While reading Pardeep Singh Attri’s account of his experiences as a Dalit activist traveling in Hungary in the brilliant Insight Young Voices blog, I was struck by the similarity of the plight of Hungarian Romas and the Dalits ( regarded as Untouchables) in India. Both groups are victims of deep and persisting discriminations arising from their historical status in society. What struck me even more though was the appropriation of the ideas B. R Ambedkar by the Roma in their struggle for equal rights. Writes Pradeep:
One of the most interesting facts that Derdak Tibor informed me was that his group of Roma activists and community leaders in Hungary derive their inspiration from Babasaheb Ambedkar and Buddhism and trying to inculcate Ambedkarite thoughts in their movement towards equal rights for the Roma community. They have created a support network called Jai Bhim Network, embraced Buddhism and opened an high school in the name of Dr Ambedkar High School for the Roma children in Hungary.
Roma activists find their situation in the otherwise ‘white’ Hungary almost akin to the Dalits of India and therefore they now call their community, ‘the Dalits of Europe’ as the Romas are also found in other European countries too and face the similar prejudices and discrimination every where.
Apparently, the connection with Babasaheb and the Indian Dalits started when Derdak Tibor found a book on Babasaheb in Paris and got inspired after reading it. He was immediately able to draw the linkages between the discrimination faced by Indian Dalits and Romas in Europe. Fascinated by the life and struggle of Babasaheb, he together with his group of Roma activists interacted with Friends of World Buddhist Order (FWBO), a group that has been working with Ambedkarite Buddhist in India for quite some time now.
Ambedkar, referred to as Babasaheb (connoting ‘father’) by his followers, was a Dalit who, in contrast to his contemporaries like Gandhi, advocated a stronger political identity for the Dalits on the basis of reservations and separate electorates. The collaboration of the Ambedkarite Dalit movement and the Roma movement represented by the Jai Bhim Network is an interesting and inspirational example of two discriminated groups working together to create a better standing for themselves in society.
It also provides for interesting accounts of how cultural differences are experienced, and transcended by marginalized groups. Pradeep writes:
It was very interesting to find that, during our travel, most of the Hungarian people thought that we were also Hungarian Romas till the time we spoke English. Then only they could understand that we are not Romas but from some third world country.
Our physical similarities with the Romas are so striking that even many Romas thought that we belong there. It made us feel like at home, being among our own community and people and delighted me to no end. It became a bit emotional when old Roma women, knowing that we have come from India and are from the Dalit community, said, “You are like my grand children”. Perhaps the Indian origin of Romas, our physical similarities and similar conditions of facing prejudices and discrimination from the rest of the society made us feel that we belong to one community.
Here’s an except from a post on the Jai Bhim Network website on the experience of a Roma traveling in India:
People can tell I’m a gypsy just by looking at me, because I am darker skinned than other people. Gypsies are not white. When I go out in public, people look at me, stare at me. When I take a bus or go on the metro, I always have space around me. I feel very uncomfortable because people don’t want to come near me. I’m a Hungarian citizen but everyone can see the difference between a Hungarian face and my face.
I am a citizen of Hungary, but in India people think that I am Indian. It is difficult for me in India because people address me in Marathi. When they see I don’t understand, they address me in Hindi. When they realise I don’t understand that, they ask me in English what language I normally speak. They don’t know where Hungary is and so I tell them I am European. In a crowded railway carriage people look from the other side of the carriage and ask me if it is bad for me to travel with them in this compartment because I am European! That is very ironic for me. (more…)