Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Africans of India

The Indian society is a beautiful piece of fabric with many colours. As I explained in some of my previous articles, the various clans we see among the Indian castes today are also a result of migration, both in and out of India during the last 2,000 years.

Marfa band of the Siddis. Picture credit THE HINDU.

Among these different castes or clans, there is one known as the Siddi people. They are not natives of India, they are actually descendants of the Bantu people from Africa. The Siddis were brought to India few hundred years ago. They are mostly Muslims. Many served in the army of the Mughals.

Some of you, especially those within my circle of friends would have remembered a discussion which we had few months ago. It was regarding the Siddis and also the tribes of Andaman.

On 9 February 2014, a professor from Sweden contacted me via my Facebook page. He noticed my writings and requested me to spread some of his research. It was an honor to be acknowledged by this professor.

I will post his research works in this article today. It will be below this image. Enjoy reading!

LINGUISTIC EVIDENCE OF BANTU ORIGINS OF THE SIDIS OF INDIA by Prof. Abdulaziz Lodhi, Uppsala University (Sweden).

[Published in TADIA: The African Diaspora in Asia – Explorations on a less known fact. Banglore, India, 2008. p. 301-313. Gujarati translation of the paper as a separate booklet “Gujarat-na Sidi lok-no Itihas” (= A history of the Sidi people of Gujarat) published by Sidi Goma & Al-Mubrik Charitable Trust, Bhavnagar, India, 2008.]

The Sidis of India are fragmented communities of mostly East African ancestry. They are descendants of Muslim African traders, sailors, mercenaries and slaves. They speak half a dozen different Indic languages (Gujarati dialects, or a mixture of Gujarati and Hindi, Sindhi and its dialect Cutchi, Urdu, Dakhini, Marathi, Malayalam, Konkani and Kannada, with some Bantu/Swahili words and phrases.

Free Eastern Africans were recruited, or African slaves were randomly caught, from different tribal lands; they usually spoke related languages and several individuals in any one free contingent or slave shipment came from the same area or were members of the same language group. Hence they could communicate in an African language in the beginning; but as mixed groups, small in number and spread over wide areas surrounded by large Indian languages with a long literary tradition, they could not maintain nor transmit their original languages and cultures to posterity. Instead they became localised, retaining only few East-central 

African elements in their speech. Islam, the religion of the politically dominant section of the Indian society of the last millenium with whom most of the Sidis were initially allied, became a common denominator of their cultural identification and also facilitated their social and linguistic integration, and economic, political and military success in many areas, before the advent of European colonial rule.

The available Bantu linguistic data in the speech of the Sidis, erroneously identified by several writers as Swahili, appears to have been derived from languages spoken in Mainland Tanzania. In recent years, research interest in the various Sidi and Shidi communities has given them a wider recognition. Sidi cultural societies have been participating internationally with their Muslim Sufi song and dance and their renewed contacts with East Africa have increased slightly the number of Bantu words in their language use, such as Swahili greetings, emphasising their East African heritage and misconceiving Swahili as their ancestral language.

1. Introduction
Scattered and less known communities of African descent in the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka and the nearby islands in the Indian Ocean are generally known as Sidi or Siddi. Their presence in India was first mentioned in colonial annals as a novelty or in Census Reports (Freeman.Grenville 1988:XVII). However, recently several serious studies about their history, social organisation, cultural and economic activity, their military exploits in the various colonial armies and their political participation have been presented at international conferences by both Indian and Western scholars (Indian Ocean Studies Conference 2002, UCLA, Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003). 

2. Historical background
Camara (1997) reported the self-identifying “Afro-Indians”, i.e. Indians of African origin in India, to number about 35 000, settled in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka, and in the former Portuguese territories of Daman, Diu and Goa. Today their number is estimated to be 76 000 in Gujarat alone. In Gujarat they are found in the districts of Ahmedabad, Amerili, Jamnagar, Junagadh, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Bharuch, Ratanpur, Surendranagar and Cutch. According to the Census Report of India (Naik & Pandya, 1981), Sidis in Gujarat in 1971 numbered about 5000 and during the past decades their number has increased slightly and has been fairly constant there because of migration, mainly to the Mumbai region. They are normally settled in areas/hamlets/villages of their own but in Ahmedabad, Bharuch and Cutch they live in mixed areas as they do in parts of Andhra Pradesh.

These Afro-Indians are variously known as Sidhi/Sidi/Siddi or Habshi/Habsi in India, Shidi/Shidee in Pakistan and Kaffir in Sri Lanka. It is generally accepted by scholars that these ethnonyms tell us that the Sidis were in the employ of Sayyads, the Muslim rulers of India, and that many of them came from Ethiopia and Sudan in the 1500s as mercenaries and prisoners of war sold as slaves (Pankhurst 2003). The Arabic religious and/or aristocratic title ‘Sayyad’ or ‘Sayyid’is usually given as the etymology of the ethnonyms Sidhi, Sidhdhi, Siddi, Sidi, or Shidi. 

My recent research into the etymology of the term Sidi, and its variants, suggests a possible alternative meaning of the term Sidi, i.e. Arabic ‘saydi’ with the emphatic /ŝ/ consonant ‘saad’ (ﺺ ) meaning "captive" or "prisoner of war" instead of the established Arabic religious and/or aristocratic title ‘Sayyad’, ‘Sayyid’, ‘Seyyid’, Sayed or ‘Syed’ with the non-emphatic /s/ consonant ‘siin’ (ﺲ) which is ultimately reduced to ‘Sidi’ in many African dialects of Arabic, whereas the former term with the emphatic / ŝ / consonant is not reduced in this way.

In the past, Sudanese and Ethiopian prisoners of war were sold as slaves to other African rulers who sold them to slave traders who in turn brought them to the Middle East and India. As late as the beginning of the 20th century, in the Ottoman armies there were more than 10 000 African mercenaries spread all over the Ottoman empire. The term Sidi might have been borrowed in India from early Arabic/Ottoman usage. In pre-Ottoman period, African soldiers in India were referred to as Habshi or Habsi). Early African soldiers in India appear to have been mostly freemen and mercenaries, and it has been established that there were several groups of Africans who were traders and sailors who had immigrated to India. Thus all Africans in India were not slaves nor were they of slave descent. However, Sidis in the Portuguese enclaves and most Sidi females in domestic employ in the aristocratic households were probably slaves or of slave origin. Ian Hancock (PC 1996) is of the opinion that many Sidis appear to have deserted the various armies at different times and found refuge among the Gypsy/Roma already in India and also after the Roma came to Europe, and got assimilated. This is sometimes apparent in the physiognomy of some Roma with darker complexion and somewhat wooley hair. 

A great majority of the Sidis of India today are Sunni Muslims, and the few Hindus and Christians are found in Daman, Goa and Karnataka. The Karnataka Sidis are descendants of the deserters who left Portuguese Goa and fled to the forest across the border, and they most probably originate in Mozambique and Angola. 

The Sidis are loosely organised into mostly endogamous tribes or professional castes. The Royal Sidis are survivors of the former Sidi State of Jafarabad established by the Sidi Naval Chief of Janjira during the time of the warrior King Shivaji of the Maratha in the mid-1600s. These Jafarabad Sidis together with the Royal Sidis in Hyderabad, Aurangabad and the former Sidi principalities of Radhanpur in the Kathiawar region of north Gujarat, and in Sachin near the port of Surat, marry mostly among themselves or with upper class/caste Muslim Indians. In some cases they have special tribal names such as the Tai of Saurashtra, the Shemali of Jambur (probably of Somali origin) , the Kafara of Diu (probably from southern Mozambique and/or South Africa) and the Saheli of Daman (probably from the Kenya-Tanzania coast). In a few cases in Cutch they also have traditional Indian caste names such as Sidhi Langa (Musicians/Drummers), Sidhi Dhobi (Washermen) and Sidhi Kharwa (Sailors).

The Kafara Sidi of Diu have maintained some of their East African customs and a few linguistic items. Small groups of Shemali Sidis and Saheli Sidis have kept alive some rites and rituals from their East African Bantu past, but otherwise the Sidis are de facto Indians since they speak Indian languages as their mother-tongues and practice mostly the Indian variant of Sunni Islam with the Indian Sufi cult of pir (saint) with rituals and celebrations performed at a dargah (mausoleums, shrine). At these shrines they worship also ancestors and founders of settlements (Patel 1986, Catlin 2002, Basu 2002, and Shroff 2002). 

There are several legends about the origins of some early Sidi settlements but so far no contemporary written record has been found to verify their early oral history or substantiate the Sidi claims of various ancestries; however, there are a few early reports by European officials and travellers and one short language study by the explorer Richard F. Burton (1851). 

According to one commonly accepted legend (Patel 1986), the founder of the Sidi settlement in Jambur in Gujarat is supposed to have originally come from Kano in Nigeria via the Sudan and Mecca after his Hajj pilgrimage. This leader was a wealthy merchant by the name of Bawa/Baba Ghor who first settled in the Rajpipla Hills near Bharuch and Khambat where he developed mining and trade in agate, the precious stone known as akik in India. A certain variety of agate beads are known as Baba Ghori; another maroon cornelian stone is named after his sister and successor Mai Mariyam, also known as Mai Misra/Mishra. 

It appears that a large number of Sidis came, or were brought, to India from different parts of Africa as soldiers to serve in the Muslim armies of the Nawabs and Sultans - hence their Muslim faith and relative absence of the Hindu caste system among them. Many were officials in the Muslim, and later Hindu, armies and as royal bodyguards some of them rose to power in more than one place i.e. Jafarabad, Radhanpur, Ahmedabad and Aurangabad. Some were singers and ceremonial drummers. In Gujarat the drummers are known as nagarchi, and the Chief Drummer had the title of nagarsha(h) (King of Drums). In Cutch and Sindh, the Sidi singer-drummers are known as langa (male lango, female langi) and they are prestigious and respectable professionals. It is also claimed by the Shemali Sidi that one of Bawa Ghor's younger brothers was a nagarsha in the former Kingdom of Madhapur, and he is worshipped as one of the several pirs in Jambur.

Some Sidis came to India as special servants in the courts of Muslim Nawabs and Sultans, some came as herbalists and midwives, a few were brought by Indian merchants returning home from Africa, and a few were brought as domestic slaves especially in the Portuguese territories (Shirodkar 1985:27 and passim).

Noble north Indian families had a convention of keeping Habshi, or other non-Indians, as personal attendants since servants having no local social or blood connections or roots guaranteed political loyalty and security (as was the case with the Arab/Omani sultans of Zanzibar whose armed forces and administrative personnel consisted mainly of the Balochi and Makrani of Iran/Pakistan, and Cutchi/Sindhi and Pathan of north-west India). Very few African slaves were brought to the Indian sub-continent to provide cheap labour. 

Ownership of African slaves was an expensive affair since local Indian feudal practices related to slavery provided abundant indigenous cheap or free labour to rulers, land-owners and the upper castes. The rulers of India could also obtain slaves of various categories from other parts of Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. The descendants of these slaves of different origins in most Muslim societies generally cannot be distinguished as racial or ethnic groups or minorities since most of them were employed in the higher administration and the armies, serving different governments and later marrying the natives. As Bates & Rassam (1989) describe it, they were a kind of life-long servants of the ruler, rather than slaves in the Western sense.

3. The Sidis today
Before the coming of the British rule in India, the Sidis were undergoing a process of assimilation, but the British divide-and-rule policy segregated the Sidi groups from one another and also from the indigenous Indian communities in which they lived. As a result, the Sidis have been ‘re-tribalised’ and have become impoverished in many areas. 

Those Sidi settlements in Gujarat which are organised as separate communities with a tribal system existing outside the main political stream and currents of socio-economic development, have been classified by the Central Government as Scheduled Tribes and they get Central Government support. Jambur Village near Madhapur with its own panchayat (Five Member Leadership Committee), a primary school and a shop, was the first Sidi enclosure to get such support (Census of India 1961). Most Sidis in Gujarat are farmers and unskilled workers, but in other regions one finds Sidi doctors, lawyers, policemen, journalists, technicians, teachers, businessmen and land-owners. There is an inter-state movement to organise and unite all the Sidi groups and improve their economic conditions and raise their social status. An increasing number of them are realising economic improvement as entertainers in the growing tourist industry. 

3.1 The Language situation of the Sidis
East Africans slaves were randomly caught, or were recruited from different tribal lands; they usually spoke related languages and several individuals came from the same area or were members of the same ethnic group. For these reasons they could communicate in an Eastern African language in the beginning, but as mixed groups, small in numbers and spread over wide areas surrounded by large Indian languages with a long tradition, they could not maintain nor transmit their original languages and cultures to future generations. Instead they became indianised, leaving few African linguistic traces in their speech and cultural registers of terminology. Another factor was Islam, the religion of the politically dominant section of the Indian society with whom the Sidis were initially allied, which became a common denominator of their cultural identification and also facilitated their social and linguistic integration, and economic, political and military success in many areas before the advent of the British colonial rule.

Thus the Sidis today speak Gujarati (or a mixture of Gujarati and Hindi) in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat; in the district of Cutch they speak Cutchi (a dialect of Sindhi), and in Daman and Diu they speak the local Gujarati dialects with a few Swahili/Bantu words and phrases. In Sindh they speak Sindhi and also Urdu, and Dakhini in Andhra Pradesh. Other groups of Sidis speak Marathi, Malayalam, Konkani or Kannada according to their region of settlement. 

Richard Burton’s wordlist of 1851 is “a brief and random lexicon (Freeman-Grenville 1988:18)” of the Sidi language as spoken in coastal Sindh and Cutch at that time and contains altogether 122 words and phrases, numerals and 22 place names including some tribal homelands; the latter are all derived from languages spoken in Tanzania (Shambaa, Zigua, Ngindo and Yao) which points to the Tanzanian mainland as their original home. In other parts of the Indian sub-continent, some linguistic items from Mozambique (from Makua, Nyanja and Yao languages) and Malawi (Nyanja/Chewa) have been identified. 

The following is a short list extracted from Richard Burtons “Sidi” language (collected in Sindh during 1849-50, and not claimed by him nor by the contemporary Sidis to be Swahili).

Burton’s ‘Sidi language’ Modern/Standard Swahili (based on Zanzibar Town)
moto moto (fire; hot)
komongo chuma (iron, iron bar)
maji maji (water)
nyumba nyumba (house, home)
somba samaki, insi, nswi (fish)
vura mvua (rain)
khundoro kondoo/khondoo (sheep)
mawingo mawingu (clouds)
pinde pinde (bow)
mukoki mkuki (spear)
menu meno (teeth)
nyoere nywele (hair)
muguru mguu (foot)
macho macho (eyes)
devo ndevu, devu (beard)
mototo mtoto (child, son)
baba ya baba (father)
viyakazi (daughter) vijakazi (slave girls, maids)
moya moja (one)
perhi mbili (two), pili (second)
tahtu tatu/thathu (three)
mme nne (four)
thano tano/thano (five)
thandatu sita (six)
fungate saba (seven, week) (Old Swahili ‘fungate’)
mnani nane (eight)
mpya tisa, kenda (nine)
kummi kumi (ten)
akachukola akachukua (he/she took it away)
akaje akaja (he/she came)
akanepa akanipa (he/she gave me)
akabija akauza (he/she sold it)
akafenga akaiba (he/she stole it)

Place names, languages and ethnonyms mentioned by the Sidis of Sindh and recorded by Burton (1851) are:
Lamo (Lamu along north Kenya coast)
Baramaji (Mbwamaji south of Daressalaam)
Kinkhwere (Kinghwele spoken south of Daressalaam)

Whiteley (1969:52) repoted “ ….. many slaves seem to have come from the coastal areas, and the ‘Sidi’ language appears to have been one they could all speak. ….. Though they include members of some inland tribes, such as Nyamwezi and Sagara, many are easily recognizable as coastal groups, e,g ‘Dengereko, Makonde, Matumbi, Gindo, Mudoe, Mzigra, etc.’ Mr. R. B. Patel, of Nairobi, tells me that there is still a Swahili-speaking ‘Sidi’ community in Kathiawar, in the remote Gir forest some 200 miles S.W. of Ahmedabad.” (This Sidi community is in Jambur, the “Negro Village” with about 150 households, which the present author visited in March 2008.) 

Recent fieldwork among the Sidis in Ratanpur and Bhavnagar in Gujarat during January 2007 has yielded only about a dozen Bantu/Swahili single word items and about a dozen phrases and a couple of complete Swahili-sounding sentences, e.g. “Ee manamuki, wapi koenda?” (You young woman, where are you going?) In modern Swahili it would be ‘Wee mwanamke, unakwenda wapi?’ A couple of sentences were of mixed Bantu-Gujarati construction, e.g. “Kulya karwa jae!” (Let us go to eat! Bantu ‘kulya’ = to eat, eating; Gujarati ‘karwa jae’ = let us go to do). One lexical item, “injoro” (curry, gravy) used in Ratanpur, is not derived from any Bantu language but rather from the Ethiopian usage ‘injira’ (or Somali ‘anjera’). 

4. Summary
In the face of globalization which seems to make the world become more inter-connected, ethnicity is increasingly emphasised in many parts of the world where claims to specific local identities and renewed or (re)constructed ethnicities are more loudly presented.
The Sidis of Gujarat in India are a fragmented East African community of mixed ancestry, primarily descendants of Muslim African traders, sailors and mercenaries. A few of them are of slave origin. Today they speak Gujarati and Cutchi with only a few Swahili/Bantu expressions mostly connected with their Sufi ritual dances and music.

A long period of relative isolation of the Sidis has been broken by both Indian and Western anthropological and historical interest in the various Sidi communities and this has given them a wider recognition both at home and abroad. Since the last few years, Sidi cultural societies have been organising international festivals in Gujarat and participating in international cultural gatherings in East Africa with their song and dance troupes which have also been touring the West. These renewed contacts of the Sidis with East Africa have increased slightly the number of Swahili/Bantu word stock in their Gujarati and Cutchi; for example the Sidis, though being culturally and linguistically de facto Indian, are emphasising their African heritage and their entertainment groups are now increasingly using Swahili greetings when addressing their public, and their men dress like the East African Swahili Muslims. An increasing number of Sidi individuals are also involved in modern sports (football) and athletics (running) especially in Pakistan, thus playing the role of an essential factor of Sidi ethnic identity.

During the last decade, several Western researchers have been emphasizing the ‘africanness’ of the Sidis and have exaggerated their ‘slave origins’ (Kjaerholm 1992, Whitehead 1997 and 1999) which some Sidi groups are capitalising on. Recently a couple of Sidi groups of artists have toured East Africa and Europe on a commercial basis performing Sufi dances and songs with the repertoire in Gujarati and Hindi mixed with some Swahili phrases. It seems, the Sidis are ‘adopting’ Swahili as ‘their’ ancestral language, as many African-American communities have done in the United States. Sufi cult and dance groups (e.g. the ‘Sidi Goma’ and ‘The Black Sufis of Gujarat’), healing rituals, spirit possession and exorcism, and annual celebrations, have become objects of historical and social anthropological research mostly supported by Western institutions and they are increasingly becoming exotic tourist attractions. 

James Clifford rightly points out that “The currency of diaspora discourse extends to a wide range of populations and historical predicaments (1997:257).” Many individuals, groups and whole communities of the African diaspora around the world have reconstructed, reinvented and imagined their ancestral homeland; and the Sidi of Gujarat are increasingly perceiving East Africa, misconceiving particularly Zanzibar, the central slave market of the Indian Ocean during the 18th and 19th centuries, as the home of their African ancestors and Swahili as their ancestral language!

Globalization and technological advances have strongly pushed the Sidi communities in the general trend in the world of nations becoming culturally heterogeneous, with minority languages, or minority language use, in some cases playing the role of an essential factor of ethnic identity, whether traditionally inherited or newly constructed.

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This paper is based on the following three short presentations:

1. Sidhi, the East African community in Gujarat: Globalization in earlier days and their situation today. Presented at the 18th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, 6-9 July 2004, Lund, Sweden. Panel on Globalization and Minority Languages in South Asia.

2. Linguistic evidence of Bantu origins of the Sidi of Gujarat and the Shidi of Baluchistan. Presented at the International Conference on the Sidis of India and the African Diasporas in the Indian Ocean and Asia, University of Goa, Panajim, India, 9-14 January 2006.

3. The Zanzibari (Jangbari) of India – Identity and Self-awareness among the Sidi of Gujarat. 10th ZIFF Conference on Histories and Memories, 2-4 July 2007, Zanzibar, Tanzania.