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Roma and Dalit experiences of persecution pave way for solidarity

Roma and Dalit communities in Europe and India suffer unjustifiable discrimination. We need to bring this to light and create a global conversation about solidarity between the groups.

Dalit women and girls are victims of violence due to their caste and gender. Thessaly La Force/Flickr. Some rights reserved. On May 5, in Uttar Pradesh’s Sahranpur district of northern India, a brutal episode of caste-based crime was committed by a gang of Thakurs  – India’s dominant caste – against the Dalits. The Dalits saw their houses set on fire and their properties vandalized, with several severe injuries sustained. Horrific incidents of inter-caste violence like these are a regular occurrence in India, happening almost every day.

On March 31, the non-Roma residents of Gheorgheni, in Romania’s Harghita county, directed an anti-Romani mob which left a household burned to ashes and several Romani families “dragged from their homes in five locations and then beaten before the baying crowd before their houses were set alight.” The attack had reportedly been incited by a theft that had taken place earlier in the week, thought to have been committed by two presumably Roma individuals. The response to these individuals’ – arguably minor – transgression, however, was a humiliating attack against the wider Roma community. The mayor of Harghita Zoltán Nagy viewed it as an unpleasant incident, provoked by Roma “criminality.” Reflecting widespread Romanian opinion, he remained indifferent to the racist and cruel nature of this hate crime. The mainstream media similarly maintained a lukewarm response to the incident.

While the triggers of hate, injustice, and violence vary, often the power imbalances and mechanisms of oppression are almost identical. 

The execution of such ghastly acts by the oppressor groups remains unchecked and goes unnoticed. While the triggers of hate, injustice, and violence vary, often the power imbalances and mechanisms of oppression are almost identical: violence, mass incarceration, police abuse, poor quality of education, residential segregation, structural discrimination, and poverty.

Many parallels can be drawn between the experiences of Dalit and Roma people. Though all suffering is distinct and in spite of their differing geographical origins, the historical and continuing experiences of discrimination suffered by these two groups show almost uncanny similarities. They have been – and very much still are – the “untouchables” of Europe and India. The Dalits were outrightly marked as untouchables – the unbearable and unseeable. The first symbol of Roma rejection by Europeans was the “athinganos” or “athinganoy” label, which in Ancient Greek translates into "untouchable" or "impure". These two communities, although well-known to the world, remain voiceless and powerless in a clear demonstration of widespread prejudice and discrimination.

It is the racialization and casteization of these communities that allow their dehumanization to go unchallenged.

It is the racialization and casteization of these communities that allow their dehumanization to go unchallenged. This kind of ethnicity- and caste-based discrimination, enforced by those in power to keep the communities economically and socially subservient, are embraced uncritically by other communities as social, political or religious realities. Europeans continue to see Roma as the inferior ‘others’ – those who do not fit the description of and are not entitled to “European citizenship.” The Dalits similarly suffer damned exclusion in their own country of birth, governed by similar race-based sensibilities alongside a distinct experience of a hierarchical caste system.

The use of violence as a tool to punish and control the communities is an inhumane and parochial practice, and one that is outlawed in the communities’ respective countries. However, horrific instances of violence against Dalits, in particular those against women and girls, are often left unpunished. The statistics of crime against Dalit women is disturbing, with 42 Dalit women raped every week according to government statistics. Similarly, commonly entire Romani communities come up against police abuse, and violence and hate crimes at the hands of far right organizations and vigilante groups’ violence and hate crimes in Europe.

Yet many choose to remain indifferent to the blatant human rights violations affecting their Dalit or Roma neighbors, peers, or friends. Anti-Romani racism is acceptable across Europe, and intellectuals and politicians fail even to condemn – let alone punish – the outrageous anti-Romani statements. Indian list of haters is alarming which is conspicuously present in every caste conscious Indian who might be wandering about as an oppressed person in a white and black society. This indifferentism, as Ambedkar once pointed out, is “the worst kind of disease that can affect a people – the wronged and the oppressed.”

The building of solidarities has been a long battle in itself. Hindered by time, resources, and inevitable stumbling blocks, it is also a process that requires understanding and sensitivity, mutual patience, and a balanced learning process on all sides. But global solidarity is an aim worth pursuing – not only possible, but morally imperative.

Global solidarity is an aim worth pursuing – not only possible, but morally imperative.

And yet, the oppressed communities continue to isolate their struggles, failing to experience the power of the global. This a direct result of the oppressor-inflicted harm that reinforces notions of domesticity, thereby limiting the appeal of global collective experience. Caste and anti-Roma racism issues are sold under the garb of developmental issues like poverty, misdirecting them away from the social justice and human rights efforts and thereby effectively removing them from the categories of global solidarities. But Dalit and Roma issues should appeal to our sense of humanity. A united stand against injustices is a powerful blow to the systems of unjust dogmatism. Its action is a call of the hour, and its current solidarity is a warning to the casteists and racists around the world.

The present age of anger is also an age of solidarities. The Dalits march for the Roma around the world – their extended human selves – as the Roma adopt Ambedkar’s tactic to hit hard on the oppressor.

About the authors

Suraj Yengde is a Dalit rights activist based at the Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard.

Margareta Matache is a Roma activist from Romania currently working as an Instructor at the Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.


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