The Siddi of Karnataka.
When Anti Slavery International asked me to take photos for them in Southern India the assignment that stood out for me was documenting bonded labour among the Siddis. The Siddis, along with the Dalits, have and continue to be victims of bonded labour and exploitation by higher castes. My interest was sparked by the history of the Siddis; they are people of Black African descent settled in India for nearly five centuries. I hadn’t seen them on my previous travels to India or even heard of them. The population now only numbers a few thousand in the whole of India.
The Western Ghat region of the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka, and some regions bordering that region in Belgaum and Dharward districts, are home to the main Siddi population of southern India. The Siddis are descended from runaways and those released from bondage in Goa and neighbouring kingdoms. In many villages they appear to have been the original settlers. They braved the beasts – snakes and tigers – and deadly malaria and made headway into the dense forests. They cleared and cultivated the land, and only later did the native population arrive and gain control of the land, in many cases through deception. Almost all the Siddis live in forest areas, eking out a living either as agricultural labourers or as farmers. Only a few among them are rich farmers.
The current Siddi population in Karnataka is estimated to be 20,000; it is estimated to be nearer 50,000 in Gujarat, with smaller numbers in Maharashtra. Within Karnataka is estimated that 26.5 % are Hindus, 31.6% are Muslims and 41% are Catholics. The Siddis of Gujarat are predominantly Muslim.I was privileged to spend time with some educated young Siddis who were studying at Bangalore University while I was staying in Bangalore. I learned through them and through Kiran Kamal Prasad of Jeevika more about the African diaspora in Asia and the Siddis of Karanatka. Jeevika is a courageous grassroots organization that works in rural villages outside Bangalore for the rights of the Dalits and other lower caste groups such as the Siddis.
I spent a few days travelling around the villages and settlements of Uttara Kannada and glimpsed into the lives of the Siddis, and their struggles with poverty and exploitation. I found them friendly and accommodating people; distinct but searching for an identity. The Young Siddi leaders Mohan and Rahman impressed me with their drive and dedication to help their own and their people’s development.
I am indebted to Kiran Kamal Prasad’s book In Search of Identity (details) for much of the information above on the history of the Siddis and their current situation.