Are the Roma the Dalits of Europe?

By Juli Perczel

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A week into Dalit History Month, a friend’s email alerted us to the fact that 8 April is International Roma Day. Black History Month just being over in February made the significance of April stand out for Dalits. In keeping with the spirit of sharing solidarity yet reclaiming experiences, we compare the problems facing the Roma today with that of Dalits to understand a larger systemic problem. Earlier, Timothy Amos’ compelling book called Embodying Difference gave us an insight into buraku history and the category of the outcaste in Japan, suggesting an avenue for approaching the ‘undeniably similar’ Dalit question comparatively.

Dalits have been arguing for decades now that caste and race are comparable—Dr B.R. Ambedkar, for one, corresponded with W.E.B. Dubois on this very matter and some new light was thrown on it during last years’ Dalit History Month. Dalits who tried to raise caste as an issue at par with other forms of racial discrimination at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban were shouted down by some academic ‘pundits’ and the Indian state. “Though caste is not the same as race, casteism and racism are indeed comparable,” says Arundhati Roy in her introduction to Annihilation of Caste. They are both rooted in the age-old, naturalized, but blatantly inhumane practice of difference-making that displays itself in a bewildering variety of forms across the world. The experiences of African Americans, Dalits and the Roma are but instances of a larger systemic problem.

In the system of ordained equality, which is often considered the model of democracy, the systemic exclusion of large sections of society continues. Roma are a transnational group, they live in great numbers across several European countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. It is hard to cover all aspects of their life and oppression because of the regional differences. Because it is in Hungary that solidarity with the Dalit cause and politics was initiated this post will focus on that country. Ironically, it was the provision for the free movement of people sanctioned by the European Union that allowed the Roma to escape on a larger scale and seek a different life outside of their countries of origin which made the Roma’s issues “truly” international. Migration did not bring its desired fruits and the anti-Roma sentiments travelled with them.

Telep Roma discrimination is not based on skin colour as such. It is based on behaviour, clothing, speech, and lifestyle by which the members of this community are marked as different and inferior. (Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazis put the Roma too in concentration camps but this genocide made less news since there was a terrible consensus on the Roma deserving it.)

Consider this: In Hungary, many Roma live in settlements outside of the villages, often banished by the state in “social housing” without access to piped water. When electricity bills are not paid, providers cut off supply. With no hope of paying bills, when they take measures to ameliorate their situation, they are put into prison for stealing electricity. Today, their children may study in the same schools as the majority population, but more often than not they get placed in separate – so called corrective – classes. Poverty and the lack of avenues often do not allow students to continue beyond a few years of education. Present Hungarian laws permit – with an obvious anti-Roma stint – school-leaving at the age of 14. Illiteracy is rather high among both children and adults, with the Roma accounting for only a nanoscopic percentage of university graduates.

Some two decades ago, the transition to market economy in Eastern Europe started a trend of Roma ghettos, developing as islands in the countryside, where the chances of breaking out of the cycle of poverty are mind-bogglingly low. Even when those better off make it to nearby cities or mixed-population villages, their chances of finding employment are minuscule. The political and economic transition implied a shift from relative integration of the Roma as workers in large-scale industrial projects to abject poverty and exclusion after the closing down of factories. Now, Roma are told to integrate over and over, every day, but very few seem to actually offer a place for them in the labour market. The offer, when it comes, is almost always low paid and undignified. At the same time we in the majority population are surprised: “Why don’t they like to work?”

When it comes to political representation, their voices are simply not heard in the monotone monologue of anti-Roma slurs. That they steal, shirk work, reproduce like bunnies, and live on the social benefits carved out of the taxpayers’ money are commonplace charges. In the recent months, a respected liberal politician in Hungary said it was not hard to empathize with the unease of “decent citizens” when a Roma family moves into their building. In a television interview he also said that statistics proved the existence of “Roma crime”, a concept favoured by the country’s infamous far-right group, Jobbik. In Hungary, there is a special provision for a separate electorate for Roma. They can elect their own representatives into the Roma Parliament and Roma Municipal Councils on a national and local level. At the time of its inception in the 1990s, this was hailed as revolutionary, but by now it has become clear that there is little power vested in these bodies. What few benefits may accrue, it is the corrupt Roma politicians who reap it.

Despite all this there are positive developments. An increasing number of Roma youth are getting an education and there is a vibrant activist community but, according to one activist, a friend, there is no Roma movement. There are thousands of social amelioration projects (as a consequence of the EU imperative to keep the Roma happy in their own countries), but they are mostly run by privileged members of the majority. It is “socially sensitive” individuals of this majority like myself and not the Roma themselves, who pronounce judgment and analyze the situation of the Roma and build careers out of it.

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Photo credit http://www.jaibhim.hu

Historically, the Roma do not have an Ambedkar who would provide them a banner under which they could organize their struggle for liberation. However, it is not surprising that since 2007 a group of activists in north-eastern Hungary have sought inspiration in the figure of Ambedkar and his teachings. The Jai Bhim Network, or Jai Bhim Sangh, as the plaque on the erstwhile village house proclaims in both English and the Nagari script, runs a school in the face of state-ordained obstacles to educate children ejected by the regular school system. On the wall of this school stand the words, “Educate, agitate, organize.” In a gripping account János Orsós, head of Jai Bhim Sangh, Hungary, and the one of the leaders of the school talks about his journey of finding and following Ambedkar. Not only has Ambedkar emerged as a hero for the Romas, but also Buddhism has been accepted by some as a route to dignity and self-respect as this article by Pardeep Attri notes.

Among many others, there is one great difference between the discrimination experienced by Dalits and Roma. Anti-Roma sentiments are not religiously ordained; they are not backed by religious texts claiming authority on the basis of being ancient and thus sacrosanct. The Roma do not have to face the Vedas and the Shastras. Consequently, when they adopt the lifestyle of the majority community and become middle-class they can forget about their disadvantaged backgrounds for no one will call them Roma anymore. If anyone proudly retains their identity, at every step they are greeted with gasps of incredulity. “You a Roma? But you speak the same language, wear the same clothes and do the same jobs that we do! How can that be?” At the same time, it is also possible to become Roma through intermarriage, change of lifestyle and a slide down the poverty scale. This proves Ambedkar right. Without religious ordination, systemic discrimination gets diluted. Yet, however fluid they may be, efforts at difference-making do not disappear.

(Juli Perczel worked as an editor at Navayana in 2012–13. She helped researching the annotated, critical edition of AoC. Earlier, in 2010, she briefly visited the Dr Ambedkar School run by Jai Bhim Network, Hungary. She also wrote her undergraduate dissertation on the concept of inclusion in Roma development. She is currently doing an M.A. at SOAS, London)


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