Land & People

African Connection

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Siddis, whose ancestors are from Africa, have settled in large numbers in Karnataka's Uttara Kannada district. Here, a few residents of Tottalagundi village in Yellapur taluk in the district. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Nawab Siddi Mohammad Khan III and his mother, Kulsum Bibi. Photo: The Kenneth and Joyce Robbins Collection/By Special Arrangement

African guards for the royalty in Hyderabad, 1904. Photo: Raja Deen Dayal/By Special Arrangement

Siddi Mohammed Haider Khan, the nawab of Sachin (in modern-day Gujarat), in 1930. Photo: The Kenneth and Joyce Robbins Collection/By Special Arrangement

Yasmin, the African wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh. Photo: Royal Collection Trust/By Special Arrangement

Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah of Bijapur and African courtiers, circa 1640. Photo: The British Library Board/By Special Arrangement

The Mughal emperor Jahangir "shooting" Malik Ambar, 1616. Photo: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C/By Special Arrangement

Nawab Siddi Ahmad Khan, the nawab of Janjira from 1879 to 1922. Photo: The Kenneth and Joyce Robbins Collection/ By Special Arrangement)

The fort of Janjira on the horizon as seen from the beach in Murud, a few hours south of Mumbai. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Tourists alighting at the entrance to the fort. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

The remains of what was once a magnificent fort. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A frieze at the entrance of the fort shows a tiger clawing six elephants. The tiger is said to represent Siddis and the elephants the various kingdoms in the region that tried in vain to capture the island fortress. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Cannons overlook the sea from strategically located embrasures in the fort. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed)

Tombs of the nawabs of Janjira in Murud. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

A building in the Ibrahim Rauza complex in Bijapur (now Vijayapura) designed by the architect Malik Sandal, an Ethiopian eunuch. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

The residence in Murud of the current nawab of Janjira. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

At a Siddi home in Tottalagundi. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Diog Siddi, 67, plays the damam, a traditional drum, in Tottalagundi. Fellow Siddis join in for an impromptu jig. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Teenage athletes from the Siddi community at the sports ground of Loyola High School, Mundgod, Uttara Kannada. They are among the 14 students from the community that the SAI has selected so far for its Special Area Games Scheme. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Kamala Mingel Siddi.She won medals for India at three SAF Games. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Teenage athletes from the Siddi community at the sports ground of Loyola High School, Mundgod, Uttara Kannada. They are among the 14 students from the community that the SAI has selected so far for its Special Area Games Scheme. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Sobina Vishanti Bastanv, a talented sprinter, with her father, Vishanti Bastanv, in Mundgod. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Siddi children returning home after school at Mingelpalya village in Yellapur taluk. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Siddi women work on land on the edge of the forest, at Mingelpalya. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Centuries ago, thousands of Africans were brought to India as slaves. They made this country their own, and their descendants can be found mainly in coastal Gujarat and north-west Karnataka.

IT is a humid day in March, and the picture-postcard town of Murud on the Konkan coast a few hours south of Mumbai is boiling in the summer heat. From the coast, the impregnable fortress of Janjira shimmers and looks like it is floating on the sea. A motorboat from the tiny pier takes visitors close to the ramparts from where they are transferred to a smaller rowboat that takes them up to the stone steps leading to the fort.

A frieze at the entrance immediately grabs one’s attention: it shows a tiger clawing six elephants. A local guide says that it depicts the military prowess of Siddis, the name given to African settlers in India, who ruled Janjira for more than 400 years. The tiger represents Siddis, while the elephants represent the various kingdoms in the region, including the Mughals and the Marathas, who had tried in vain to capture this island fortress. It is unclear when the fort was originally built, but it assumed its current majesty when it was reconstructed in the early 18th century.

Janjira was one of more than 500 princely states that acceded to the Union of India in 1948. At the time, the dominion of the little kingdom extended inland for around 800 square kilometres. It had a population of 103,000 in 1941. The island, 22 acres (8.9 hectares) and oval shaped, still has the detritus of what must have once been a flourishing military court. Several cannons overlook the sea from strategically located embrasures. Two freshwater ponds, a lone mosque and the skeleton of a multi-storey building that was the durbar are enclosed by the majestic bastions of the fortress that run around the island. A recent exhibition of paintings and photographs titled “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers” curated by the renowned American scholars Sylviane A. Diouf and Kenneth X. Robbins has turned the spotlight on the small but strategically located kingdom of Janjira and its undefeated fortress, which is considered a feat in military architecture. (The exhibition was brought to India by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in collaboration with the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, New York. It is on at SS Fine Arts College, Vijayapura, Karnataka, until April 30. Over the next few months, it will travel to Surat, Mumbai, Vadodara and Gandhinagar.)

The story of Africans in India begins long before the island fortress of Janjira was constructed, but the fortress remains the most significant architectural vestige of this hoary connection.

East Africa and India had an ancient association that strengthened in medieval times. By the time the British recognised the Siddi nawabs of Janjira as independent rulers in the 19th century, the African presence in the Indian subcontinent, as part of their historic presence in the Indian Ocean world, was long established and pervasive. The term used for an African in India, “Siddi”, is thought to be a corruption of the word “Sayyid”, which attests to the overwhelming Muslim component in the migration of Africans to India. “Habshi”, derived from the Arabic word for Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia), was also commonly used in the past, but its usage has died down now.

Historians have speculated that Indian merchants brought African slaves to India right from the sixth century B.C. But there is concrete evidence to show that forts along the Konkan coast were entrepots for African slaves from the third century A.D. With the expansion of commerce, the trade in slaves grew substantially, with Arab traders taking the lead. Most of the slaves who found their way to India were brought from the region of East Africa coinciding with the modern states of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania and found employment in Muslim and Hindu kingdoms across the subcontinent as soldiers, eunuchs and elite slaves who were not meant for hard labour but for specialised tasks.

Ibn Batuta’s account

The itinerant Moroccan savant Ibn Batuta, who travelled through India in the 1330s and 1340s, writes about a Habshi eunuch called Sunbul who attended on him while he was in Delhi. The Sultan of Delhi also gifted Batuta African slave girls. About the Habshis of Gujarat, Batuta writes that they “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by Indian pirates and idolaters”. In 1572, when the Mughals conquered Gujarat, there were 700 Habshis among the 12,000 horsemen in the service of Gujarat. Many Africans also came to India as traders.

With the establishment of the Portuguese Asian empire in the 16th century, slaves began to be shipped regularly to India from the region of modern Mozambique as well. Goa, Daman and Diu served as the chief ports for this international trade in people. The slave trade was a crucial component of the political economy of the Indian Ocean trade. One estimate says that some 4.7 million Africans were traded as slaves and shipped to Arab lands, Persia and India from 800 A.D. to 1896.

How did Africans fit into Indian society? Contrary to the dictum of Islam that stresses equality among all men, a negative image of “blackness” began to develop in Indian Muslim society in medieval times. Hinduism also did not find space for these black Africans within the caste system. In spite of this, upward social mobility did take place among slaves, mainly in Muslim kingdoms, as mixed marriages took place and Islamic practice allowed for manumission. Siddis married women from the local population and became more “Indianised” with every subsequent generation. In the process, they assimilated with the local population. Among the Siddi elites, it was only the nawabs of Janjira and Sachin (in modern Gujarat) who retained their African features well into the 20th century by consciously practising endogamy.

Another route to upward mobility was their military prowess. The Sharqi sultans of Jaunpur (1394-1479) and the Habshi sultans of Bengal (1486-1493) were of African origin, but it was in the Deccan that they had the most pervasive impact, with the Bahmani, Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda sultanates having high-ranking Africans in their courts. With the decline of the Delhi sultanate and the coming of the Mughals, there was ferment in the subcontinent. In the Deccan, several sultanates were in a tussle with the kingdom of Vijayanagar for political superiority that culminated in the Battle of Talikota (1565). Increasing military competitiveness between the 15th and 16th centuries led to a constant demand for valorous African mercenaries. Among them, the charismatic Malik Ambar in Ahmednagar was a bugbear for the Mughals.

Jahangir’s hatred for this Deccani bulwark was so intense that he commissioned a richly metaphorical painting in 1616 of him shooting an arrow through the decapitated head of Ambar. An owl, a symbol of the night, is perched on Ambar’s lifeless head. Two inscriptions accompanying the painting show how skin colour was used as a factor in the battles of the era. The first inscription states: “The head of the night-coloured usurper has become the house of the owl.” The second inscription reads: “Thine enemy-smitting arrow has driven from the world, [Ambar] the owl, which fled the light.” In both these pithy statements, Jahangir’s obsession with Ambar’s colour is evident and can perhaps be inferred as an attempt on his part to consolidate support on the basis of race.

The Ethiopia-born Ambar came to the Deccan via West Asia where he was enslaved as a youth. His ownership changed hands at least three times before he arrived in India, where he was sold to a Habshi nobleman in 1575. By this time, Africans in India could already be found in senior military and political positions. Ikhlas Khan, a Habshi in Bijapur, was also immensely powerful at around the same time.

With the death of his master, Ambar gained his freedom and built a large Habshi force, transforming himself into an important player in Ahmednagar. Ambar had surrounded himself with a cohort of powerful Habshi nobles. He played a role in establishing the kingdom of Janjira as well. By 1607, he had become the regent of Ahmednagar and was a formidable foe of the Mughals. He developed the guerrilla art of warfare called bargi-giri (later used by the Marathas), which frustrated the forces of Jahangir as he mentioned in his court memoir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Ambar is also credited with building the city of Khadki (now Aurangabad), and his astuteness as a military tactician played an important role in the history of medieval India. He died in 1626 at the age of 80; his tomb is in Khuldabad, Aurangabad district, Maharashtra. Ambar’s case shows how Siddis in India could attain their freedom and move socially upward.

The Deccan also saw Siddi architects such as the eunuch Malik Sandal, who is said to have designed several majestic monuments in Bijapur in the late 16th century, including the Ibrahim Rauza. Evidence shows that African women also married Indian royals. Yasmin Mahal, one of the wives of Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh, was an African.

The Portuguese freed several African slaves in the 18th century. Some of them went south to the forests of north-west Karnataka, while some may have found their way to Bombay (now Mumbai). There is evidence to show that in the late 18th century, British families in Bombay employed African slaves imported by Portuguese and Arab traders. An estimate made in 1811, stated that 6,000 to 10,000 slaves were shipped annually to Muscat, India and the Mascarene Islands (the island chain that includes Mauritius). Up to 1860, well after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, slaves continued to be surreptitiously shipped to India. Bombay is said to have had a population of 2,000 Africans in 1864. Many of them migrated to Hyderabad where the Nizam formed an exclusive African cavalry guard.

When Nawab of Janjira Siddi Mohammad Khan acceded to India in 1948, he vacated his island fortress and moved to the ornate Ahmedgunj palace on the coast of Murud. Today, the island fortress stands as a reminder of how Siddis once controlled the strategic marine lanes in the region. The current nawab, a son of Mohammad Khan, is fiercely private and reclusive. According to the residents of Murud, he does not have any contact with them, but the aura of his presence and that of his royal forbears seems to linger over the bucolic little town, which comes alive during the summer school holidays. Urban legends thrive and are freely told by the local people to curious tourists.

In Murud, a tea vendor on the beach, tells a couple of young men that the nawab is Habshi. While the duo look at him quizzically, he helpfully adds: “…like Dharmendra in the film Razia Sultana”. The men nod as they get it, but the vendor is quick to add a caveat: “The nawab is tall and broad and has curly hair like Africans, but he’s fair. You really can’t make out that he’s Habshi. He looks like one of us now.”

Siddis in Karnataka

But that is generally not the case, especially among the 40,000-odd Siddis who live in the heavily forested taluks of Yellapur and Haliyal in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. And they live on the margins of poverty. “Almost all of us are BPL [below poverty line] card holders, and we have only around a hundred graduates,” says Mohan Siddi, a Siddi who has a master’s in social work and is studying the socio-economic condition of Siddis for his PhD. One area in which they have excelled is sports, particularly athletics. Sport has indeed helped the small community of Siddis. “Sport is important for us as the few Siddis who have achieved economic stability and respectability are the ones who excelled in sports,” he adds.

People like Kamala Siddi, who works with the South-Western Railway in Hubli, got her job through the sports quota. Other athletes work in different departments of the government. Philip Siddi, who represented India at the Junior Asian Games in the 1,500 metres track event, is with the Border Security Force and is currently posted in Jammu and Kashmir. Francis Salu Siddi, who was a national-level long distance runner, is with the Punjab Police. Luis Vishanti Brize, a triple jump athlete, is also with the South-Western Railways in Hubli. There are other examples like Juje Jackie Siddi, who was the goalkeeper for the Salgaocar Football Club in Goa.

Sobina Vishanti Bastanv, a ninth standard student at the Loyola High School located on the outskirts of Mundgod in Uttara Kannada, is a talented sprinter and part of the group of 14 potential athletes the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has identified to receive training under its Special Area Games (SAG) Scheme for Siddis. Ten girls and four boys from Uttara Kannada district have been identified under the scheme so far, according to M. Shyam Sunder, Regional Director of SAI at Bengaluru.

Priya Birje is also a part of this cohort. She is a second-year Pre-University Course student and is training for long jump, high jump and the 400 metres track event. Her Siddi friends say she is the best runner among them. She won a slew of prizes at the School Games Federation of India event held in Mangaluru last year. She smiles radiantly as she states: “I want to represent India in athletics.”

Jonathan Doddamane is one of the four Siddi boys from Uttara Kannada in the SAI’s scheme. He is in the ninth standard and says that the 3,000 metres track event is his favourite, nonchalantly adding that he is already a taluk-level champion.

Soon, these teenagers will be moved to a permanent training centre—which has suitable sporting facilities, including a large ground and a dormitory that can accommodate around 60-70 athletes—on the edge of the forest town of Dandeli in the same district. With the administrative formalities almost complete, the SAI expects the district administration to hand over the space within the next few months. The idea is to tap into the supposed athletic superiority of Siddis. In Dandeli, an earnest attempt will be made to build an athletics contingent from among the African-origin runners of India.

This is not the first time that Siddis have been involved in an effort like this. In 1988, when Margaret Alva was the Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sport, a SAG Scheme was launched, and 65 athletes were chosen in two batches and trained in Bengaluru. The training was mysteriously wound up after a few years, but not before a few Siddi athletes attained relative fame, with some even representing India at the international level.

Kamala Mingel Siddi’s is the first name to be mentioned whenever the athletic prowess of Siddis is discussed as she represented India at three South Asian Federation (SAF) Games (now known as South Asian Games). While lauding the initial training and encouragement she received (she was part of the second batch of athletes), she says that things began to fall apart once the Siddi athletes were moved to the SAI hostel in Kengeri. “There was a coach there who did not like Siddis, and all the talented athletes among us were weeded out,” she says. In spite of this prejudice, at the SAF Games Kamala secured the third place in the 100 metres hurdles in 1993 and the second place in the 400 metres hurdles in 1995 and 1999.

Vishanti Bastanv, a sturdy man of 45 and the father of Sobina, was also a member of the second cohort of Siddi athletes the SAI selected, and he competed at the State-level. Originally a farmer from Gadagera, a village deep in the forest in Haliyal taluk, Bastanv recalls that he felt alienated at the SAG training centre. “I did not know Kannada or Hindi. The food was of good quality, but I didn’t enjoy eating it. I travelled to Delhi and was also trained at a camp in Sanawar [in Himachal Pradesh] where I stayed for a month. I competed at the State-level but couldn’t continue my training as I had to return to the village.” Community leaders such as Kaitan. F. Kambrekar, also from Gadagera, who accompanied the athletes on their training sojourns, says that the Siddis who were chosen felt like “fish out of water”. “The scheme should have been somewhere close to where we live,” he says.

A source in the SAI who was associated with the scheme at the time said on condition of anonymity that it was an “administrative failure”. He said that there were a lot of dropouts and that Siddis were uncomfortable about moving to Bengaluru, where training was held at Kanteerva Stadium. Another official said that Siddis were not offered any educational opportunities and claimed that it was hard to train them as they did not have sufficient “grasping power”. Officials at the SAI claim to have taken all these problems into consideration this time around, and the training centre is located close to Siddi villages. Schools are also present in the vicinity so that the education of the athletes is not affected. Dandeli is not far from the wide arc of villages where most of the Siddis of Karnataka live. Around 5,000 Siddis live in the adjoining districts of Dharwad and Belagavi as well.

Most Siddis continue to live as farmers in villages abutting the thick forests of Uttara Kannada. Why did they end up in this region? Diog Siddi, 67, says that according to oral accounts he heard while growing up, Siddis retreated to the forests to escape harassment. He adds that over the centuries many other Siddis came to the region attracted by the verdant jungles. There is evidence to show that some African slaves freed by the Portuguese came south to the region where they currently live. The large proportion of Christians among Siddis with Portuguese-sounding names gives some credence to this theory, but there are also Muslim and Hindu Siddis. Mohan Siddi does not entirely believe that all the Siddis of Uttara Kannada descended from slaves, and the history of Siddis in India also shows that there were various social classes among them because of upward social mobility.

Discrimination severely affected community members, and for several decades they remained alienated from modern society. “We were treated as outcastes, especially by Brahmin households because of our colour,” says Diog Siddi. Mohan Siddi, who was born in a Hindu Siddi family, says that his mother who works as a maid in a Brahmin household still has to eat food outside the house on a plantain leaf as “…we are considered untouchable”. Siddis are discriminated against on the basis of race and caste. For instance, Mohan Siddi says that when he was growing up in Kalleshwar village of Ankola taluk in Uttara Kannada district, he often hated cricket matches as they gave village children a chance to mock him by calling him names of West Indian cricketers.

Since Siddis are divided on religious lines, it was hard to bring them together, but certain commonalities they share such as the worship of the saint Doodh Nana and the annual Siddi Nash festival helped to unite them. The community took nascent steps to organise itself in the 1980s. A long agitation led it to being recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in 2003. With affirmative action and concomitant state benefits, there has been a slight change in the socio-economic condition of Siddis, but much more remains to be done.

Only a handful of Siddis venture out of Uttara Kannada. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 allows them to be given small portions of land, but forest officials now restrict them from collecting minor forest produce, which was a way for them to add to their meagre incomes. Many people, even in the closest large town like Dharwad, are unaware that people of a distinct race live just a couple of hours away from them. Priya Birje says that when she competed in Mangaluru, a few hours by road from Mundgod, her fellow athletes asked her whether she was from Africa. “They were shocked when I spoke to them in Kannada. People still don’t know that we are Indian,” she says. Her parents, like those of the 13 other Siddi teenagers selected for the SAG Scheme, work as agriculturists.

Considering the historical factors of marginalisation, it is evident that the community does need state support, but some aspects of the SAI scheme are discomfiting as it has chosen to privilege a community and provide special athletic training on the basis of “race”. On being asked whether there was any scientific evidence to show that Siddis were athletically superior, officials at the SAI evaded the question by replying with non sequiturs. One senior official from Delhi said that Siddis had a “natural advantage”. Another said that there was no doubt about their “athletic superiority” and mentioned the many Siddi athletes who achieved success in the late 1980s. A third official stated that no results could be guaranteed and that this was a “trial-and-error” effort.

These vague and patronising statements make it seem like the selection of these Siddis amounts to a form of benevolent racism. While the community is severely deprived, schemes like the SAG can be accused of focussing on only one aspect of Siddis. The scheme may certainly lead to the development of excellent athletes, but it also raises the question whether an alternative broad-based development approach that targeted deprivation on the whole would have also produced sportspersons while benefiting the community as a whole.

Father Johnson Pinto, the principal of Loyola School in Mundgod, says that Siddi children “are easily segregated because of their looks and their language. While they mingle with the other children, something holds them back from mixing freely. Academically, they are struggling but from my observation, their physique gives them advantage in sports.”

Thousands of Africans were brought to India on crowded dhows. They made this country their own and rose through the ranks to become rulers, generals, administrators, soldiers and architects. Someone like Ambar could have gone back to his native Abyssinia when he secured his freedom, but he chose to remain in India and had an impact on this land’s history. Other African people remained among the subalterns, and their descendants can be found mainly in coastal Gujurat and north-west Karnataka, retaining the vestiges of their distinctive culture. The exhibition on Siddis helps one learn about the history of Africans in India and provokes one to engage with the nuanced and multilayered notions of being Indian. It is all the more pertinent as the United Nations has declared 2015-24 as the “International Decade for People of African Descent”.

References

Diouf, Sylviane, A. and Kenneth X. Robbins (2016): The curatorial note for the exhibition “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers”.

Prasad, Kiran Kamal and Jean-Pierre Angenot (eds) (2006): Papers presented at the First International Conference on TADIA (the African Diaspora in Asia) held at Panaji, Goa, May.

Harris, Jonathan G. (2015): “Malik Ambar, the Vakil-us-Sultanat of Khadki”, The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners who Became Indian, New Delhi: Aleph Book Company.

Jasdanwalla, Faaeza (2011): “African Settlers on the West Coast of India: The Sidi Elite of Janjira”, African and Asian Studies, Vol. 10, pp. 41-58. (Faaeza Jasdanwalla is the granddaughter of the last nawab of Janjira, Siddi Mohammad Khan.)

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