The Roma or Romanies (in the singular Rom or Romany) have been in the limelight since July 2010 when their camps in France were demolished and they were sent back to Romania, France’s fellow member of the European Union (EU). The deportees are citizens with Romanian passports and full civil rights like any other EU or Romanian citizens, though heavily discriminated against.
This attitude towards Roma people is not exclusive to the French. The Roma received a similar hostile welcome in Italy not so long ago. Both the Italians and French claim that the Roma are a “threat to public order”.
The EU law gives citizens of the EU — as the Roma are — the right to cross internal EU national borders and stay for 90 days in search of employment or gainful work, failing which they have to return to their country.
The EU Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding, referred to the French expulsions of the Roma as “a situation I thought Europe would not have to witness again after World War II”, invoking images of wartime European deportment of Jews and Roma to Nazi death camps. The EU Commissioner says France can be prosecuted for its actions. The Pope and the French Catholic Church too have voiced concern. This, and the reaction of several other countries, has highlighted Europe’s worst, and most ill-managed social problem. The treatment that millions of Roma face is at best discriminatory and at worst persecution.
Central and Eastern Europe — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia have always had the most hostile attitude towards the Roma. But after these countries became a part of the EU, the Roma became free to travel across national borders and migrate to any country of their choice within the EU. France is a preferred destination and the Roma try their luck again and again as their standard of living is better in France than in their home countries.
Most European countries see the Roma as a lawless and hopeless underclass living in shabby conditions, moving around in caravans, surviving on petty sales, thieving and tinker work. However, the Roma, like any other ethnic group, include rich and poor, success stories and failures.
The Roma are estimated do have a population of anything between four to 14 million and this is after Hitler killed an enormous number in Nazi death camps. Professor Ian Hancock of the University of Texas, head of the department of Romani studies, suggests that a million-and-a-half Roma were killed in the Nazi death camps, while Sybil Milton, formerly senior historian of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, has a more conservative estimate of between 220,000 and 500,000. Had this received even half the attention that the killing of six million Jews in the Nazi death camps received, their lot would have been different today.
While the South Asian origin of the Romanies has been long considered a fact, the exact group from whom they have descended is still a matter of debate. Genetic evidence supports the theory of medieval migration from India. The Romanies are generally believed to have originated in Rajasthan, moving to Punjab around 250 BC. The discovery of “Jat mutation”, which causes a type of glaucoma in Romani populations, suggests that the Romani people are the descendants of the Jats of northern India and Pakistan. Linguistic and genetic evidence also indicates that the Romanies originated from India, moving towards the northwest no earlier than the 11th century.
Their emigration from India most likely took place in the context of the early 11th century raids by Mahumud of Ghazni who captured whole populations, enslaved them and took them to Afghanistan, even across the Hindu Kush (in Persian “Kush” means “killer” — so named for the death by cold and fatigue of many captives of Ghazni) and incorporated as ethnic military units, along with their camp followers, wives and families.
Most of this is confirmed by language studies, blood groupings, DNA tests and the writings of Muslim historians and other scholars at the Ghaznavid court of Mahumud and later, the Persians, Armenians, Turks and Greeks.
The theory goes on to explain that in 1040, the Ghaznavid empire was overthrown by the Seljuks and that the Indian contingent, numbering around some 60,000, was forced to fight for the Seljuks and spearhead their advance in their raids into Armenia. The only other option was to flee to Armenia and fight for them.
In any event, the Indians ended up in Armenia and later, in the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm. These Roma-in-the-making remained in Turkey for 200 to 300 years, abandoned their military way of life and took up a nomadic lifestyle based on artisan work, trading, animal dealing and entertainment. Gradually, small groups wandered westwards, across the Bosporus to Constantinople and from there up into the Balkans to reach Central Europe by 1400, leaving small groups of Roma in all the regions they passed through.
The Roma have their own language, which is studied by scholars in the West and has regional variations. The use of the language is fading as the Roma try to integrate. However, their skin colour distinguishes them from the rest of their fellow Europeans. This and the fact that they retain many of their ancient customs, habits and dress make them stand apart from the rest. Their major problem is lack of education, largely due to discrimination and their nomadic lifestyle. The Roma apparently do much better in the United States where some of them migrated from Europe.
Roma made their home in almost all countries of Europe, especially in the Turkish-ruled Balkans. In the past the Roma have been persecuted by both Christian and Muslim states — despite them adopting the religion of the local power.
As a result of the recent controversy in Europe there is much interest in the Roma these days. Indians, however, have lost sight of these unfortunate people, perhaps due to their lack of historical interest. In the 1970s, W.R. Rishi, an Indian Foreign Service officer, set up the Indian Institute of Roma Studies at Chandigarh, and organised two International Roma Festivals where, in 1983, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi delivered a stirring speech, saying: “I feel kinship with the Roma people”. Do a billion Indians feel the same way?
Gautam Pingle is director of Centre for Public Policy, Governance and Performance, ASCI