Shantharam Budna Siddi, one of the five newly nominated MLCs by Karnataka’s BJP government, is from the Siddi community — a small group of the community believed to be descendants of the Bantu people from Southeast Africa.
Shantharam, who hails from Uttara Kannada district, is the first from the community to be nominated for a legislative body in the country. The 55-year-old is also the first in the community to hold a degree. He has been a tribal activist in an NGO called Vanavasi Kalyanashram. He is also a participant of the Appiko Chaluvali, a southern version of the Chipko movement that was started by Pandurang Hegde in 1983 to save trees in the Western Ghats in Karnataka.
Shantharam, who never dreamt of becoming the MLC, is happy that through him the Siddi community has got recognised in the State and the Country. Speaking to Indianexpress.com, Shantharam said, “My top priority as the MLC will remain the same, which is the upliftment of the community in the society along with other tribes which I have been fighting for the past two decades.”
“I would like to thank BJP and Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa for nominating me to the MLC post which is the best platform to highlight the grievances of the community and improve the condition and to create sustainable livelihoods for the Siddi people in the state,” he added.
Shantaram is also a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from his college days. According to him, his teachers in middle school inspired him to study and go to high school when most of his community children were far from school and the education system.
“My teachers in middle school inspired me to study and admitted me to a school in Ankola, away from my home in Hitlalli in Uttara Kannada district. I went on to study BA Economics at the Arts and Science College, in Karwar and became the first graduate from my community,” Shantaram said.
The Siddis are spread along the coast of Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh. According to Shantaram, the Siddi community is an ethnic African group brought to India in the early seventh century by the Portuguese, to work for them. The community is included in the list of the Scheduled Tribes in Karnataka. About 50,000 Siddi people reside in India today, of which, more than a third live in northern Karnataka. Their mother tongue is called Siddi Basha and many are fluent in Kannada.
Shantaram always wanted to study more and fight for the rights of the people of his community and earn a decent government job and settle in his life. According to him, he has been doing the same and the post of MLC has brought bigger responsibilities. “I started working for the community in 1988 and now I work across Karnataka with all tribal communities and upliftment of the tribal people in the state,” he added.
“I have never been in politics, it’s new to me, but I am confident that I will use my experience of social activities as an MLC,” Shantaram said when asked about politics.
Shantaram said he wants to continue creating awareness about the community and its problems. “I will continue to create awareness about the title deeds to the land belonging to the Siddi community so that people in the community will not face threats of evictions,” he added.
The people from the Siddi community are also into athletics. In the late 80s, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) launched an ambitious talent hunt, calling it the Special Area Games Programme.
Young Siddi boys and girls were picked from villages in Gujarat, Karnataka, and Hyderabad, and trained by top athletics coaches at SAI centers. The inspiration to dig this deep in search for stars was the overwhelming show of African and African-origin athletes at the 1984 Olympics, and the sudden talk of genetics in sporting post mortems. India wanted to tap its own Africans, the people who had made this country their home centuries earlier.
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