African Diaspora in India

Published Date:   Saturday, Jul 27, 2013

As a part of monthly seminar series, GRFDT organized a talk on “African Diaspora in India: A Socio-Political Journey” on 27 July 2013 at CSSS, JNU. Speaker Dr. Manish Karmwar, Faculty in the Department of History, Shyam Lal College(Eve.), University of Delhi gave an overview about the history of African migration to the Indian sub-continent since 6th century. India had first trade relation with the Arabs followed by Portuguese, through whom Africans came into contact with India and they came to India along with Arab traders. He mentioned that Africans who are now profoundly assimilated in India, constitute a very diverse community of traders, soldiers and workers at various levels.

Dr. karmwar  elaborated that  there were two African kingdoms, namely Janjira and Sachin. In the Janjira and Sachin kingdoms,  Africans rose from king-makers to Emperors. Historically African diaspora has been associated with various roles. There are traces of African’s role in socio-political and military life during the period of Delhi Sultanate, Nizamshahi, Adilshahi, Qutbshahi, Imadshahi, Mughal India and also in Hyderabad till India’s independence. The Africans, who arrived in Hyderabad, Deccan, apart from playing their traditional role as bonded guards and servants, were also recruited as the Nizam’s private bodyguard. The Siddi Risala (African Regiment) was retained until 1948. Other Siddis were elevated to the status of Khanazahs (proteges) and became trusted advisers of the Nizams.

Geographical Spread

African diaspora are widely spread out in India, especially in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Daman and Diu, Goa and Andhra Pradesh. Numerically, they are  in large number in Gujarat,  hence, one can  find them as socially cohesive and preserving  the  African culture in Gujarat, as compared to other states,  where they have become  very much assimilated.

Role in Dynasty                                                                                                              

Africans have played an important role in  India’s  different dynasties. The first Habshi, of whom there is a historical record, was probably Jamal al-Din Yaqut, royal courtier in the kingdom of Delhi, in the north of the sub-continent. Some of the Africans who rose to the positions of considerable importance were: Malik Kafur, Malik Amber, Malik Sarwar, Mubarak Shah, etc. Their role in the history of India is significant. The Afro-Indian dynasties of Sachin and Janjira are a reminder of the influence that Afro-Indians wielded in parts of India. While this glory was not to remain forever, the cultural contributions made by Africans are still alive, particularly in music and dance.

Issue of Marginalisation

Unlike many other diasporas or the African diaspora elsewhere, African diasporas in India are still marginalized. Why are they not economically uplifted? Dr. Karmwar  explained that there are only few thousands rich among Siddis, most of whom came to India as traders. Those who came as slave and low skilled workers,  remain marginalized. Dr. Karmwar also mentioned that there are affirmative policies to include them under Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, and to provide  safeguards to them. . However, these measures  are less effective for their upliftment  as the social and cultural distinctions kept  them  outside the larger social benefits. Unlike the Indian diaspora, who became economically upward, in the second and the third generations, the African diaspora in India remain marginalized/unempowered.  Dr. Karmwar concluded that there is a need for collective effort by them as well as by state to uplift themselves.

The talk was followed by interactive session, where questions relating to marginality, social mobility and  policy issues to empower the African diaspora were raised.  Suggestions were made to conduct more research on this issue as there are dearth of literature. 

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