southern Africa. This identity was lost when they were brought as slaves to the Indian shores, thousands of miles away from their home in Africa. Misfortune in the form of torture and abject poverty is what their new life became all about. However, some of them were fortunate to escape to safer havens where they were able to build a world of their own, far from the clutches of dejection and hopelessness. Hundreds of years later, their misery is far from over. They still live on the fringes of society, grasping at straws, be it equality, security, or opportunities.

The Siddi tribe of India might have been African, but they have left no stone unturned to feel Indian. With a hope to belong to a culture and a milieu, they adapted to and adopted what was once alien to them—be it religion, tradition, belief systems, languages or ways of the society. Circa 2018, despite their attempts to assimilate, they continue to be outcasts trying to find their way to the mainstream. Their pursuit of an ordinary life is still shackled by discrimination, alienation and apathy from society.

In an endeavour to explore, understand, and show solidarity to this alienated community, we met two outstanding Siddis from Siddi tribe, who have transcended limits, broken social barriers, and attempted to challenge the status quo. Meet lawyers Jayram Siddi and Renuka Siddi, who, through their infectious ability to hope and dream, inspire hope in thousands like them. Presenting excerpts from a warm, effortless and insightful conversation:

  • h Jayram Siddi belongs to a fringe community of African descent, with approximately 70,000 people, spread across parts of India for the last 600 years. Though African in their lineage, the Siddhis of India, have assimilated into the Indian milieu, practically weaving themselves into the cultural fabric of India. Born to agricultural labourers with no resources, Jayram pursued higher education, becoming the first lawyer from the Siddhi community. According to Jayram, all hardship seemed worth it when he was invited to speak on the socio-economic status of Siddhis in Asia at the Pan-African Conference in South Africa.

    The arrival in a world unknown…

    Jayram Siddi: The exact dates of the Siddi tribe’s arrival in India are not known but approximately 400-600 years ago, our ancestors were brought to India. Some say, the British brought them as labour, some say Arabic merchants brought them as workers, others say the Portuguese brought them as slaves. According to history, they had first landed in Goa. But, being tortured by the Portuguese, they fled from Goa and settled in Gujarat and parts of Karnataka. They met locals from different religions and started following Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam depending on which religious groups they mingled with.

    It’s all in the name…

    Jayram Siddi: We don’t know for sure why we were given the name Siddi, the enlightened one. But it became our community name and our surname. And it continues to be so.

    Remnants of a lost heritage…

    Jayram Siddi: There isn’t much we can connect to our African heritage. We have managed to preserve a few traditions such as Siddinasa—a festival where we offer prayers to a stone, and dance rituals like Damam, Phugadi, and Gumat. I can say, these are a few remnants of our African roots. In fact, because of these dance rituals and ceremonies we were conferred the status of Scheduled Tribe (ST) by the Indian government in the North Canara district, where I come from. Apart from this, we speak fluent Kannada just like any other person in Karnataka. Our mother tongue, though, is a mix of Konkani and Marathi.

    Isolated from the mainstream…

    Jayram Siddi: Just 70,000 people strong, we Siddis could never really get integrated into the mainstream society. I can tell you that due to harsh discrimination, the Siddis have always feared the consequences of venturing into anything that our community wasn’t traditionally part of. That’s why most Siddis live deep in the forest and avoid stepping outside that comfort zone. The lack of education is one of the biggest reasons behind the struggles of our people. Today, we do have a few government initiatives in place that are helping Siddi children pursue education, but it wasn’t the case all along. As a result, Siddis do not usually opt for empowering professions such as medicine, engineering or law. Isolation is such a large part of who we have evolved to be.

    The curse of being a Siddi…

    Jayram Siddi: The pursuit of the mainstream has indeed been tough through the years. Growing up in a rural area, there was discrimination all around. I recall going with my parents to their landlord’s house, where we weren’t allowed inside. We were expected to sit in the front yard, clean the place where we sat and wash the utensils we ate from. Even today, this is prevalent in the interiors. In the city, where I now work, the challenges of a rural world don’t exist. However, discrimination does find its way. For instance, when I am outside buying groceries, or at the court just doing my job, people think I am an African and treat me like an outsider. Sometimes, their behaviour is even rude.

    Becoming a lawyer…

    Jayram Siddi: Becoming a lawyer was probably the toughest barrier I had to break. And that changed things for me. While education and employment were always a far-fetched dream for the Siddis, I managed to become the first law graduate from the Siddi community in India. Thanks to the ST status we got in 2003! This is nothing short of a leap for a community like ours which boasts of 13 law graduates today.

  • h Renuka Siddi belongs to a fringe community of African descent, with approximately 70,000 people, spread across parts of India for the last 600 years. Though African in their lineage, the Siddhis of India, have assimilated into the Indian milieu, practically weaving themselves into the cultural fabric of India. Renuka pursued law in the face of social and financial challenges, and today, she works as a lawyer at the High Court of Karnataka.

    Born into a world of struggles…

    Renuka Siddi: I was only nine months old when my parents died due to drowning. Then on, my grandparents raised me, even though they had nothing to fall back on. Just imagine, my grandfather earned a living for our family of three by selling fruits from the forest and working as domestic help for the upper caste families.

    The struggles of an outcast…

    Renuka Siddi: We have always been social outcasts. I realised it early on in life when I started going to school. In primary school, my teachers made me sit in the back of the class. The front rows were reserved for children from the upper castes. And if a Siddi child ever sat in the front, the teachers had a severe punishment to give.
    In 2003 we were included in the Scheduled Tribe, which helped us pursue higher education. Until then, the Siddis only worked low-paying jobs such as domestic and farm labourers. Even today, they earn a pittance in rural areas. Women earn as little as Rs 150 and men Rs 200 for an entire day’s hard work.

    Fringes of the society…

    Renuka Siddi: People don’t know much about our community. We haven’t exposed ourselves much to the world due to a fear of rejection. While there has been marginal progress in the last few years, we still suffer from issues of discrimination and untouchability. At least, in villages.

    Challenges of a Siddi woman…

    Renuka Siddi: My struggle has been intense because of where I come from. Like any other backward community, it is rare for Siddi women to be educated. There is little support within our community when it comes to education and employment. Since most people are illiterate, they don’t know the importance of education. Hence, no one really wants girls to study. When I was studying in class 10, my grandmother wanted me to get married, but my grandfather wanted me to study.

    Education against all odds…

    Renuka Siddi: My grandfather encouraged me to go to school despite the fact that we barely had any money to make ends meet, leave alone getting an education. So, most of my education had to happen on scholarships, which I received due to decent grades (smiles) and being an orphan. For a Siddi child, getting an education up until now has meant running from pillar to post. I got mine in Ankola, Tamil Nadu, and Karwar. It was even tougher because everything was taught in English and I didn’t know a word of it—I had to teach myself.

    Arriving as a stranger, evolving as a native

    Renuka Siddi: The way we arrived in India, the circumstances we found ourselves in through the last few hundreds of years, allowed very little from our original tradition to remain alive. Apart from a few dance rituals, the Siddis today celebrate and follow Indian customs. Hindu Siddis follow Hindu rituals, Muslim Siddis follow Islamic customs, Christian Siddis follow their church’s customs.

    City life…

    Renuka Siddi: It was very difficult for me to find a job. In the city (in my case, Bangalore), everyone assumes we are foreigners. Even though I have an Indian attire on, they ask which country I am from (laughs heartily). Locals try to charge more and start speaking in English until I rattle something off in Kannada or Hindi.

    A ray of hope…

    Renuka Siddi: Now that I am working as a lawyer, I don’t have to face discrimination like I used to. I have earned some respect owing to my profession. I hope, now, others too from our community will be able to pursue higher education. This would be the only way to find dignity, security and a place in society. Families, even in rural areas, have begun to send their children to school. Change is occurring one generation at a time. It’s still a long road for women, and hopefully, through education, they will find their feet and not get married off at 15.

    Raising a Siddi girl…

    Renuka Siddi: The day I have a daughter, I will make sure she grows up to be strong. Her mental strength is what will carry her through. Education will have to be the staff with which she will protect herself from discrimination. I would want her and every other Siddi girl to be the woman I could not be. For these women of the future, the responsibility will be two-fold—to break ceilings as women and to transcend barriers as a Siddi.




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