SIDDIS: Schooling Indians to Defeat Discrimination and Inequalities

In this blog by Nandini Tanya Lallmon for the #MakeEducationWork campaign, the young creator explains the injustice faced by the Siddi community in India and how it impacts their access to a good education.

Despite having lived in India for centuries, the Siddis, an ethnic African community, are not likely to be known to many Indians. The present-day Siddi people living on the peninsula are descendants of Bantu people of East Africa. Although a few immigrated to India as merchants, sailors and mercenaries, most were brought to India as slaves by Arab, Portuguese and British colonisers as from the seventh century

Despite the promulgation of the Indian Slavery Act in 1843 and the Indian Independence Act in 1947, the inequalities faced by Siddi slaves have been perpetuated across multiple generations and permeated across various areas. Siraj Sidi, a 27-year-old Siddi man living in Gujarat, explains that members of his community still battle with numerous barriers that hinder their educational advancement and consequently undermine their social and economic development. 

Access to school premises

Siraj explains that, because many Siddi farmers live in small and isolated communities along the coast of Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh, they must often walk for an hour or more to catch a bus into town. There are numerous challenges for families to send their children to school in town, including long walks on rough paths through the forest. These paths were forged over generations by Siddi families that lived in isolation but remained in intermittent contact with the outside world.

The Uttar Kannada District, where most of the Siddis live, is located along the Western Ghats Mountains in the Malnad (land of rain) region. The monsoon rains in this region can make the smaller roads and forest paths difficult to traverse. Commonly, the forest paths become impassable. Consequently, self-sufficient Siddi families often remain in the forests to wait out the monsoons, and children are unable to travel to school.

Colourism and caste discrimination

Siraj testifies to having been personally bullied in school for his curly hair, dark skin and low caste. Skin tone is deeply attached to the normal Indian psyche and it often gets confused with the societal value system of caste, class, and religion. Skin tone also forms various strata of variables and acceptability in society.

Colorism is a significant form of discrimination in India but it is hardly raised. The common association of fair skin with the ruling class, power, desirability and beauty stems from the colonial era when the country was controlled by fair-skinned rulers. This has evolved into a modern-day practice of attaching higher social caste to fair-skinned people. This discrimination from non-Siddi students and the teachers in schools pushes Siddi students to drop out in their early years, thus compromising their access to higher education.

To overcome this discrimination, many look to marry outside the Siddi community and dilute their African appearance, thus contributing to the very disappearance of the Siddi people themselves.

Financial difficulties

Due to their low educational qualifications, young Siddi adults are frequently ineligible for jobs with a stable income. After dropping out of school after the 10th standard, Siraj had no option but to start his own dance troupe through which he performs African dances for tourists.

Similarly, youth in the small Muslim Siddi settlement near Halligadde village work in menial jobs in the surrounding area because they see no other prospect for the future. As a result, young Siddi parents are often unable to afford the costs associated with sending their offspring to school beyond elementary or primary level. These children end up working on family farms or taking low-paying jobs to support their families.

Societal challenges prevent most Siddis from comfortably venturing beyond a certain distance from their homeland, thereby depriving them from educational and employment opportunities that can improve their financial situation. Thus, the vicious cycle of low education and poverty is perpetuated. 

Legal protection

Likewise, The Indian Constitution provides for equality before law under Article 14 within the territory of India. Article 15 prohibits any kind of discrimination by the State on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16 provides for equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment. The Siddis struggled and fought to attain Scheduled Tribe status, which was granted to them in 2003 by the Indian government.

However, these legal provisions are of little help to marginalised minorities such as the Siddis. Due to their low levels of education, most of them are not fully aware of their rights or the means of redress available to them in cases of abuse. The change in status meant that many Siddis were eligible to receive certain government benefits that helped to empower and uplift the communities.

Nevertheless, Siraj explains that, after the COVID-19 outbreak shut down his business and those of this fellow community members, none of them received any government assistance to help them back on their feet in the wake of the pandemic. In fact, Siddis are often looked down upon by government officials because they do not speak fluent English. The discrimination is therefore perpetuated in schools and workplaces, thus creating an endless loop of inequality.

It is only regrettable that a country boasting of its cultural and geographic diversity differentiates among its citizens based on their appearance. In the context of the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent commemorated from 2015 to 2024, it is high time for the legislature, executive, judiciary and media to responsibly engage in democratic reform to uplift the Siddi community, revive its forgotten history and bring much-awaited acceptance to the Siddi people.

A holistic effort from joint stakeholders is required to ensure that the barriers to equal opportunities are lifted, particularly regarding education which is a crucial segway to socio-economic growth for this minority group. As Siraj rightly quoted Michael Jackson’s famous lyrics, we need to “make a little space, make a better place… for you, and for me, and the entire human race.”

About Tanya

Nandini Tanya Lallmon is a social justice activist adopting a decolonial perspective on LGBTQIA+ rights as African Union Youth Charter Hustler for Mauritius.

As Fellow at OutRight Action International, she advocates for LGBTQIA+ rights at the United Nations and harnesses the international law system to protect LGBTQIA+ people from religion-based violence.

Through the #Reform53 campaign, she lobbies against discriminatory laws on behalf of the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network under the Royal Commonwealth Society.

In her role of Community Leader for Internet Health at Digital Grassroots, she leverages the power of traditional and social media to create learning, dialogue and development spaces that are diverse, inclusive and transformative.


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SIDDIS: Schooling Indians to Defeat Discrimination and Inequalities

by #MakeEducationWork Reading time: 4 min