Home india-news In Karnataka, African-origin Siddi tribe has little hope from elections | Latest News India

In Karnataka, African-origin Siddi tribe has little hope from elections | Latest News India

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In Karnataka, African-origin Siddi tribe has little hope from elections | Latest News India

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It was early evening when Motesh Santana Siddi, 52, began his daily walk home. A security guard and part time farm labour, Siddhi has to trudge 12km before it gets dark or wave over a passing vehicle to get home early.

In Karnataka, the Siddis, who are around 50,000 in all, enjoy the status of a Scheduled Tribe. (HT photo)
In Karnataka, the Siddis, who are around 50,000 in all, enjoy the status of a Scheduled Tribe. (HT photo)

But vehicles are sparse on the single lane, cratered country road that leads to Ugginkeri, a village on the edge of evergreen stretches of the Western Ghats in Uttara Kannada district bordering Haveri. It’s summer and work is not easy to come by, not an ideal situation for Siddi, who is trying to earn as much as he can ahead of his daughter’s wedding in May.

This could be the story of any other Indian farm labourer, except that Siddi carries an additional burden. As a member of the Siddi tribe — a community of African origin that arrived in India as slaves Goa, who later fled to the hills beyond territories held by the Portuguese — the dark colour of his skin and his woolly hair add an additional layer of vulnerability.

The Siddis, who hailed from different parts of Africa, have converted into a single tribe over the years and live in settlements around the towns of Yellapur, Haliyal and Mundgod in Uttara Kannada. They live on farmlands carved out of forests.

Spread across three religions — Hindus, Muslims and Christians — tribe members are primarily Konkani speakers but can also speak Kannada and some Marathi. Some are also settled in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

In Karnataka, the Siddis, who are around 50,000 in all, enjoy the status of a Scheduled Tribe. In July 2020, Shantaram Siddi was first person from the tribe to enter the state legislature. He was nominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to the state’s legislative council and became the first person of African ethnicity to be a member of a legislative body in the country.

Hardship and Stigma

For an ordinary Siddi, life is not easy.

“One of the main issues we face is that of land rights. Our claims are either partially or wholly rejected and we are not given rights in the correct column of the land document and are often only registered as occupiers of the land, instead of owners,” said Xavier Siddi, a village council member from Ugginkeri that has a substantial population of Siddis.

Securing a land title opens up a whole list of opportunities, including government schemes for building subsidised bore wells, tractors, cheaper farm loans and the like. But, a majority of the Siddis don’t have land deeds and therefore have to venture out, looking for work.

“If you do not have land, you have nothing else to do, which is why many members of our community have left their homes and are working in other cities including Mangalore, Udupi and Goa where they take up work of daily wagers and manual labourers working in industries and mills that requires hard labour,” he said.

With the passage of time, the community got educated and an odd trend emerged; girls are more educated than boys.

“The women take a lot of interest in education and more often than not go on to complete their education. Not so for the boys and men, who often drop out from school and it results in a serious mismatch at the time of marriages in the community and even trouble in the marriage as the women are well qualified but their husbands are not,” said Anil D’Souza, a Jesuit priest who has been working in the community.

Stigma and struggles with identity have been suggested as possible reasons for the disinterest in education.

“When they leave the village, they are insulted by teachers and peers, leaving them with a wounded psyche. If you ever encounter one on the street or in school, they will always be wearing a cap in a bid to hide their hair,” D’Souza said.

New opportunities

The community is in need of help, especially the kind that will help them find gainful employment. Despite members of the community having unique skills at quilting, the industry continues to remain in a niche. A trust set up for the benefit of the community has been working towards uplifting it across religious denominations and helping them excel in sports, which the community has not had a real shot at until now.

It was a moment of much pride for the community when two girls from Mainshalli and Ugginkeri villages, Helen and Samantha, topped the Karnataka state boxing selections and were chosen to represent the state at a national boxing tournament in Manipur. Similarly, as many as seven from the community who were being trained at a state government facility in Bengaluru bagged medals at a boxing tournament in Puducherry.

In athletics, Ravikiran, a lad from the Siddi community of Mundgod, is hoping to become India’s fastest sprinter. Currently clocking speeds of 10.8 seconds for a 100m dash, he is a few seconds shy of the national record, which stands at 10.25 seconds.

A government programme to hone the talents of rural athletes was, however, halted, forcing the budding athletes to depend on Bridges of Sports Foundation, a Bengaluru based non-profit that has stepped in to train more than 300 children from the community.

With the help of missionaries, the tribe has also put together a dance troupe that performs traditional dances at cultural showcase events, travelling both within the state and beyond for events.

Back at Ugginkeri, there’s no sign that there’s an election coming up. Women return from working the arecanut and corn fields in the evening as the community gathers outside the village church for evening prayers.

“Every five years, politicians come to our village. Sometimes they don’t bother about it entirely. We keep good relations with everyone in the hope that at least some of our demands will be met. If not out of a sense of duty, at least out of pity they may decide to accede to our demands,” Xavier Siddi said.

According to local residents, the community has been traditional Congress voters, but swung to the BJP in the recent past. Gestures such as nominating a tribe person to the legislative council and giving a Padma award to Hirabai Ibrahim Lobi, a Siddi woman from Gujarat, has helped the saffron outfit to gain popularity among the community.


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