Earlier this week, on 8th April 2021, the Roma people celebrated the 50th International Romani Day.  It was in 1971 that the first ever World Roma Congress was held in Orpington near London, UK. The Roma people celebrate this day to commemorate the foundation of an international Roma collaboration, their common culture, language, and origin and to raise awareness about their rights. But who are they? And what is their connection with India? 

The Roma people or Romanis are the hidden Indians, the Indians most of the world and Indians themselves are unaware of. While contemporary Indian diaspora is spread across the world, the Roma people are considered to be their pioneers. The Roma people, around 20 million in total, are spread world over but concentrated primarily in Europe.

There are two primary theories of Roma emigration. Three sources from the 10th and 11th centuries have documented the migration of Indians to the Sassanid Empire as early as 5 AD. In 961 AD, Arab Historian Hamza al-Isfahani stated that Persian Emperor Bahram V (420-438 AD) called in 12,000 musicians from India. The people belonged to the tribe of Zott, or Jat as they are known in India. Ferdowsi, the author of Shahnameh, also states that about 10,000 musicians being emigrated from India but he refers to them as Luri. Arab historian Al-Talibi also mentions musicians known as Luri but limits their numbers to 4000 only.

Ferdowsi reading the Shahnameh to Mahmud Ghazni. Source: Painting by Vardges Sureniants, 1913

The second theory promulgated by famous Roma academician Dr. Ian Hancock states that in the 11th-century, when the Turkish Ghazanavid Empire overthrew the Arab Caliphate and established itself, Mahmud Ghazni started attacking India, caused enormous loot, destroyed town-cities and temples and captured local people as slaves. The descendants of these slaves are known as the Roma people today.

The first Indian academician who wrote about the Roma people was Dr. Raghu Vira who first met them during his stay and travel to Europe in 1928. He was intrigued by the similarities between Roma and Indian cultures and language (which has a lot of Hindi words).

Much later in 1971, India organized the first World Romani Congress in England at which Roma representatives from 20 countries were present. The last big conference was the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival held in 2016 in New Delhi. It is here that the then India’s External Affairs Minister, the late Mrs. Sushma Swaraj, declared “Roma are the children of India”. Further, genetic evidence has clearly shown that Roma are Indians, specifically from the Northern part of India.

Artists at the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival, 2016, New Delhi. Source: The Wire.

Swaraj had further stated that the Roma people “have lived in challenging circumstances in foreign lands for centuries”. She was referring to the difficult living conditions, discrimination and even persecution which the Roma people faced since they became slaves under various empires, and this continued in Europe as well.

The Roma people reached Serbia and Romania in the 14th century. By the 16th century, they had spread all across Europe. However Europe wasn’t very accommodating and soon, anti-Roma laws were passed across Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Portugal, Scotland, Bohemia, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden. Germany, France, England, Portugal and Sweden did not stop at that; they even expelled the Roma people from their borders. Denmark, Sweden and England went to the extent of imposing the death sentence on them.

Romani woman with a German police officer and Nazi psychologist Robert Ritter. Source: Wikipedia

However, the persecution of the Roma people crossed all limits and reached its zenith under Nazi Germany. The Nazis launched a systematic genocide of the Roma people, known as ‘Porajmos’ or the Roma Holocaust, in which they killed around 1.5 million Roma people.

Post 1945, Europe transformed itself completely from a warmonger to a torch bearer and saviour of human rights. These human rights, however, haven’t percolated down to the Roma people. In as recent as 2010, France under the Sarkozy government systematically deported its local Roma community. This antipathy is not limited to the government but extends to common Europeans as well, and that’s why the Roma people still live on the side lines of Europe.

It is equally true that many of them have transcended these difficulties and established their presence across politics, science, arts, and economy. A phenomenal example is Charlie Chaplin. Coincidentally, one of the best-known film personalities across the world till date traced his origins to the country which produces the largest number of films in the world.

Charlie Chaplin, one of the most famous film actors globally, is a Roma. Sources: The New Yorker and www.biography.com

The Roma people have, time and again, requested India to be their moral protector. With its “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – literally, the whole world is one family – ethos, India must actively recognise the Roma people akin to non-resident Indians (NRIs) as a part of the Indian diaspora and embrace them into the great Indian family.

On the question of political recognition, the General Secretary of World Roma Organisation, Bajram Haliti once said ,“What is required to the political scene of India to initiate the process of recognition of Roma as the Indian diaspora? Do we have to change the name of the nation? I suggest that we become Hindus, instead of Roma, if it will be a prerequisite to be recognized by our home state. Because one of the conditions for the launch of solving the Roma issue is, as it‘s written in International law, that the minority has a distinctive home country.”

As Secretary-General of the World Organization of Roma, I speak to the authorities in India with an appeal to build a political consensus on the recognition of Roma as a linguistic, historical, and cultural minority and to demand of the United Nations that their authoritative organs raise, at the General Assembly, the question of planetary legal and political position of the Roma-Hindus”.

Indian politicians across the aisle have paid lip service to the Roma people without any concrete action. However, India has a tool which can enable it to protect the Roma people officially – the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI). The OCI allows people to retain their existing citizenships while giving them explicit backing of the Indian state. Moreover, OCI cards will enable the Roma people to visit India anytime for life without requiring renewal; they can work and study in India and have the same economic and financial benefits as those of the NRIs.

By officially recognizing the Roma people, India will not just add another 20 million to its count, but also expand the Indosphere. This is not taking liability of 20 million people but adding another 20 million ambassadors for spreading its soft power and influence around the world.

If India truly wants to be recognized as a ‘vishwaguru’ and a super-power in the new multipolar world, it also needs to act like one. For this, officially recognizing the Roma people as part of the Indian diaspora and protecting the rights of its diaspora around the world is key.

Mark Kinra

Mark Kinra is a corporate lawyer by profession and geopolitical analyst at heart. He primarily works on South Asia, specializing in Pakistan.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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