Siddis: The community still finding itself in India’s melting pot

People look at us like an animal in the zoo, says MLC Siddi

Shivani Kava, Feb 5, 2021, 5:31 PM IST

Source: Wikipedia

India has been a melting pot. It has assimilated the cultures of various countries and communities from across the world making it an amalgamation of different ethnic groups and practices.

The cultural diversity of India is evident from the over 19,500 languages or dialects spoken as mother tongue in the country.

Coastal Karnataka and northern Karnataka is home to a small, lesser-known but marginalized community from another continent.

Known as the “Siddis,’ the community consists of just around 50,000 people. They are descendants of various tribes of Africa that arrived on shores of India either as slaves or soldiers.

As per some historical sources, Siddis first settled in Goa and later migrated to Karnataka.

They are currently concentrated in the northern parts of Karnataka such as the Yellapur, Haliyal, Ankola, Joida, Mundgod and Sirsi taluks of Uttara Kannada and in Khanapur taluk of Belgaum district and Kalghatgi taluk of Dharwad district.

Siddi people speak Siddi Basha and many of them are fluent in Kannada.

They have so far lived within isolated forests and have created a community and culture of their own and are also in the profession of doctors, performers and other specialists.

The community is separated by colour and appearance and has been neglected to an extent where they were considered very lowly, even below the dalits and other tribal groups.

Like every other marginalized section of society, the Siddi community has suffered extreme poverty and is separated from mainstream society.

It was in 2003 when they received the status of Scheduled Tribe, making them eligible to access various government schemes.

Despite the Scheduled Tribe status, Siddis find it difficult to avail the government schemes, due to lack of awareness and habitation in remote places.

Siddis are constantly subjected to discrimination in India.

In Pakistan too they continue to suffer discrimination because of their physical features. There they are known as Sheedis.

British photographer, Luke Duggleby has documented the lives of the Siddi community in his ambitious Siddi project. He says, “Because of discrimination, many look to marry outside the Siddi community.”

Mohan Ganapati Siddi is one of the young Siddi leaders, among the few in the community to attend university. He says, “We don’t even have our own language, but we still have our music. Music acts as a cultural bridge to Africa but now this link is fading as the community is reluctant to display its African identity.”

Siddis also have a dance form known as Gamate Nrutya, which is performed by the men dressed in traditional attire. They dance to the beats of an instrument called ‘gamate’ – a clay pot whose mouth is covered with leather.

Shantharam Budna Siddi, hailing from Hittalhalli village in Yellapura taluk in Uttara Kannada district became the first person from the Siddi community to be nominated to a legislative body in India.

He is also the first from the community to graduate and had participated in the Appiko Chaluvali started by Pandurang Hegde in 1983.

“Despite being good at studies, I was isolated from the rest of my classmates as I was a different-looking boy. Even adults and grown-ups would stare at me, look at me and laugh, and play with my curly hair. Walking in streets was terrifying.” the Karnataka MLC told Udayavani.

“After my father’s demise, I was transferred to a hostel in Ankola in class 7 as two of the teachers saw potential in me. I later studied at government college in Karwar,” he added.

Shantharam says that he was helped greatly in his studies by two teachers RH Naik and VG Naik. “People who have helped me in the past are my inspiration to serve people,” he said.

“RSS came to my rescue, as I was among the few who was educated in the community. They said shouldn’t I be doing something for my people,” said Shantharam recalling his early encounter with the RSS.

Listing the major problems faced by the Siddi community, Shantharam says education is the foremost among them. “Siddi children face discrimination even today so much so that the Siddi kids hesitate to attend schools,” he said.

He added, “People look at us like an animal in the zoo or like an object in the museum.”

Land ownership problem is another. Lands owned by the Siddis were encroached on and many had to move back to the forests.

Shantharam said that the problem was solved post-2003 as the government started providing them with ‘Hakku Patras.’

Shantharam also claims Christian proselytisation is another major problem the community faces. “Christian proselytism paved the way for religious confusion among the community,” said Shantharam.

“Siddis had worshipped nature but became segregated into three religions. People working under the kings of Bijapur converted into Islam, some joined mathas and became Hindus and others who worked for Christian priests converted to Christianity,” he added.

“Recently, the problems started after the missionaries started to forcefully convert our people into Christianity,” accuses Shantharam.

Despite the conversions, Shantharam said that most people from the community don’t even identify themselves as Siddi.

Asserting on fear of losing the identity, Shantharam urges all city dwellers to take a step back and accept the Siddi people.

“It all comes down to living in harmony. Unity is the key but living in harmony will open doors to new opportunities. Acceptance is much needed… there is no point in fighting over race, colour, religion etc., let’s strive to live in harmony while saving our culture,” said Shantharam.

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