An African Indian Community in Hyderabad. Siddi Identity, Its Maintenance and Change
Year of publication
The study of Siddi identity compels one to observe the history of Indo-African trade relations which initiated and facilitated the mass migration of people across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Contacts between India and Africa have taken place since prehistoric times, they grew substantially since the rise of Islam in the seventh century, and leaped to its climax during the middle ages and continued until the second half of the twentieth century. As a result, as many Indians settled in East Africa for various reasons, many Africans also have gone and settled in India engaging in various occupations. These African immigrants, locally known as Siddi or Habshi, are now living in various geographical pockets of India, forming their own ethnic enclaves amidst their host society. The main Siddi communities in India are located in Gujarat, Hyderabad, Karnataka, in the Bombay region and along the western coast, including Goa. I did a field research among the Siddi of Hyderabad, the result of which is this study.The Siddi of Hyderabad consider themselves as a distinct group of people and are described as such by their hosts, which implies that they have an ethnic group consciousness despite their assimilation to the host society in several respects. As is the case with all ethnic communities, it is possible to observe the tendencies of identity maintenance as well as change among the Siddi. The Siddi are evolving to catch up with modern trends and demands willingly and unwillingly. National and global events are strongly militating against their tradition so that a change in their identity has been inevitable. Obviously, today’s Siddi have little resemblance with their predecessors. There are also trends that indicate that their future will be considerably different from what is today, as a result of intermarriage with other groups and their adoption of either Indian, Arab or Indo-Pakistan identities. However, change is not always smooth. There are conflicts of interest between old values and new trends. Some cultural elements have been struggling hard against the tides of change and proved themselves to remain intact until now. Identity is not a malleable wax that yields easily to the demands of change. The forces of tradition are doing their best to hold onto old values while the new is adamant to change. It is interesting to see that both, the elements of cultural survival and of change, are going hand in hand although the tide pushes more forcefully to the latter.In this study, the nature and history of African slave trade to the Orient, the main servile institutions that appeared across history and the historical episode of the Siddi’s servitude and nobility in India are discussed. The Siddi of Hyderabad are presented as part of the global African Diaspora. The study also attempts to show the nature of their ethnic identity, the physical and cultural identity maintaining mechanisms, and the factors responsible for its change. Besides, the current arguments and counter-arguments within the theories of ethnicity and ethnic identity are thoroughly debated. Questions of the following sort are posed and discussed: How clear-cut or blurred are these boundaries? Which African cultural elements are still kept and why? What kinds of relationships cross-cut these boundaries? How amicable or inimical are their interethnic relationships? The study shows that the Siddi are moving in divergent directions of assimilation. Muslim Siddi assimilate into the Arab community of Hyderabad who are sympathisers with the causes of Kashmir and Pakistan, while the Christian Siddi are merging with Hindu nationalists or pro-Hindustan adherents. The Siddi, who historically constituted a single community, served in the same army unit, and fought and died for a single cause are in the process of a significant identity change by joining two opposing ideological groups.