The Modi Government, and RSS, Are Keen to Claim the Roma as Indians, and Hindus

The government recently organised a conference that officially validated – for the first time – the Indian origin of the Romas, raising their hopes of being a part of the Indian diaspora. But the decision is not free of Hindutva politics

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the inauguration of International Roma Conference and Culture Festival 2016, organized by ICCR and ARSP, in New Delhi on Friday. Credit: PTI Photo by Manvender Vashist

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the inauguration of International Roma Conference and Culture Festival 2016, organized by ICCR and ARSP, in New Delhi on Friday. Credit: PTI Photo by Manvender Vashist

New Delhi: The Roma community spread across as many as 30 countries in 5 continents has just got a huge boost in its fight for an identity. Few would have thought – even among the Romas – that a day would come when the Indian government would make a tectonic shift to own them for their “Hindi and Hindu origin’’ and pave the way to welcome them “home”.

The Narendra Modi government did just that by hosting a number of prominent Romas from 15 countries in New Delhi to deliberate on issues surrounding the community – including its Indian origin – thus validating a historical claim besides raising the hope of being recognised as a part of the Indian diaspora.

The Romas, about 20 milllion of them scattered across West Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia, are believed to have migrated from northern India from the 5th Century onwards, beginning with the invasion of Alexander who carried with him a large number of iron smiths from nomadic groups like the Chauhans, Doms, Banjaras, Gujjars, Sanchis, Dhangars and Sikligars. However, their “motherland” never acknowledged the Roma claim officially nor did it mention their migration in its history books. Obviously then, the Modi government’s move has come as a historic change of stance for the community, particularly when it continues to face persecution and discrimiantion in many European countries.

But there is a catch here. Though the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) hosted the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival through its cultural wing, the Indian Council for Cultural relations (ICCR), the ground work for it was done by the Antar Rashtriya Sahyog Parishad – Bharat (ARSP), one of the major organisations that nurture the overseas footprint of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Eight of the 18 Indian scholars who spoke at the conference were office bearers of the ARSP. All of them underlined the Hindu origin of the community and therefore the need to “reintegrate them to Bharat.” An exhibition to highlight the Hindu cultural identity of the Romas was also curated by the organisation at the event.

So is the Modi Government responding to the Romas’ long-held plea for recognition of their Indian origin only because of their Hindu roots? ARSP Secretary General Keshav Govind Parande and ICCR President Lokesh Chandra agree there’s the possibility of adding 20 million Romas to the Hindu fold through measures like granting People of Indian Origin (PIO) status to them but say it is wrong to see the issue only from the Hindutva angle.

Says Chandra, “There has been enough historical evidence to prove the Indian origin of the Romas. Municipal records in many European countries as old as the 10th century mention their country of origin. For centuries, the Romas had carried the art of steelware of ancient India through classical Europe. They have been the steel smiths of Europe besides singers, dancers and fortune tellers. So there is nothing Hindutva there. The government shouldn’t be questioned about it.”

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Artists performing at the Roma Cultural Festival. Credit: ICCR

The Roma dialect has about 1500 Hindi words, he adds. “They have lovingly preserved an early phase of the Hindi language.” Since many Romas are in important positions in various countries now, he feels, this will also help India.

In his speech at the conference, Chandra said, “When Greek scholar Paspati heard the Romas call the cross ‘Trishul’ under the clear sky of Constantinople, he realised that it refers to Trishul, the Trident of Shiva, the God of Cosmic Dance. Long ago, here was their origin… Roma scholar Dr. Vania of Paris termed his people ‘Ramno chave’ or the ‘sons of Rama’.”

Parande tells The Wire that the ARSP was waiting for “the right moment” to raise the issue of reintegrating the Romas to their motherland even though it has been in touch with community members living in different countries for the past 15-16 years.

“We have raised it now because of the friendly government at the centre,” he says, but doesn’t want it to be seen as an issue of right-wing interest alone.

“Indira Gandhi was also very keen on the Roma issue. That is why, we have put in the concept note not only what Atal Bihari Vajpayee said during his meeting with some Roma leaders in 2001 but also what Indira said while inaugurating the first Roma conference held by an organisation in Chandigarh in 1983. She said that she feels kinship with the Romas,” he says. Chandra recalls inviting Indira Gandhi to a performance by a Roma dance troupe at the Turkish embassy in New Delhi in the 1970s (Turkey has the largest Roma population in the world). “She came there to everyone’s surprise and watched the dance. Thereafter, she went to the first Roma conference in Chandigarh,” he recalls.

ARSP’s interest in the Romas goes back a long time. Lokesh Chandra’s father, Dharma Vira, who was associated with the ARSP, wrote a book on the Romas’ Hindu origin many years ago.

Inaugurating the conference at Azad Bhawan on February 12, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj too called the Romas “children of India” who migrated and lived in “challenging circumstances in foreign lands for centuries.’’

Most Indians are unaware of the Indian origin of the Romas. So this time, Parande took a Roma delegation to meet HRD Minister Smriti Irani too. “We have put across a few requests to her, such as inclusion of a page, if not a chapter, on the Indian origin of the Romas and their forced migration in our school and college history books; to institute scholarships to Roma students to come to India to study and set aside grants to pursue research on the origin of the Romas.”

Among the conference resolutions to be submitted to Swaraj is the need to set up a cell in the MEA to study and research the origin of the Romas and examine what status can be accorded to them by India. Chandra says, “Measures like these may take a while but what can come sooner than that is their cultural and social engagement with the people of India.”

Among the visiting leaders of Romas, it was not difficult to find a willingness to engage. And more.

“I appeal to the Indian government to build a political consensus on the recognition of the Romas as a linguistic, historical and cultural minority and to demand from the United Nations that their authoritative organs raise at the General Assembly the question of the legal and political position of the Romas,” said Bajram Haliti, Secretary General, the World Roma Organisation. Belgrade-based Haliti, also a poet who has published a collection on Bollywood actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, said, “If it is a prerequisite to change our name from Roma to Hindu, I suggest we do so. Because one of the conditions to solve the Roma issue is, as per international laws, that a minority should have a distinctive home country.”

On a lighter note, if Romas become a part of the Indian diaspora someday, Indian film and music lovers would also get to own the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Michael Caine and Elvis Presley, because the conference organisers and participants also highlighted their ‘Indian origin’ via their purportedly Roma heritage.