Africans in India

Print edition : September 09, 2005

Sidis in India are now completely assimilated into local communities. Sidis are settled in Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Helene Basu, Associate Professor, Free University, Berlin.

When we think of African diasporas, we think of the Americas and the horrors of the slave trade, of African experiences of disruption and displacement. To most people it comes as a surprise that India should have been a slave-importing country as well. And yet, medieval Indian history abounds with references to Ethiopian or Abyssinian slaves serving at royal courts or in the armies of imperial/local rulers. But African presences in India testify not only to past systems of feudal power and warfare, but also to the subcontinent's place in a larger Indian Ocean world. This world was ruled by maritime and trading connections extending to East Africa as much as to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and South-East Asia. African seamen, well known for their maritime skills, served not only on the ships of traders from India, the Swahili coast and Arabia, but also on those of Portuguese, British and other European colonial trading companies.

Today, we encounter small communities of people of African origin along the western coast of India, whose predecessors may have been brought to the country as slaves, or may have been sailors who voluntarily settled in India after one of the long stays on land enforced by the monsoon. While diverse historical circumstances ranging from slavery to maritime labour displaced their forefathers from the lands of their birth, today's Sidis, as the descendants of Africans are called in India, no longer sail the ocean. In Gujarat, where one of the larger Sidi communities, numbering around 20,000, is found, they have merged with the masses of the poor, living in urban working class quarters or, though rarely, in villages.

"Habshis" (the term "Habashi" in the Arabic-Persian dictionary signifies people `belonging to Abyssinia or Ethiopia', while "Saidi" means lordly or an appellation of Africans) were paid servants in medieval India; they often wielded power and even acquired wealth in some instances. They achieved high office in court, but that did not mean that they were free. The Sidis one encounters in Gujarat are sometimes seen as somewhat degraded descendants of these medieval Habshis who had power and wealth. This is a mistake. Africans came in different historical contexts, in different periods. The ancestors of the Sidis of Gujarat today probably came in the 18th and 19th centuries. Not all of them were slaves; many came on ships. Since vessels relied on the monsoons, it happened that they were here for a couple of months, so they left the coast for the hinterland.

Helene Basu, Associate Professor at Free University in Berlin, is a leading authority on Sidis. She began her field work in the second half of the 1980s and has continued researching this community in India and other Indian Ocean countries. In this interview with Darryl D'Monte, she traces their origin. Excerpts:

You have been tracing the route by which Sidis came to India from East Africa and elsewhere on that continent. What have you found?

`Tracing the route' is, perhaps, a bit exaggerated. There are quite a few good historical studies about the East African slave trade and its range in the Indian Ocean world, which give some clues about the areas from where slaves were drawn as well as about the geographical shifts of the recruitment areas over time. They also tell us that the numbers of the slave trade never even approximated those of the transatlantic slave trade from West Africa to the American continent. In the 13th and 14th centuries, slaves were mainly drawn from lower Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan - the Nile area. Many of them ended up being so-called `slave-soldiers' in the armies of conquerors and Sultans all over the Islamic world. After the 16th century, when the Europeans, specifically the Portuguese, entered the scene, slave-trade routes moved further south along the East African coast, as far as Mozambique. Slaves were drawn from the hinterland of the coastal regions, such as inland Tanzania, Malawi or even the Congo.

In the 19th century, Zanzibar emerged as the hub for the distribution of African slaves mainly to Arabia, southern Persia and western India. About three quarters of the population of Zanzibar consisted then of slaves serving the aristocracy and wealthy traders. Even after the nominal abolition of the slave trade by the British, a small number of male and female African slaves continued to be shipped to the western coasts of South Asia, especially to Makran and Gujarat, where they were mostly employed as servants and bodyguards at the courts of local rulers. I have been to Zanzibar because some of the Sidis with whom I have worked in the past remember the island as a place where a known ancestor has come from. Since some cultural practices of Sidis, such as percussion music and the ritual embodiment of ancestors venerated as saints, seem to mirror comparable practices in Zanzibar studied by anthropologists under the heading of `African spirit possession cults', I was interested in possible symbolic links between them, or the diaspora of African religious practices in India.

Where are the present-day Sidis located?

Well-known Sidi communities are settled in Gujarat and Mumbai, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In addition, small numbers of Sidi households may be found in Maharashtra and elsewhere in India. In the States mentioned, the number of Sidis is rather small, nowhere exceeding 20,000. The largest community of Sidis is found in Sindh [Pakistan]: some years ago, there were 50,000 of them, but that number must have trebled. Although descendants of Africans are commonly referred to by the name `Sidi' (or Habshi in historical publications), their social circumstances and cultural practices, including language, differ greatly in relation to the region of their re-settlement. Thus, in Gujarat, Sidi households are spread all over the State, but are located mainly in towns and cities. In Karnataka, Sidis live mostly in the densely forested district of North Kanara. In Andhra Pradesh, Sidis are confined to the city of Hyderabad.

You mention how the slave trade across the Indian Ocean was different from the slave trade with America. Was it less exploitative? We have so many references in literature, in music, to the latter, but the former is unknown territory.

Wherever it occurs, slavery was/is certainly exploitative. Differences between the transatlantic and the Indian Ocean slave trade result rather from different labour demands and the ways in which slaves were incorporated into regional societies. In India at least, slaves were not meant for plantation work but served mainly as servants, bodyguards or soldiers and, rarely though, as agricultural labourers. Many women were personal attendants of aristocratic women. In 19th century Gujarat, for example, Sidis served in numerous small princely states. Although they arrived as slaves, once they became part of the court personnel of a ruler, they were treated as other royal servants in a patrimonial system of power. But they were still treated as part of the property of a king. To give an illustration: Sidi maids could be given as part of the dowry of a Rajput bride and had to move with her to her husband's house. In towns, Sidis were given a piece of land for housing and had rights to receive food and clothing from their patrons. There are also numerous shrines dedicated to saintly Sidi ancestors, many of which originated in a gift given by a royal patron.

Today these shrines form important religious centres where Sidis venerate an assembly of black Sufi saints by playing what is known as goma or damal. The first word has its root in Bantu languages, the second derives from Indian Sufi traditions. The interchangeable use of both words for Sidi performances of sacred percussion music and dancing nicely illustrates the fusion of African-derived practices with Indian forms of Sufism.

It is in this context that similarities and differences between African diasporas in the Americas and those in India most prominently come to the fore. As is well known, in the Americas African religions were kept alive by merging African gods with the Christian god and thus provided slaves with a subaltern sphere resisting racial discrimination and exploitation. In India, African spirits were merged with Sufi saints, but their acceptance as superhuman agents was not confined to Sidis. Rather, the veneration of African saints became quite popular, in some instances among the patrons of Sidi servants as well. In this way, African-derived forms of religious and musical practices helped displaced Africans to become assimilated into the social set-up in Gujarat.

One of the numerous shrines dedicated to saintly Sidi ancestors.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Most Indians would not know that there is a considerable presence of Sidis in the country: somehow, Gujarat is associated with Sidis perhaps in our consciousness because of the Gir forest, Kathiawar and lions! What is their situation in Gujarat today?

Yes, there is a widespread stereotype that associates Africa with wilderness and lions. In fact, when the Nawab brought African lions to the Gir forest he also settled some Sidis to care for them. But this alone cannot explain the comparatively large size of a single Sidi settlement in this area. Another reason is that here is one of the rare instances where Sidis were employed as agricultural labourers. The majority of the Gir population consisted of migrant pastoralists. The extension of agricultural cultivation into the forest in the 19th century was initiated by local landlords employing Sidi labourers, many of whom were brought secretly as slaves from Africa. While most Sidis in Gujarat suffer from poverty today, those in the Gir forest may be said to face the severest economic deprivation.

Lack of water, low daily wages and hardly any alternative jobs set the Sidis in the Gir forest apart from those in urban environments. Here, one meets Sidis doing all kinds of work, from industrial labour, street-hawking to driving and domestic service. However, another dividing line among Gujarati Sidis results from unequal access to the benefits of positive discrimination and the enlistment as a "Scheduled Tribe". While Sidis in the Gir forest and elsewhere in Saurashtra have been included in the list of Scheduled Tribes, those residing in mainland Gujarat have not been accepted. As a result, Sidis living in major towns in Saurashtra are generally better educated, and thus more likely to find regular employment in government institutions, than Sidis living in Ahmedabad or Surat. The arbitrary decision of enlisting Sidis on a regional basis gives rise to great dissatisfaction and a continuous - so far unsuccessful - struggle of Sidis in southern Gujarat to find political recognition at par with their relatives in Saurashtra.

My impression is that they are very widely discriminated against. Habshi is a derogatory term here.

In contrast to Dalits, the existence of Sidis is not widely known, not even in Gujarat, and there is no moral discourse about racism as there is about untouchability. Racial stereotypes are found, however, in popular sayings such as "as crooked as a Habshi's hair" or in colonial and postcolonial government reports which often depict Sidis as "prone to pleasure", "lazy", "carefree" and the like. While Sidis are certainly aware of such stereotypes, they have developed their own ironic strategies to counter such images. This includes the rejection of the term Habshi and its substitution by the name `Badsha' (king), by which Sidis are popularly known among those with whom they maintain social relationships. In addition, the term `Sidi' carries a positive connotation because of its association with black sainthood. In their day-to-day life, moreover, Sidis do not complain about discrimination but about political negligence.

This is something difficult for us to understand. For instance, it is well known that African students in Mumbai have been discriminated against: they are not invited to people's homes and have to face all kinds of remarks. How do you explain these double standards?

African students move in a social milieu different from that of the Sidis. Surely, Sidis would not be invited to the houses that are closed to African students. But the social milieu that the Sidis are part of in Gujarat is shaped by a working-class and more composite culture. Social relationships are more inclusive across social communities. It is less stratified than the upper caste Hindu society, especially in urban settings. Muslims have different jamaats and you don't get married outside your jamaat; but apart from this, people's orientations are perhaps more egalitarian in Muslim social contexts. Although hierarchical notions are at work as well, there is still a greater spirit of egalitarianism. Sidis might say: `We are servants', because that defines their status. But servant status would not always prevent those who use their services from mingling with them in religious contexts or from eating with them from the same plate...

They have a Sufi tradition, but here again, there is a big difference. Is not the Sufi tradition in south Asia largely male, unlike in the case of Sidis?

That is another important link to Africa where spirit pantheons are usually gendered. In Sidi Sufi cults, you encounter gendered spaces as well. Just as tombs (dargahs) of male saints can only be entered by men, those of women saints are often restricted to women. The gender hierarchy is not erased; but sometimes, the female saint can occupy a higher position. This is different from other Sufi dargahs, which are usually centred around a single male saint. The place Sidi conceptions give to female agency also touches on a more general debate among Muslims: can you have intermediaries to god, which some Muslims would refute. Among Muslims a debate is going on, seeking to define `true Islam' in terms of an opposition between mosque-centred versus dargah-centred Islam. Sidis mostly agree with the latter position.

What do you see as the future of Sidis: do you see them being assimilated? Is there much inter-marriage?

I think there can be no question that Sidis are `assimilated', both in terms of social integration and in terms of cultural norms. The way Sidis look at marriage shows this very well. Like other communities, Sidis tend to favour endogamous marriages. In their case, endogamy relates to the protection of specific spiritual capacities. These are seen as a gift of a prominent ancestor, Hazrat Bilal. He was a companion of Prophet Mohammad, and the first muezzin who called the faithful for prayer. Since Hazrat Bilal was of Ethiopian origin, Sidis perceive themselves as his descendants who have inherited a spiritual tradition from Hazrat Bilal. Practising this tradition in Gujarat, Sidis contribute to the cultural diversity characteristic of Gujarat's long history of Indian Ocean connections.

Regarding the future I think they face similar problems that other people of their class have to tackle: poverty and limited access to education. Sidis make great individual efforts to overcome poverty but these are often curtailed by structural limitations.

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