An Afro-Indian Community in Karnataka, India: A Study of Ethnic Identity, its Maintenance and Change

This study is a humble attempt to expose what has been least viewed and underrepresented in anthropological research, namely, the Oriental African Diaspora. My theoretical framework is a diaspora study, which includes aspects of migration, cultural identity, minority-majority relations, the maintenance of group-boundaries and the unavoidable fact of identity change and integration.

A Siddi woman of African parentage and a Siddi woman of mixed African and Indian parentage. Note the physiognmical change.

The study of Siddi identity compels one to go back in time and observe the history of Indo-African trade relations. These relations started and facilitated the mass migration of people across the continents, which in turn and in most cases, led to the formation of diaspora enclaves on the other side of each continent. The importance and antiquity of Indian trade with the eastern coasts of Africa in particular, and the cultural consequences thereof, have long been subjects of scholarly discussion and are also in this research project.

Contacts between Ethiopia and India have taken place since the times of the Greco-Roman Empire. Aksum (1st to 8th AD), as one of the strong seafaring kingdoms of its time, had well-established contacts with the Indian sub-continent. India and Aksum have collaborated in supplying the raw materials needed by great empires of the Mediterranean World and Western Asia; like the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Turks. As a result of this contact, many Africans, including some Ethiopians, went by their own will, or were taken to Asia, particularly to India. Moreover, as a result of the Ottoman Turks’ control of the Red Sea`s costal areas in the 16th century, which led to continuous Christian versus Muslim conflict in the Horn of Africa, many prisoners of war were sold into slavery by both Christian and Muslim states of Ethiopia mainly into Muslim kingdoms of Asia.

The Indo-African trade relations were not only confined to Aksum and Abyssinia, but the entire region of eastern Africa was involved in it. India has since early times traded with Somalia, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda and the islands of Zanzibar, Kilwa, Pemba. It had also, in the past, traded with South Africa and South Central Africa, not to mention the relative few cases of trade with western Africa. There is enough literature supporting the historic contact between Indian and African merchants since as far as millennia. Contact between Indians and Africans grew substantially since the rise of Islam in the 7th Century, 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 had gone and settled in India engaging in various occupations. These African immigrants who are 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 Siddi in India are both self ascribed and ascribed by their hosts as such, 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 groups, it is possible to observe the tendencies of both identity maintenance and change.

The principal Siddi communities in India are located in Gujarat, Hyderabad, Karnataka, in the Bombay region and along the western coast, including Goa. I had intended to do my research in Gujarat where the main concentration of Siddi is found, but decided to change my ethnographic focus as there is a continuous religious feud between Moslem and Hindu communities of the area. During my visit to the area, their feud had escalated into ferocious conflict which claimed the lives of many. Some among the victims were foreign nationals. Thus, I have decided to work in Karnataka, where a Siddi community that claims to have come from Sidamo area of Ethiopia has been living for centuries. Presently, Karnataka enjoys relative safety from communal strife as it is also geographically far from Gujarat, the main centre of Moslem versus Hindu conflict. I have good rapport and continuous contact with members of this community.

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