Siddi community of African descent gets its first representative in Karnataka legislature

Published : July 24, 2020 18:35 IST

Shantaram Siddi, who was nominated to the Karnataka Legislative Council on July 22. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka nominating Shantaram Budna Siddi as a Member of the Legislative Council (MLC), the backward Siddi community has got its first representative in the State legislature. Shantaram, the first graduate from the Siddi community, has been working among tribal communities in the State for the past three decades and is also a State unit secretary of the Vanavasi Kalyan Prakalpa, the tribal outreach initiative of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He was nominated to the Legislative Council on July 22 along with four other BJP members.

There are around 50,000 Siddis, descendants of African people, in Karnataka. While their precise origin is lost in history, records show that Africans came to India as soldiers and as slaves. (See "African Connection", Frontline, May 13, 2016.) Those who came as soldiers became prominent as military leaders in various kingdoms of the medieval Deccan; the slaves were brought to India as slaves by the Portuguese. Many of these slaves were freed in the 18th century and it is speculated that they found their way to the jungles in what is today’s north-west Karnataka. Between 35,000 and 40,000 Siddis live in the Uttara Kannada district, mainly in the two heavily forested taluks of Yellapur and Haliyal. The rest live in the adjoining districts of Dharwad and Belagavi.

Economically and socially backward, the Siddis are recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in Karnataka. They have been racially discriminated against and have historically not been part of mainstream society. Considering their low numbers, the Siddis have never managed to get a political representative elected directly, and the nomination of one of them as an MLC is seen as a noteworthy development.

In an interview with The Hindu¸ Shantaram sounded surprised and overwhelmed by his appointment. “Till now, I could do whatever little I could do to help the people and drop the rest if I could not. No one would question me. But now, people across the State will be watching me closely. If I am given a list of 10 tasks, I will have to complete all of them, my responsibilities have increased,” he said.