One of the major migratory moves happened in India when the Siddi community migrated from East Africa to India between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Siddis are believed to have originated from the Bantu people of East Africa. Most Siddis can be found in the states of Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. They came as merchants, sailors, slaves and mercenaries.
101India.com an online video content portal under its project “101 Traces” recently came up with a documentary film on people, traditions, cultures that occupy a very small space in the Indian consciousness. One such film is titled Siddis: In It For the Long Run, which is directed by Avijit Pathak. It is about the exploration and isolation of the Siddi tribe and their dream to participate in the 2024 Olympics, representing India.
In 1987, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) had set up the Special Area Games programme (SAG) to scout and train members of the Siddi community to represent India on the international stage. But despite the glory they have brought to the nation, the Siddis have had to battle racism on a daily basis, often being treated as outsiders in the country which their ancestors embraced centuries back.
The film explores the SAG programme in detail, also its sudden closure in 1993 and the impact it had on the community. According to Juje Jackie Harnodkar, an ex-athlete from the Karnataka chapter of the SAG programme for the Siddis, the programme strengthened African-Indians relations. He believes restarting the SAG program will help the talented youth of the community realise their dreams and might help them in fighting racism too.
Cyrus Oshidar, MD & Chief Creative Officer, 101India.com says, “The film talks about the Special Area Games (SAG) programme for the Siddis. We have focused on those who were part of this and were trained under it. A lot of people do not know what the programme is and what it was meant for originally, since it was discontinued is 1993. Although the programme restarted last year in principle, nothing has really moved yet. The film has over a million views already, and from the comments we have received on the film, the empathy towards the community is huge and people are genuinely keen to know more.”
After facing regular racism and being generally subjugated in everyday life, the youth of the community still has high hopes. They are keen on winning a medals in the 2024 Olympics for their country which on some level still treats them like outsiders.
The community has comfortably assimilated into the culture and tradition of India. Their struggles to come to terms with rampant racism are indeed heart-rending.
Juje Jackie Harnodkar Siddi, who works with the Employees Provident Fund Organisation in Mumbai says, “There are around 15-20 thousands Siddis in Karnataka. Among us, the three major religions — Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — are fairly equally represented. We have adopted the languages and customs of our home states but our music still has some African roots.”
But growing up in India was tough for Harnodkar and for not only him but also for his forefathers. They had no schools nearby and had to walk 15 kilometres to find one.
“We faced discrimination as children, and we face it even today. People still call us names. Our forefathers lived in the forests. There was no education or employment and they mostly depended on the forest produce. Life was tough for them. They never used to mix up with others as they were scared they might get caught and made to work as slaves,” he says.
The SAG, started in 1987, was no less than a boon to the Siddi tribe in India. It was an opportunity for Siddis to represent India in the Olympic Games. The community always wanted such platforms to display their skills, abilities and their love for their country.
Harnodkar says, “Around the 1980s, there was an organisation that worked for Siddis. This organisation, and our community leaders, met and spoke to the then sports minister Margaret Alva about our sports proposal. She took the proposal further and the Special Area Games program was started in 1987.
“Our sportsmen participated in various international sporting events and made the country proud of their achievements. Sports provided a lot of opportunities to our generation. Many of us got government jobs and the community got the exposure that it required. This program had put the Siddis in the national limelight and people got to know about our existence. Whatever I am today is because of sports.”
The best part of the program was that it helped the community in battling racism in India and sports was the best way to represent any country as sports is one section which is followed by everyone in the world. “A lot of people are not aware of our community. Although we have been living in India and consider ourselves as Indians, they think we are foreigners and do not belong here. Restarting the programme will build awareness and help change the mindset of people. It is a known fact that Africans are genetically strong and we feel we can contribute to the country through our proficiency in sports,” says Harnodkar.
It is also not a hidden fact that racial discrimination against African people in India makes headlines every now and then. Recently, a Tanzanian girl being assaulted in Bangalore created a sense of panic within the community, and the attacks on African nationals in Delhi are testaments to the atrocities and prejudices they have been subjected to here. Harnodkar says, “People call us by names like kalu, etc. They make fun of us thinking we don’t understand the language. But when we speak in Hindi they get surprised. They make fun of our colour, looks and sometimes treat us as untouchables.”
Now, for the Siddi community the SAG programme is the sole hope, and they expect a helping hand from the government in this regard. “We are waiting for the SAG program to take off properly. Although we have scouted some young talent, due to lack of proper infrastructure and facilities, it’s difficult for us to give these kids world class training. It is difficult for the selected kids to perform at their best because of a lack of equipment and coaches. We hope the infrastructure is put in place at the earliest so that the kids don’t suffer and don’t lose interest in sports due lack of proper training,” Harnodkar tells Guardian 20.
Kamala Siddi, who represented India in the South Asian Federation Games 1993, and Philip Anthony Siddi, the first Siddi to represent India on an international sporting stage, will be training more Siddi children starting August this year. Harnodkar, too, is trying to fulfil the community’s dream to win the first Olympic medal. A full-fledged Special Area Games Centre in Dandeli, Karnataka has been proposed to nurture young Siddi talent, while the first batch is already being trained at the Loyola School in Mundagod in Karnataka for the 2024 Olympics.
To watch the film, ‘Siddis: In It For The Long Run’ log onto https://www.101india.com/people/siddis-it-long-run