Uniting to fight against oppression: Indian Dalit & European Roma Sunil Deepak, 10 Dec. 2009

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.( pardeepattri(at)gmail.com )

Growing up in India, I had seen the impact of caste based discrimination and exploitation. Over the past ten years, I am living in an area in Bologna (Italy) where some Roma families have also 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.

About his experience of visiting a Roma village in Hungry he has written:

“The majority of the Romas live on the outskirts of the village in ghettos. In their neighbourhood, there is no tap water, no street lighting and no sewage disposal. A few meters away, in the adjoining non-Roma streets, all these basic amenities are provided. … There are three churches in Sajòkaza, but not a single Roma visits them. It immediately reminded me of the Hindu temples in India where our entry through guaranteed in law, is prohibited in practice. … Stereotypes are potent tools of hatred. And the Romas suffer from the worst kind of stereotyping by the whites. The ‘Gypsies’ for the average white European, are necessarily cheaters, beggers, thieves, pickpockets, nomads, people who live in dirty conditions and don’t like to work.”

Recently in the Human Rights Night film festival of Bologna, where I was part of the jury, I had seen a short film about a similar place in Cech republic, that told the story of a Roma girl who did not have the shoes to go to the school.

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:

“After our turn to Ambedkarite Buddhism, people ask, ‘How can you teach Buddhism to Gypsies?’ What we are doing seems odd since Buddhism in Europe is largely leisure hobby of the middle classes.”

BTW, I think that Attri’s comment about Buddhists in Europe being a “leisure hobby” is superficial and unjust. I have known some of them, and the reasons for their turning to Buddhism are varied and complex.

My ideas about Roma people: 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.

I had heard the story about Rana Pratap’s story and how, after his death, his subjects had decided to live like nomads. This story is used to explain the migration of persons from Rajasthan to East Europe and later to West Europe, who became Roma people. I am not so sure if this is true since Rana Pratap died at the end of sixteenth century (in 1597) while the presence of Roma persons in Europe is probably much older than that.

However, I was curious to find out if the present day Roma language carries memories of their Rajasthani past, but the few times I have listened to Roma persons talking to each other, I couldn’t understand any of it. I thought the lilt of the language sounded Indian, but probably this was more wishful thinking than reality.

Ten years ago, when we shifted to our new house in Bologna, I heard about the housing block across the street from us, where it seemed that houses costed much less “because zingari live there”. These houses where Roma live near our house have been made by the Government for low income groups, but are really well made.

A couple of kilometers from our home, there is big rich-looking villa belonging to some kind of Roma-leader. It has relatively high walls, but I can still see some caravans parked outside the house and it has a big satellite antenna. However, I have never seen any person there.

Perhaps there are other Roma persons who live around us, that I can not make out because they are educated and have jobs and dress like other Italians. Many of them are blond and white like other Italians, so there is no way to tell them apart from other Italians or Europeans.

When we were looking for a school for our son, we were told to avoid one of the nearby schools “because zingari children go there and your son won’t be able to study well”. Immediately, I had been horrified by the blatant racism of this statement and together with our son, we had also gone to that school to find out if they had a place for him.

Personal experience of Roma persons: 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 in spite 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?

Illegal emigrants in Italy, especially persons from non-European countries and persons who do not share the majority religion of Catholic christianity, all face difficult times. Over the past decade, the center-right Government has been openly hostile to them and there have been a number of new laws that criminalize emigrants make their entry in the society much more difficult. Yet, I can’t think of any other group of emigrants who live in such atrocious conditions as the Roma persons, who have been living here for decades. The squallor, mountains of rubbish surrounding one such Roma living area near the river in Bologna, is worse than some of the slum colonies in India.

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?

It may be a question of poverty but then illegal emigrants are also poor. At the same time, I am not entirely sure that it is an issue of simple poverty.

A Roma family: Some times, I see a Roma family in a parking lot close to our house. They have a big caravan, that must cost like a small house. They come to this parking lot, off and on, and stay there for a couple of days. This means that they do have some money for buying petrol. Often the big fat man seems drunk. He is also violent, more than once, I have seen his wife with black eye and bruises.

And the children, even while they laugh and play in the park in their own small group, are wearing no shoes or ill-fitting shoes and are invariably underdressed for the cold weather. They some times eat in the park, or in the portico of a social center close by, leaving the bones, empty cans and rubbish scattered around.

One of his daughter was a beautiful girl. She spoke Italian properly so she must have gone to the school, at least for some years. Sometimes, I heard her talking to the cashier in the supermarket, while paying for the things and she seemed like an educated and well-behaved girl.

One day, a couple of years ago, in the park I saw her with two young boys, who were calling to an Italian adolescent who was walking there with with his friends. One of the boy accompanying the girl started shouting, “Come and talk to her, be nice to her. Why are you not talking to her today? She is waiting for you. Come and fuck her, ...”

The Italian boy turned red and continued to walk with his friends, trying to act as if they were not talking to him. The shouting boy turned to the girl and continued, “See, your boyfriend does not want to talk to you. He doesn’t love you. He does not want to fuck you…”.

He seemed to go on and on. The girl pounced on him and they fought like wild cats. Some of the things that the boy was saying were terrible and it was unbelievable that such a young boy, he must have been just nine or ten, knew all those cuss words and the meanings of all his lewd gestures as he mimed with pelvic thrusts to taunt the girl. It was a very shocking incident, and remembering it now, makes me still feel bad for the poor girl.

Then last year, I saw her, waiting to cross the road. She must have been only seventeen or eighteen but she looked resigned and thin, a little old and haggard, and she had a baby in her hands. It was painful to look at her and think of the person who could have been. I had seen her grow up and in a way we knew each other.

She said, "Good morning" and smiled at me and it made me feel very sad.

It is story of just one family and yet, in a way for me, it symbolises some of those things about the Roma community that I can not understand.

Conclusions: Is it just poverty that does it? May be it is other cultural issues? May be strong patriarchy system 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?