Who are the Roma?
The Roma or Romani are a travelling people who live mostly in Europe and America, and whose origins are widely accepted by anthropologists, historians and geneticists as lying in northern India. The Roma are known by different names in different countries — Zigeuner in Germany, Tsiganes or Manus in France, Tatara in Sweden, Gitano in Spain, Tshingan in Turkey and Greece, Gypsy in the UK, etc. Some of these names have clear derogatory connotations and are considered racial slurs by the Romani people. In her speech to the International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival in New Delhi on February 12, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj counted painter Pablo Picasso, actor-filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, entertainer Elvis Presley, Hollywood icon Michael Caine, tennis star Ilie Nastase, and actor Yul Brynner among prominent Roma.
What is the world’s Roma population? Where do they live?
The precise number is unknown, in part because of the reluctance of many Roma to disclose their ethnicities in official national censuses for fear of attracting harassment or persecution. Minister Swaraj told the Roma conference that as of 2016, the global population of the community is estimated to be around 20 million. Roma peoples live in some 30 countries across West Asia, Europe, America and Australia. The largest Roma community is in Turkey — around 2.75 million. Some 1 million are estimated to live in the US, and around 800,000 in Brazil. Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Spain and France all have sizeable Roma populations.
So, what is the Indian connection of the Romani people?
The Romani language has obvious similarities with languages spoken in northern India, and many of the commonest Romani words, including the numerals, are near identical to their modern Hindi names. Examples: the Romani yek (Hindi ek); dui (do); trin (teen); shtaar (chaar); panchi (paanch); sho (chhe); desh (dus); bish (bees); manush (manushya, or man); baal, kaan and naak, which are the same as the Hindi words for hair, ear and nose; kalo (kaala, or black), etc.
The first wave of the Roma are thought to have left India probably with the armies of Alexander of Macedon around 326 BC, who, Swaraj said at the conference, took them along as “they were iron smelters and experts in making war weapons”. The word Roma itself is believed to have come from the Sanskrit domba, or the modern dom or its variations, found in several Indian languages, referring to lower castes engaged in a range of menial works and, at places, in itinerant singing and dancing professions.
The cultural similarities between the Roma and Indian communities include an association of the colour white with mourning, applying of mehndi on palms by Roma brides, and laws of ritual purity and taboos of birth and death. A woman in childbirth is considered impure, and must have her baby outside her caravan home or tent lest it be polluted. The high incidence of child marriages, and belief in gods similar to Shiva, Kali and Agni too are considered evidence of their links to Hindu culture.
The authors of a 2012 study analysed some 800,000 genetic variants in 152 Romani people from 13 Romani communities across Europe and concluded that the Roma people left northern India about 1,500 years ago; and those Roma who now live in Europe migrated through the Balkans beginning about 900 years ago.
Why are the Roma regarded with fear by some people and persecuted by some governments?
Popular narratives in film and literature represent the Roma as people of unpredictable temper and mystical or occult powers, including fortune-telling. They are also often represented as thieves or law-breakers, adding to the general negative perceptions about them.
The prejudice has translated into persecution by governments almost since the beginning of their migration to Europe. They were enslaved or killed in Germany, Italy and Portugal, faced discrimination because of the colour of their skin, and were accused of bringing the great plague to Europe.
The Nazis sent the Roma to labour camps. In 1934, Turkey passed a law allowing the government to deny the Roma citizenship. In the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, Roma women were forced to undergo sterilisation. Even now, there are incidents of Roma children being taken away from their parents, and women having their ears chopped. In 2010, 51 illegal Roma camps were removed by the French authorities, triggering an uproar and threats of action from the EU.
So where is the ‘Roma question’ headed?
The main aim of the Delhi conference was to bring to the attention of governments the issues being faced by the community. It was proposed to study the political, social, and economic challenges it faced, and to examine the constitutional safeguards available to them. A 2011 survey in 11 European countries had found that only one out of two children from the community went to school on average, and only one out of three adult Roma was in a paid job. Almost 90% of Roma in these countries lived below the poverty line, and almost half of them had faced discrimination because of their ethnic background.