ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JANUARY 2009
I heard of the Romani for the first time over a dozen years ago when I was still in college. Term was about to get over and we were all preparing to go home. A friend of mine was packing his bags to leave for Prague where his father, a diplomat, was posted. While we would catch a train or bus to get to our destinations, this chap would fly to Prague. Naturally we were all very jealous and it came as a surprise when my friend told me that Prague is not the nicest places on earth, for an Indian that is.
‘Why is that?’ I asked him.
‘Because Indians tend to get mistaken for Gypsies.’
‘That’s right. There are Gypsies in Prague who look like us.’
‘Yeah! And the Czechs don’t like the Gypsies.’
Apparently my friend was advised carry a book and wear glasses to show that he was educated and not a gypsy.
I didn’t give that conversation further thought till I came to the UK. Gypsies or Travellers are news items in the UK and they routinely hit the front pages, usually for the wrong reasons. Most people in the UK hate Gypsies and Travellers, which terms are used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, Gypsies are people of South Asian origin and Travellers are people of Caucasian stock who follow nomadic ways. However, the pan-European term used for Gypsies of South Asian origin is Romani. In Central and Eastern Europe, they are called the Roma.
Not all modern day Romani look South Asian. Caucasian genes have definitely made a backdoor entry and many Romani have blue eyes and light skin.
Almost all experts agree that the Romani one finds in Europe originated from the Indian sub-continent. There are various theories as to how they got to Europe. One theory is that the Romani are descendants of Indian soldiers defeated by Islamic invaders and taken to Central Asia as slaves. These slaves later migrated to Europe. Another theory is that they are the descendants of nomadic Indian tribes like the Banjara who happened to migrate out of India across the Hindu-Kush. In any event, it is agreed that the Romani left India during the 11th century and slowly made their way through Turkey and Greece into the heartland of Europe. Currently one can find Romani populations in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Romania, Hungary, Germany, the UK etc.
The Romani are mostly Christian, except in Turkey where they follow Islam. Romani values and practices are still that of a pre-industrial era. Joint families and child marriages are common. The various Romani dialects clearly show their South Asian origin. For example, numerals in Romani are strikingly similar to Hindi. Ekh, Duj, Trin, Star, Pandz, Des and Biz are One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Ten and Twenty respectively. If you wanted to say “My name is …” in Romani, you would say “Miro nav si” The Romani did not receive a warm welcome in Europe.
In order to make things easier for themselves, they gave out that they were Egyptians exiled for having harboured infant Jesus. The word ‘Gypsy’ arises out of ‘Aigyptoi’, the Greek word for Egypt. Despite this subterfuge, they were persecuted almost everywhere in Europe. In places like Moldavia and Walachia, the Romani were made slaves. They were at times (wrongly) associated with the Ottoman Empire and treated as Turkish spies.
The Romani have in various European countries been prohibited from owning horses or wagons, something de rigueur for their nomadic lifestyles and forcibly drafted into the army. Use of Romani language and attire was prohibited in Spain in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society. Persecution of the Romani did not decrease in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1880, Argentina formally banned the migration of the Romani. The United States followed suit in 1885. Norway (may be with the best of intentions) forcibly took Romani children from their parents and placed them in state institutions so that Romani culture would be eradicated altogether.
Hitler paid special attention to the Romani. They definitely did not fit into his idea of a noble Aryan state and (possibly) a million Romani perished in Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. I wonder if the Indians who still admire Hitler are aware that he killed over a million human beings on account of their South Asian appearance. Even after the second world, the Romani continued to face persecution, especially in Eastern Europe which tried to forcibly assimilate them into mainstream society. Romani language and music were banned in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, many Romani were forcibly sterilised. I find it amazing that all this happened at a time when India was a Soviet ally. Surely the Indian government knew what was going on. Why didn’t someone at least protest?
After many Eastern European countries joined the EU, many Romani from Eastern European countries have tried to migrate to Western Europe along with other East Europeans. The welcome given to the Romani has been substantially chillier than the less-than-warm welcome given to East Europeans in general. Italy fingerprints all Romani migrants and Romani settlements have been set on fire.
It must be said that the Romani do not show the slightest inclination to give up their nomadic way of living and adopt a mainstream lifestyle. Like any other community, the Romani have their share of pickpockets, thieves, murderers and other criminals. However, unlike other communities, since the Romani do not follow any fixed trade or profession, the entire community is easily stereotyped as a bunch of criminals. The Romani tend to be treated with suspicion by the police and other members of public. Harsh treatment and arbitrary arrests of the Romani tend to be higher than average. When all members of a community are considered to be criminals and nothing good is expected of them, the propensity to turn to crime increases.
All of this raises a very interesting question. Unlike the aborigines of Australia or the Native Americans, the Romani are not natives of Europe. They are immigrants. Are they entitled to the same rights and protections which aborigines and Native Americans have been granted in recent times to carry on with their traditional lifestyles? In a generous and prosperous world where there is enough for everybody, the answer could be a Yes. After all, the Romani have been in Europe for many centuries now. However, in a recession hit world, the answer is most likely to be a sad shake of the head.”
So far the Romani have not (to my knowledge) sought to rekindle their ties to India or any other South Asian country. This is doubtless on account of India’s poverty and the perceived lack of opportunities for new arrivals, vis-à-vis Europe. However, if the Romani continue to face persecution in Europe and if India’s economy does well (relatively), the Romani may (rightly in my opinion) look to India for assistance. If it does, I wonder if Free Market India will lend a helping hand to these poor and long lost people.