“I feel a kinship with the Roma people,” – 1983, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India
“We are ready to help you [Roma people] and extend our cooperation to you,” – 2001, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister of India
“I am very happy to meet the Roma delegates. You are the children of India…” – 2016, Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs of India
“We would like India to be the moral protector of the Romani people around the world.” – 2001, Dr Emil Scuka, President of International Romani Union
The four quotes above-given mention the incumbent in a position in the given year and show us how Indian administrations across four decades have reiterated a position of solidarity with the Romani people without any concrete action on the ground, with the last quote highlighting the request by the Romani people for India to become their guarantor of rights.
The Romani people are undeniably Indian. Over many years this has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. The two main methods are taken to prove this have been linguistics and genetics. The focus of this article is not, however, to explain this in detail, but rather what India’s role should be based on that premise. The coronavirus crisis especially highlights the urgent need to take action.
The General Persecution of Romani People
Ever since the Romani people began migrating from India they have been persecuted. They were enslaved by the Mongols from whom their status was passed down to where they settled in present-day Romania. Then province of Wallachia and Moldavia legally identified Romani people as slaves and were given support by the church, state and monasteries. A document from 1385 identifies a gift from the royal Prince Dan of 40 Romani households to a monastery. Wallachia’s penal code declared that all Romani people were born slaves. Till 1848, this continued when the policy was reversed before finally being enshrined in law in 1856. But overnight freedom from slavery, without any means of sustenance, left many in penury, whose effects are visible even today. UNICEF estimates that, even now, 35% of Roma children in Romania live below the threshold of poverty, compared with 8% among non-Roma counterparts, and 75% of them quit school before finishing secondary education.
Historically, forced assimilation was tried around Europe from the Habsburg monarchy to the Spanish monarchy. Norway, for example, instituted a law in 1896 which allowed Romani children to be taken away from their parents forcibly. Another historical persecution and perhaps the most well-known came in Germany during the Nazi years. But the persecution began much earlier. In fact, sources show that the police in Bavaria maintained a Roma registry as early as 1899. But during the Nazi years, they were systemically targeted. During the 1936 Olympics, all Romani people in Greater Berlin were rounded up and moved to a place near a cemetery and a sewage dump in eastern Berlin called Marzahn. This was just the intermediate step through, as thereafter the men from Marzahn were sent to Sachsenhausen in 1938 and their families were deported to Auschwitz in 1943.
Today, such persecution continues unabated. General thought identifies “Gypsy” people as thieves, beggars, kidnappers and general anti-social elements. Jozsef Pacai, the mayor of the Slovak village of Medzev said, “I’m no racist, but some Gypsies you would have to shoot.” This was in 1993. ‘The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders, we are not here to welcome these people”, said Manuel Valls, the interior minister of France. This was in 2013. “We need a mass cleansing [of Roma], street by street, piazza by piazza, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. We need to be tough because there are entire parts of our cities, entire parts of Italy, that are out of control”, said Matteo Salvini, former interior minister of Italy, prior to assuming office in 2017. Across the breadth of the continent, even after the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy across Europe, such ugliness has raised its head again and again.
The Persecution in the times of a Pandemic
In a pandemic of nature we face now with COVID-19, the problems faced by a persecuted community are often exacerbated. The Romani people often live in crowded and unsanitary neighbourhoods which lack basic facilities such as clean running water due to political neglect by successive governments over the years. Due to the lack of scope for social distancing in these camps and the general level of hygiene possible in such conditions, these become the ideal Petri dishes for the spread of the virus. Some statistics show the situation confronting us quite starkly. In the European Union, 80% of Romani people are below the poverty line. 30% do not have access to running water. 46% do not have access to indoor toilets or showers.
Recently a Roma camp, near the Greek city of Larissa, reported a case of the virus with 20 people infected. Due to the squalid nature of the camps, each person can infect up to twenty new people, seven times faster than the average rate of infection. Such a situation can easily devolve into a runaway spread if not properly controlled. But, in the name of controlling, we are seeing that many of the traditional stereotypes leveled against the Romani people have resurfaced. In places like Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, the police and the military are getting involved. Nationalist politicians have called for the closure of these ‘ghettos’ which have then been picked up by the general population in social media, much like minority communities here in India have been maligned during this pandemic. Racist assumptions have often done more harm even when good was intended. In Slovakia, for example, testing was assigned to the army, which serves to further stigmatize the Romani people and the mayor from Kosice said that Romani are “socially unadaptable”. In Timis in Romania, a Romani student who got infected was suggested to have got it from an “external environment” and not from the classroom. Facebook posts, fake news, and media sensationalism have all made the situation worse. This could have been a golden opportunity. There is a widespread recognition that large state stimulus will be required to address economic problems and a dedicated amount could have been set apart for the development of these Romani population centers. Instead, that opportunity has been squandered.
In addition, the nature of the encampments, another worry facing the Romani people is job loss. Already, employment for the Romani sector lagged behind other groups. Due to strict quarantine requirements across many countries, even opportunities for informal work have dried up. Collecting junk, selling food and handmade products are now out of the question. Due to the combination of all these factors, the Romani people have been left at the mercy of good Samaritans and hand-outs. There have been some inspiring examples. In Slovakia, some areas have provided clean water with mobile units. In the city of Cluj in Romania, food and sanitary products have been distributed to around 300 families. But charity can only go so far till systemic inequalities are eliminated. For that, the Romani people need an agency in negotiations and that is where the Indian state can step in.
The Proposed Solution and its Effects
As highlighted at the very outset, the Romani people have requested India to become their moral protector. Indian politicians across the aisle have paid lip service to that notion without doing anything concrete. The latest development stands that a recommendation has been made to recognize them as part of the Indian diaspora. However, such statements, while emotionally powerful, lack any actual power. What is needed, as evidenced by centuries of neglect, racism and hostility, is immediate support of the Romani people by India. This can often prove to be a difficult task as the Romani people are spread across many countries in Europe, additionally with a significant population now in North America and South America as well. Many of them are citizens of those countries. Hence, there is a need to support them while not running afoul of diplomatic norms where it seems that we are getting involved in the sovereignty of any other country.
Fortunately, such a tool readily exists with us. The Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) is an immigration status available at our disposal. It allows people to maintain their existing citizenship, but it also gives them the explicit backing of the Indian state. Granting this status can then effectively make all the Romani citizens officially part of the Indian diaspora and then their rights can be protected in their own countries. The OCI allows any person of the Romani community to approach the Indian consulate for the amelioration of their standards in the host country itself. Therefore, any grievance a Romani person might have and feels unable to approach the local law agency due to discrimination knows that he or she has this tool at her disposal to bypass them and approach the Indian government directly. This allows for the possibility of a large structural change from the bottom towards up instead of top-to-down change, going beyond just statements and platitudes and simple diplomatic communiqué between countries.
Civil rights movements have been hampered within the Romani population because they never had the backing of a state and were spread out across multiple nations, which made outreach to all such governments separately difficult. India’s diplomatic channels can mitigate these problems. Romani people will then no longer be just a minority in each nation, but a minority of a particular national origin. India can then step in to ensure their rights such as preservation of Romani language, culture and heritage. India can also take up with respective governments, the right of the Romani people, most of whom are sedentary now, to live as they want on their land with access to full basic amenities as provided to other people by the government. Most vitally in this writer’s contention, just as Indian government helps to set-up Indian schools in counties with large Indian diaspora, the embassies can now set up a school system, so that Romani children can get good education across multiple countries and become contributing citizens when they grow up.
India has seen itself as a beacon for humanity over the ages. We have given shelter to downtrodden people from around the world to come to our country and add to its culture and fabric. But in many instances, we have failed with our caste system, our religious prejudices and our political divisions.
And yet again here, we have a chance of redemption and of following the best of our ideals. We have people who need us, now more than ever. They are people who are definitely kin but have drifted away from us over the centuries. They belong to multiple religions and speak many different dialects. They, in fact, are a representation of what India is, away from India. The least we can do for them is to give them official protection.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.