This past week the “International Roma Conference and Culture Festival 2016,” was held in Azad Bhavan, New Delhi, India, which purportedly “officially validated for the first time” the Indian (and Hindu) origin of the Roma. Looking at the conference brochure, some of the attendees listed surprised me (and some did not). What surprised me the most, was the sudden insistence that we are children of India and a push to reconnect us with “sister communities” in Punjab and Rajasthan and comments by respected Roma, such as Jovan Damjanovic the president of the World Roma Organisation- Rromanipen that, “recognition from the Indian authorities will be the first step towards countering the negative perceptions about the Roms.”
None of my family ever mentioned India. We weren’t culturally or religiously connected. We had no portraits of Ganesh or Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu or Rama. Maami had a cross, a small statuette of Sara la Kali, and a small (Catholic) Book of Hours. She attended mass every now and then, especially midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Baba Edita came from a family of Orthodox Polish (Polski Autokefaliczny Kościół Prawosławny), but didn’t believe in God, at least not Western religion’s idea of Him. She believed in spirits, both good and bad, and the power of nature. I was baptized Church of England, but attended Catholic School and sang in a Scottish Episcopal choir (Eaglais Easbaigeach na h-Alba).
I knew nothing of our alleged history until only a few years ago. Creation myths I was told did not mention India specifically, though they did mention “our mother” or “very far away”. I was told we climbed mountains and became stars. I was told that our footprints cover the earth. I was told that we were baked out of clay. I was told that we were created when the world was created. The only reference to India ever made, was when my dad would complain our rooms were like the “black hole of Calcutta” (inferring they were messy and suffocating. On looking up the phrase, it surprised me he knew about it). In fact, it turns out that my family knew a lot about the Raj (including imported Hindi phrases such as “jildy jildy”, probably because Baba Edita worked for a British Raj family (scrubbing floors) who had also had Indian young women as ‘servants’).
In the past few years, I’ve learned about our true history – our links to India (both in our languages and our cultures) and the terrible toll of racism and persecution (from branding, hanging, rape, and enslavement, to the horrific truth of WWII and the Holocaust). I’ve also learned some people want to believe we are the “Lost Tribes of Israel” and that we are Israeli/Jewish, despite all the recent genetic and linguistic evidence pointing away from that theory.
One thing seems very clear to me though – while we may have Indian (possibly even Hindu) roots, we are not Indian and most certainly not Hindu. It would be comforting to be claimed and to claim a homeland – to become a nation with a state. It would, perhaps, provide legitimacy and support for us internationally. However, I believe that the vast majority of Roma would hesitate to accept.
Our culture, language, and history have evolved completely severed from our Indian roots. We are a diaspora population who hold no close ties to the locale of our origin. It cannot be said for certain where we came from, when we left, or how long it took us. Certainly, some of the first written reports of our presence in Europe (for example by monks such as Simon Simeonis in Crete) exist as early as the 1300’s. But, this isn’t documentation of our arrival. However, according to the ARSP [and despite no proof thereof], “It is believed they [the Roma] migrated with Alexander the Great to Europe in the 5th century”…
It’s interesting to note that eight of the 18 Indian scholars who spoke at the International Roma Conference and Culture Festival 2016 were office bearers of the Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad – Bharat (ARSP) and all of them underlined the Hindu origin of Roma and therefore the need to “reintegrate them to Bharat.” An exhibition to highlight the Hindu cultural identity of Roma was also curated by the organisation at the event.
This highlights the much bigger issue at hand, namely that of “Hindutva”. This idea of “Hindu-ness” is a right wing, fascist ideology that promotes violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians as a form of self-defense against invaders. Just as Hindutva seeks to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values, it appears they would now impose this same ideology on the Romani diaspora. Those present at the conference, particularly the “International [Romani] Scholars” also appeared to present a limited, one dimensional view of the Romani and our belief and acceptance of these “Hindutva” principles. For example, the idea that “Roma people are an Indian nation” or that “India, our “homeland”, should be taking care of us and represent our interests at the international level.”
That this ‘welcome home’ comes now is no surprise. Adding 20 million Roma to the Hindutva-Modi fold would strengthen the movement immeasurably. Not to mention the [rather sudden] realization that Roma are becoming increasingly powerful (politically and socially) across the world, which would certainly bolster Modi’s government and his Hindutva politics.
But, as a romnji who grew up in a somewhat traditional family and who has spent (albeit brief) time living in India, I do feel close ties to the Indian people and Hinduism, I do feel close ties to cultural practices and way of life, but I do NOT feel Indian or Hindu. I feel Romani.
Although our cultures may be tied historically, and although Indian support would certainly help legitimize our diaspora, Hindutva is not a part of who we are, nor has it ever been. Perhaps my view point is a contentious one – it would seem that many eminent scholars and political figures are content to accept this sudden welcome “home”. However, Romani communities across the world embrace many faiths – Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Pentecostal, Anglican, etc and have experienced many different stories. To coral them under “Indian/Hindu” is to erase their journey, their history, and in many ways their present experience. We were not slaughtered in the Holocaust because we were “Indian” or “Hindu”. We were not enslaved in Moldovia and Wallachia because we were “Indian” or “Hindu”. We were not hunted like pigs and branded or hung because we were “Indian” or “Hindu”.
This search for legitimacy is dangerous -whether Indian, Hindu, or Israeli. We are Roma and our culture and history are just as legitimate as anyone else’s, regardless of whether we are “claimed” or remain stateless. It is not the issue of “homeland” which is our problem, but the reluctance of European states to take responsibility for ALL of their citizens, the Roma included. If we become “children of India”, I firmly believe that this will only further encourage Europe to pass the buck on integration and education. If India really wishes to claim our diaspora, then it MUST fund housing, education, health care, and other urgent initiatives for Romani populations throughout Europe.
Regardless of how Indian my origins may be, I am not, and never will be Hindu.