Deep in the annals of Indian history, there lies a long-forgotten tale of daring heroes, who, although foreign to the land, quickly got assimilated into her blood and added to her magnificence. This is the story of the first African rulers of India, the Siddis. India has long been acting as a magnet, drawing to her shores communities from lands afar which have flourished and prospered in her. Amongst these communities were the Africans who although arrived as slaves, still emerged as the mightiest of rulers.
Journeying all the way from Abyssinia, their motherland, through the treacherous waters, the ‘habshis’ (another term used for addressing the Siddis, descendants of the Bantu people) arrived at the Deccan as a part of the ongoing lucrative slave trade by the Arab merchants. The very distinguished Moroccan scholar, Ibn Batutta recounts how the habshis were reputed for being formidable, such that the presence of even a single habshi in a ship would make the pirates turn away from it. While most of the habshis arrived as slaves and soldiers for the armies of the Delhi Sultanate, not all remained so, and some even climbed the social ladder to become dignified nobles. One of such nobles was Jamal-ud-din Yakut, a close confidant of Razia Sultan (the first female monarch to assume the ascendancy over the Delhi Sultanate), who enjoyed a privileged position as the Amir al-Umara (Amir of Amirs), under her patronage. His growing proximity with the Sultana, along with his racial humbleness, earned him great spite from the Turkish clerics, especially Malik Ikhtiar-ud-din Altunia, who led a violent rebellion against the two, ultimately culminating in his tragic end.
There were also other Abyssinian men like the governor general Malik Sarwar who even went to the extent of laying down the foundation of a sovereign state called Jaunpur, which survived for nearly a century as a symbol of cultural amity and unity. Furthermore, some even established themselves in the eastern part of the subcontinent by dethroning the Sultans of Bengal. The very impressive Siddi Sayed mosque in Ahmedabad was also sanctioned for construction by a Habshi in 1572. Other noteworthy cases of Abyssinians entering the political limelight include Suhail Khan, saviour of the beleaguered Queen of Ahmadnagar, Chand Bibi, who was at war with the Mughals, and Yakut Khan, a navy admiral commissioned by the great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb.
While these achievements are indeed great, nowhere had the habshis thrived as much as they did in the Deccan region. Many soared up sky-high, attaining extraordinary heights in the administration and military, because of their physical competency and fidelity. They no longer remained subdued, and with social ascendency, came greater power and privilege at their disposal. Such is the story of another Habshi, Malik Ambar, who held the post of the prime minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate. Born in the Oromo tribe, he was sold out at a very young age to an Arab merchant and passed through the hands of several owners to ultimately arrive at India and write his own destiny, where he converted to Islam and was renamed Ambar.
It was around 1571 that Ambar arrived at the Deccan where he served under a new master, the Peshwa of Ahmadnagar, who was himself a black man. This must have presented to Ambar a tempting prospect of rising above slavery to cease power and wealth. After the death of his master, he established an independent army (with the help of other habshi lords) and provided his valuable services to Adil Shah for which he was even conferred the title of Malik. But his most impressive accomplishment by far was during the invasions of the 1590’s, where he led a pluralistic force of several thousands under his command against the Mughals. His animosity towards the Mughals was especially long drawn, against whom he fought bravely to establish Nizam Shah on the throne of Ahmadnagar as the lawful monarch. Apart from being an able administrator, Malik Ambar is also accredited with engineering the military tactic of guerrilla warfare.
Donning Indian clothes and speaking the language of the land, the Siddis over time have coalesced into the culture and tradition of the subcontinent. However, contrary to the honour and fame attained as a part of history, the Siddis of present-day India remain a secluded community. Maintaining their distance from the mainstream culture and society, they live in tiny clusters scattered around the states of Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. Having been reduced to mere outsiders in a country of their own, the Siddis have to continuously battle against the evils of racism and poverty. The only positive step taken by the government towards their upliftment was the establishment of the Special Area Games Project, in the hope of nurturing the raw talent for athletics which runs in their blood. This initiative, however, could not sustain for long and the dream of having Indo-African athletes run for the country in the Olympics was lost. Sports being the only way out of their deplorable condition, the Siddi community now dwells in the hope of the revival of SAG project and creation of many such opportunities
With xenophobia and racial attacks on the rise all over the country, there is a dire need to spread greater awareness about this community. The government, especially, needs to shoulder some responsibility and formulate comprehensive policies to harness the enormous potential lying in the Siddi community. This can come in the form of better employment, education, and opportunities in sports, and most importantly, acceptance from the rest of the countrymen. The time has come for us to uproot this deep-seated feeling of prejudice against the Indo-African community and truly embrace them to the core in an attempt to learn from the glorious past and shape a bright future based on mutual recognition and brotherhood.
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