JUNAGADH — It was a much-awaited trip to the Gir National Park, abode of the majestic Asiatic Lions. At the end of the two-day visit, not only did I come back enthralled at having spotted a pride of lions feasting on their kill in the wild but also fascinated at learning more about India's little known African-origin tribe, the Siddis, living right outside its periphery.
At first, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Ashif, our guide for the jeep safari in Gir, was a friendly youngster, eager to answer questions and speaking fluent Hindi, while breaking into chaste Gujarati every now and then with the driver. There was no giveaway whatsoever.
As we drove through Talala, a little town nestling against Sasan in the Junagadh district of western Gujarat, it was hard to miss the marked difference in physical features among sections of the ordinary folk on the roads. A group of young school-going girls with their curly hair in braids, confirmed that they belonged to the Siddi tribe and pointed at some others – women in saris; young men on bikes, lounging near shops – as belonging to their tribe as well. If it was the difference that first made them stand out, it was the extent of assimilation with the local culture that was even more striking.
Ashif, who later confirmed that he too belonged to the tribe, however slayed my reaction. "Why should it be surprising? We have been here for centuries," he said.
And it's true. Siddis are believed to the descendants of the Bantu people in East Africa. According to Census 1931, they were brought to India by the Portuguese towards the end of the 17th century, possibly as slaves. Some believe they were brought by the Arabs even earlier, dating back to the 7th century. When slavery was abolished, they fled into the thick jungles, fearing re-capture and torture.
An isolated and reclusive community, the Siddis are spread along the coast of Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Their main population is, however, concentrated in Junagadh district. With an estimated population of 50,000-60,000, they are mostly practicing Muslims, although those in Karnataka are Catholics.
As Ashif says, Siddis follow a way of life that is a mosaic of their roots and of the place which they have called home for the last couple of centuries. The community's folk dance, Dhamal, for instance, is a unique dance form in which male dancers, with their bodies and faces painted, move energetically to drum beats. The acrobatic moves, the style and the rhythm indicate resemblance to African folk dance. Artistes performing Dhamal are usually viewed with great awe at dance festivals, both in India and abroad; the community dance troupes also give performances for tourists in and around Junagadh.
The Siddi community is mainly agriculture-dependent, although it's hard to find many landowners; most of them work as laborers in the fields instead. Largely ignored by the government and hardly known by their fellow countrymen, their socio-economic condition is poor. Those who migrate to bigger towns or cities find odd jobs; others, like Ashif who works as a guide, or Juje Jackie Harnodkar who has a government job in Mumbai, are relatively better off.
"Even then, finding acceptance among our fellow countrymen is difficult," Harnodkar said. "I often face racist comments from fellow passengers on the train and on the road; I have to keep reinstating my Indianness. This is why most of us prefer staying away from the cities and closer to nature."
Harnodkar is a former athlete whose life took a turn when, in 1989, he was selected under the Sports Authority of India's Special Area Games Scheme. The program, which took off in 1987, aimed at scouting for and training members of the Siddi community to represent India as athletes in the international arena. If one were to go back in history, you would find many young, enthusiastic athletes from the community – like Kamala Babu Siddi, who was the national record holder in junior girls pentathlon – who performed extremely well in international competitions. In 1993, however, the scheme was suddenly stopped.
It was a depressing moment for the community, especially because they were only inches away from escaping the bubble of oblivion in their own homeland. Two years back, however, things started looking up once again, as SAI revived the scheme for the community and former Siddi athletes are at the helm of affairs, training younger members with passion. An Olympic medal for India in 2024 is possible, Harnodkar says, confident that sports will pave the way of acceptance for this small community in the country they have called their home for centuries.