‘European gypsies face caste bias like Dalits’

June 19th, 2008 - 12:01 pm ICT by IANS  

By Prabhat Sharan
Mumbai, June 19 (IANS) For centuries they have been feared, despised and envied. Gypsies, an ethnic minority in Europe, continue to face discrimination that is not very different from what India’s Dalits have to contend with. A team of officials from Hungary, which has a high population of itinerant gypsies, was here to study the work being done to improve the lives of Dalits and to take some lessons back home.

“Gypsies were looked upon as strange people when they were nomads, and that was 200 years ago. The alienation continues,” said Timea Borovzsky, chief of the Directorate General for Equal Opportunities (DGEO) of the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture.

“It is like the caste discrimination against Dalits in India,” Borovzsky told IANS.

She along with two other members from the DGEO this month extensively toured the dry rocky interiors of the Vidarbha region in northeastern Maharashtra.

During their quiet visit, they studied how Dalits live in huts lit by hurricane lamps and cope with caste prejudices.

“We wanted to personally see the kind of projects that have been implemented in India to help Dalits come up,” said DGEO deputy director general Gabor Sarkozi.

“In Europe, there are 15 million gypsies and in Hungary, the population ranges somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000. They are the biggest ethnic minority and the most slurred community.”

Suri Szilivia, a researcher and interpreter with DGEO, said, “Gypsies or Cigan as they are called in Hungary have a thousand-year-old connection with India. The semantics of their language is similar to Sanskrit.

“But more than this, Indian social reformer Babasaheb Ambedkar is a revered figure to them as well as to us researchers in Hungary.”

Szilivia said, “In any public place, most majority ethnic community members would just sidle away rather than be seen with a Cigan. The Romas are reluctantly served in hotels or given respectable jobs. Even the tone towards them has a derogatory tint.”

Sarkozi pointed out that in Hungary, “gypsies (a political incorrect word) or Roma or Cigan are forced to live with mythical social stereotypes…like the way you (India) have the so-called criminal tribes.

“They are brown-skinned and they have the highest school drop-out rates. They are looked down upon and people shun them. They live in ghettoes, though these slums are not as bad as we saw in villages near Nagpur.”

The Hungarian government has for the past few years been trying to uplift this community which, “at present has the highest unemployment rate and gets seasonal employment at construction sites or as daily wage farm labour”.

According to Borovszky, “One of the reasons we selected India was precisely because the nature of discrimination is so similar between them and the Dalits.

“We found several projects extremely interesting, innovative and socially relevant for bringing a change in any depressed or marginalized community.”

Sarkozi said that the discrimination has become more overt in the last 20 years. “Earlier during the communist regime it was never there. But now parallel structures of discrimination have come up. We want them to be absorbed in mainstream society and to be treated equally.”

So what about reservations for this community in institutions?

“Though we do not have any such policies, a similar project was introduced earlier but it was not successful. In the last 20 years, several groups like Neo-Nazis and Skinheads have come up. So far they have not become violent but they are extremely virulent about such policies,” Sarkozi said.

Talking about the projects that the study group intends to introduce in Hungary for gypsies, Szilivia said, “We intend to implement the book bank project and moreover introduce workshops for teachers so that they learn to empathise with these marginalized people.

“In our tour, we found Ambedkarites and NGOs working with Dalits having empathy coupled with irrepressible zest. This is one thing we want to infuse among teachers working in schools meant for gypsies.”

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