22 Feb

World Cultures: The Siddhi People

By Thomas jang

The Siddi are an ethnic minority group in Pakistan and India, descended from Abyssinian (Ethiopian) and Bantu peoples enslaved and trafficked to the Indian subcontinent through the Eastern slave trade. From its start in the 7th century to the 19th century, the slave trade preceded the European-led transatlantic slave trade and operated in the Indian Ocean at the height of the Muslim world’s dominance, fueled by technological and academic advancements. 

The Siddi can also be referred to as the Sheedi, Sidi, or Siddhi. Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam are some of the common religions practiced by the Siddhi. In India, the Siddi are mostly situated on the subcontinent’s west coast. According to Minority Rights Group, there are 25,000 to 70,000 Siddhi members who reside among the states of Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat. However, Pakistan possesses the largest population of African descent in Asia. Its Sheedi population ranges between 250,000 to a million, distributed between Makran, Karachi, and Baluchistan. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The term Siddhi has evolved to refer to Africans and their descendants who intermarried with Indians. The interwoven culture between Africans and Indians has produced new traditions of dance and music, especially dhamaal, that is practiced by the Siddhis in Gujarat. Dhamaal is a mix between Sufi and East African music and dances, and has been performed to commemorate the birth and deaths of spiritual leaders such as Bava Gor and Baba Habash. 

Since their forced displacement from the Zanj (aka Swahili) coast of southeastern Africa, the Siddhi have struggled to gain rights and amenities in south Asia. Moreover, their experiences have mirrored other African cultures who were uprooted from their native lands and eventually created new communities separate from their kidnappers and enslavers. Similar to the Maroon communities in Abya Yala (Guna term for the Americas), the Siddhi still face discrimination influenced by their varying residences in forested or non-forested areas, landless statuses, and discrimination by higher-caste feudal lords. 

Progress towards their recognition and protection has been incremental. With the support of Kiran Kamal Prasad and Member of Parliament (MP) Margaret Alva, the Siddhi were recognized and given tribal status by the state of Karnataka. However, the India’s Forest Act of 2006 provided land rights to the Siddhi, but only allowed them to cultivate the lands. Likewise, in Pakistan, organizations such as the Young Sheedi Welfare Organization (YSWO) have been created to expand education and health accessibility, as well as improve livelihoods for other marginalized communities.