Thursday, 10 December 2009

Indian Dalit & European Roma

In a recent magazine section of The Hindu (22 November 2009), there was an interesting article of Pardeep Attri on sharing of ideas and experiences between Indian dalit activists and European Roma (Gypsies) activists.

Growing up in India, I had seen the impact of caste based discrimination and exploitation. Over the past ten years, I am living in a place in Bologna (Italy) where some Roma families have been settled. So I have also had the opportunity to see how Roma persons are treated there. However, I feel that in emotional terms, I can understand much better the discrimination and exploitation of Dalits in India, while many of the basic issues regarding discrimination of Roma persons still remain a mystery for me.

Attri’s article

In his article Pardeep Attri has written about some Hungarian Roma activists who had read about Dr Ambedkar’s struggle for the rights of Dalits to live with dignity and visited Maharashtra to learn more about it and to create links with them. Later Attri himself visited Hungary to interact with Roma communities there. He has written about his experience of visiting a Roma village in Hungary.

Like Dalits in India, it seems that as a result of this India-Hungarian collaboration, some of the Romas in Hungary have converted to Buddhism:

My experiences with Roma persons

For a long time in Italy, I didn’t have much opportunity to observe persons who are easily identified as Roma. In Italian the political correct term to call them is Rom while most persons use a more derogatory term of “Zingaro” (plural, zingari). I had mostly seen them as beggers outside churches or as persons playing music in the buses or trains to earn money or as persons running the amusement parks that are set up as a visiting fair in the outskirts of the city.

Some of them look very Indian, especially women, who look like Rajasthani women, with a long ghagra like skirt and blouse, often with small babies in their arms and usually surrounded by many children of varying ages. It automatically created a sense of kinship for me.

There are two issues in terms of my personal experiences related to Roma persons. First is that these experiences probably relate to a certain group of Roma persons, who are not integrated in the communities where they live, and who are considered as representatives of all Roma persons.

The second issue is that inspite of feelings of emotional kinship and beliefs in inherent dignity and equality of all persons, I find it very difficult to relate to them.

This difficulty of relationship arises because they seem to be refusing many of the social conventions of living together. For example, it seems that they have not taken bath or washed clothes, they wear tattered clothes. Some times shoeless children can be seen in minus zero temperatures of Bologna winter in small sweaters, shivering in the tremendous cold. They often speak loudly and use offensive language. Some of them smell of alcohol even in the morning so that when they enter the bus, most persons refuse to sit next to them. Some of them, don’t throw the garbage in the boxes but leave it on the road. Sometimes, you can see them taking out garbage bags from the big garbage collection boxes, searching for things that can be sold or recycled, and at the end they walk away leaving all the garbage scattered around on the road.

Some of these things are more about poverty and lack of education, a result of the exclusion, and thus part of a vicious cycle, where exclusion and poverty reinforce more exclusion and poverty.

One of my friend’s wife works with Roma children and according to her the situation of Roma persons in Italy is as bad as Attri describes in his article. They are poor, most of them live in open areas where there is no tap water, no electricity, no sewage disposal. Most of their children, do not go to school or complete it, even if Italy has almost hundred percentage coverage of free universal education.

The unanswered questions

The situation of Roma persons raises so many questions in my mind that I can’t answer and for which, I don’t have any clear understanding. In India, the oppression of Dalits has millenniums-long social tradition, but in Europe, the different socially oppressed groups such as rural poor, were able to throw away the yoke of fiefdoms over the past three hundred years, to create more egalitarian societies, why were Roma persons excluded from this?

Emigrants who don’t share religion, who have different cultures and customs, all have to negotiate how to live with the society that they have chosen to live in. It is not always smooth and there are episodes of racism and discrimination against them. Yet, in a bus, most persons do not move away from an Arab Muslim women whose face is covered with hijab or the African in his long kaftan. Most immigrant children do go to school and are usually the first ones to build bridges with the majority community. The second generations of emigrants do seem to find work and integrate much better.

Jews and Valdes Christians are two of the important minorities in Italy. I am sure that they also experience certain discrimination in at least in some occasions. Yet none of them seems to face the problems that Roma persons do, who have also been in Italy for long time.

I can’t understand the reasons behind this. It seems that by being dirty or being socially disruptive, some Roma persons are saying that they do not want integration and they would like to live as they have always lived, according to their own rules. It is their protest. At the same time, people feel that all Roma persons are like that. They help in perpetuating their own stereotypes?

Is it just poverty that does it? May be it is other cultural issues? May be strong patriarchy that decides who can do what? Perhaps this is only a minority of Roma persons, and there are many more, who have “integrated” and look like other Italians or other emigrants?

May be the roots of nomadism are very strong and integration in the society is an unacceptable goal for some of them?


  1. I have a bbc documentary on the romas of italy, spain and romania; will give you sometime. It seems what we see in Bologna is just tip of the iceburg...

  2. Thanks Roxy, that will be appreciated! :-)


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