“We know that you Indians want to see us, the n*****, act like animals,” said Nazim Siddi, 30.
Nazim’s words, and his deliberate usage of a racial slur, lashed me like a whip.
I was attending a Goma performance on top of a secluded hillock behind the mazar of Baba Gohr in Ratanpur, located 30 km from Gujarat’s Bharuch. Goma comes from the Swahili word “damama”, meaning drums, and is a dance form that originated in the African bushes.
It came to India through Africans brought to the subcontinent as slaves across six centuries until the 1860s. The performers at Ratanpur are descendants of these slaves, now known as the Siddi community. Nazim was the leader of the troupe, and his comment came in response to my question as to why, after the performance, he and the others went into the nearby bushes to chew raw leaves.
Nazim’s comment, as an Indian dissociating his community from this Indian-ness, is testament to the marginalised condition of the Siddi community today.
Racism is as much a religion in India as is cricket. And the Siddi community of Gujarat reflects a contemporary form of slavery in democratic India. They prefer to stay together, since they face racial slurs outside. This is also why they don’t migrate to more prosperous states for better wages.
Once considered the smallest of Gujarat’s vulnerable tribal communities, the Siddis were notified as a nomadic tribe in the 2011 census. Since then, they live in fear of the government evicting them from their farmland.
In Ratanpur, the community of 100-odd Siddi families depend solely on the mazar of Baba Gohr for their sustenance. They no longer own any land, depending instead on the forests for its treasures, and run shops at the base of the hillock, selling tea, flowers, incense, religious relics, chadars, and other trinkets.
Baba Gohr is said to have migrated to Surat in the 14th century from Sudan. He made his fortune by trading in pearls. Late in his life, he became a Sufi peer and, renouncing everything, came to live in the seclusion of Ratanpur. Other Sudanese in Surat followed him – I could not find out whether this migration was a spiritual journey or an imposed exile on the African community in these parts.
Given how Indians love to associate Africa with “black magic”, the Baba’s mazar in the middle of nowhere earned a reputation for being able to “cure” people who have been “possessed” by spirits. I watched a teenage boy being chained to a pillar for three days straight so the Baba could drive away the spirit that had taken hold of him.
Even today, Ratanpur’s microeconomics is structured on this dubious reputation. The village does not have a primary school or a primary healthcare facility. Instead, it’s a haunted bastion of blind faith.
In his book The African Slave Trade to Asia and the Indian Ocean Islands, Robert Collins estimated that about 5.5 million African slaves were brought eastward. Most of them landed in India. Records show that Gujarati traders in Zanzibar played a central role in slave trade during its bull period, from the late 18th century to the early 19th century.
Slaves brought to India were usually engaged in local kings’ armies, with some of them gathering political influence over time. After the East India Company imposed the Permanent Settlement in 1793 – first in Bengal and then the rest of India – all rulers lost their right to maintain an army, resulting in the Africans losing their jobs.
These Africans then began moving to the margins, as their assimilation into the greater society never happened. They looked “too African” in body and belief.
Marginalised in every sense, 35,000 Siddis in Gujarat came to live in small pockets near Bharuch and Jamnagar. Their presence is somewhat noticeable in 18 villages around Gir forest.
In Gir region, Jambur is the biggest Siddi village, located deep within the forest. Here, I met Imtiaz, 27, who came face to face with his first lion at the age of seven.
“O chandni ke raat tha. Hum sat saal ka the. O sher hum se ucha tha,” he said. It was a full moon night. I was seven. That lion was taller than me.
Imtiaz belongs to the present generation of Afro-Indians who were once employed in the army of the Nawab of Junagarh. The Nawab rehabilitated them to the wilderness of Gir, allotting them farming lands.
Seventy years later, Imtiaz and his fellow Siddis fear land-sharks more than lions and leopards. They have good reason: they are of African origin, they are Muslim, and they live in Gujarat. Imtiaz explained how unknown faces, accompanied by representatives from the police and government, often visit their fields to claim portions of their land, waving papers that the Siddis cannot make head or tail of.
Apart from farming their half-acre of land, Imtiaz and his brother sell toys at village fairs around the districts of Gir-Somnath and Junagarh. Their family of seven rarely earns more than Rs 10,000 a month.
His mother, Rubaiya Siddi, sat nearby, her face lit by the blood-red embers in the depth of her big oven. She showed me her field, where a group of women sat under the shade of a jackfruit tree, gossiping and singing. The black earth around them was prepared to farm. A number of sturdy sticks were kept ready to take on any encroacher.
Siddi society is essentially women-driven, and its women are formidable.
In the village of Ankolvadi, located at Gir’s core, Siddi families live in conditions far more wretched. There’s no public school nearby, so their children walk eight km a day to attend classes. Their parents work as temporary labourers in Talala and Junagarh.
In Talala, Hossian Siddi, a spirited protector of the community’s interests, put it plainly: “Nikal dene se hum sab mar jayenge.” We will all die if evicted.
In the city of Jamnagar, the population of 3,000-odd Siddis are relatively well-off and educated. Their unofficial spokesperson, Rafiq Siddi, 60, took me to a gathering organised to felicitate two elderly Siddi couples who had just returned from Haj.
Looking around at those in attendance, I could not see a single non-Siddi face. There was a lot of laughter and hugging. Heaps of biryani were cooked and distributed, each plate shared by five or six people in true community spirit.
As I looked at the beaming faces of the four Hajjis, my mind took me back to a ship named Al-Jagir. It was 1333, and the ship had taken another Hajji, named Ibn Batuta, to Kathiawar. At the time, 50 Abyssinian men at arms had guarded him on his journey from attacks by pirates. It was a time when Baba Ghor had made Gujarat his home.
Sitting with the Siddi community today, I wondered whether Ibn Batuta’s Abyssinians had also made this their home.
Ayesha Siddi has formed a group of women who guard the Siddi lands day and night. After being notified as a ‘nomadic tribe’ in the 2011 census, it’s become more difficult for them to keep landsharks away. Ayesha sometimes feels that she is fighting a lost war.
Imtiaz from Jambur shows clandestine photos to explain how officials have been visiting their land and claiming part of it belongs to someone else. Imtiaz wonders whether land held by a tribal family can be legally transferred by sale to a non-tribal, even if his forefathers wished for it.
Urs is celebrated in all Siddi shrines. Hardliners don’t approve of the Siddi brand of Sufi Islam as it is deeply rooted in African rituals. Singers and drummers take centrestage during any Siddi celebration, and herbs are burnt to drive off evil spirits.
The Siddi settlements near Surva in Gir Somnath district are practically a wasteland. The barren nature of the terrain, along with frequent man-lion or man-leopard conflicts, show the extent of the Siddis’ helplessness after independence, when they chose to settle on this dead land. There are no schools, healthcare facilities, or hygienic toilets, while there’s rampant corruption and a severe shortage of water.
Thanks to their athleticism and physical structure, plans have often been made to make use of the Siddis’ talent in sports. The Sports Authority of India conducted a programme for them when Margaret Alva was the sports minister. Juje Siddi, who kept goal in India’s national soccer team, was a result of that initiative. The programme was withdrawn when Alva’s term ended.
The Siddis turned to Islam under their captors and then, influenced by Bawa Ghor, took to its Sufi tradition. Africa is very much present in their brand of Sufism. This is best seen at the dargah of Bawa Ghor at Ratanpur, near Bhahuch. On auspicious occasions, Dhamal – a term derived from ‘damama’ – is performed at Bawa Ghor’s dargah. Here, believers sing ecstatically to invoke the spirit of Bawa Ghor.
Racial and colour discrimination prevented the Siddis from being part of Indian culture. The process of acculturation didn’t happen to them.
Now 60, Rafiq Siddi, of Jamnagar, did stray jobs all his life and is now the lead musician in a band of middle-aged Afro-Indian singers. He frequently goes into pensive Kishore Kumar mode in between talks. His team is hired for weddings and other social occasions to perform, and earns Rs 8,000-10.000 per performance. Rafiq is a passionate spokesperson of Siddi culture and history, and wants to bring all Siddis in India onto a common platform.
Goma, the main dance form of the Siddis, is very popular now, and frequent calls to perform made it a fair profession to Siddi youth. Dancers imitate and personify animals of the forest, and their performance establishes the supreme power of the natural world. They get calls from hotels in Sasan Gir, and each dancer earns Rs 400-500 if they can mimic animals to the tourists’ delight.
In many ways, Siddi women are more formidable than men. Rubayia Siddi of Jambur cooks for a family of 9, keeps account of who will guard the village fields and when, and also runs a co-operative for women’s welfare.
At a Siddi village near Gadhesariya on Una Road. The Siddis of Gujarat feel that in a free and democratic India, they have been abandoned to fate.
Rasul Badasha Bachchu works as a diver and is usually hired to retrieve valuable cargo from submerged ships. His specialty is emptying the fuel chamber of ships sunk deep to save marine life from contamination. It’s a risky job but he earns barely Rs 15,000 a month, even though he must invest in diving gear or even rent better gear, if required, from Maharashtra. The state provides him no insurance.
Poorly educated and living in remote pockets away from power circles, the Siddi youth is either jobless or earning little by doing menial jobs. In 6 districts (Amreli, Jamnagar, Junagarh, Bhavnagar, Rajkot and Surendranagar) of Gujarat the Siddis are treated as a Scheduled Tribe. But that means nothing as a Siddi youth rarely crosses the threshold necessary to apply for a government job.
Siddi Sufism accommodates cures for spirit possession as a metaphysical practice. Superstitious Indians love to believe that the Siddis transported into India – and still kept alive – the art of African “black magic”. Bawa Ghor’s dargah in Ratanpur earned its fame as a shrine able to call up divine intervention against spirit possession.
The Siddis – 100,000 strong in a country of 1.3 billion – don’t have a political identity. Settled in scattered zones over Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra makes it impossible for them to communicate with each other, and their society is fractured and far-flung.
While guarding her field, a Siddi woman sings her heart out. Women wait in the shade with sticks, hoping to keep away land-grabbing predators from their fields. A boy with a mobile phone usually gives them company; his job is to take photos of potential intruders and send messages to other villagers if required.
In Jambur village, a small stall caters to the needs of villagers who have limited purchasing power. Siddis in this zone became a farming community immediately after they stopped serving the Nawab of Junagarh’s army, and the Nawab allotted land to their families for necessary rehabilitation. The Siddis cannot afford to depend on that land any further, and are mostly engaged as unskilled labourers in nearby towns.
‘Siddi Jamat’ is the Siddis’ social institution that monitors the purity of their culture and bloodline. Apart from Bhavnagar, no Siddi is allowed to marry outside his or her community. A Jamat is usually comprised of village elders. In a procession known as ‘valgad’ – taken out for the purpose of exorcism of evil spirits – the members of a Jamat take the lead.
This boy of about 15 underwent a ‘possession’ ritual at the dargah of Baba Ghor after he reportedly stopped speaking or responding. He was chained to a pillar for three straight days during this ‘treatment’ in a chamber full of smoke.
Imtiaz watches waves crashing on stones at Veraval. On the other side of the Arabian Sea lies Muscat, Mogadishu and Zanzibar – the famed trade route that mostly traded in slaves. Economist Earnest Ravenstein once wrote about ‘reverse migration’, but Imtiaz knows the Siddis cannot cross the Arabian Sea once more.
Many Siddis from around Talala are engaged in the shipbuilding industry in Veraval. They work under contractors and take home a daily wage of Rs 500-600. They help in building dhows for wealthy Arabs now. Their forefathers were once transported as slaves in the same kind of wooden ships.
The Siddis in Gujarat seem to be a community banished by fate. Government apathy coupled with politically motivated inaction never equipped them with citizens’ rights.
At 10, Selim is already part of his village’s Goma team. He bunks school if his team gets a call. He looks formidable standing against the horizon, except that his fate is a trail of poverty and discrimination.