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India’s African Nawabs: A part of history that India chooses to forget

Today, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis reside in India and Pakistan, with the majority concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Makaran and Karachi

Nawab of Sachin. Image source wikipedia

 A part of history we forgot

Africans have, for centuries been a part of Indian society. While the slave trade from Africa to America and Europe is well documented, the eastward movement of African slaves to India has been left unexplored. Evidences of African slavery is available when a Muslim rulers ruled a part of the Indian subcontinent. But the systematic transportation of African slaves to India started with the Arabs and Ottomans and later by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the sixteenth -seventeenth centuries.

“When your family has been ruling for hundreds of years, people still call you by the title of Nawab,” told Nawab Reza Khan to The Indian Express, tenth Nawab of Sachin as he traces his family’s royal history. Reza Khan currently is a lawyer and lives in the city of Sachin in Gujarat. He says his ancestors came from Ethiopia in East Africa, as part of the forces of Babur. Eventually, they conquered the fort at Janjira and later occupied Sachin and ruled over their own kingdoms. The Nawab of Sachin is a personified remnant of a glorious African past in India.


Siddis of Bombay. Image source wikipedia
Siddis of Bombay. Image source wikipedia

“In Europe and America, Africans were brought in as slaves for plantation and industry labour. In India on the other hand, African slaves were brought in to serve as military power,” says Dr Suresh Kumar, Professor of African studies in Delhi University. Some of them also became nobles, rulers or merchants in their own capacities. They were expensive elite mililtary slaves brought mainly for their physical strength. The elite status of the African slaves in India ensured that a number of them had access to political authority and secrets which they could make use of to become rulers in their own right, reigning over parts of India. They came to be known by the name of Siddis or Habshis.

The Nawab of Sachin and Janjira

The political power acquired by the mid-sixteenth century, the Mughals had increased their appetite for the South and were aggressively trying to encroach upon the Nizam Shahi dynasty that ruled much of Deccan. In 1600 AD, the Ahmadnagar fort finally fell into the hands of the Mughals. However, the presence of the Mughals in the Deccan was still limited and Ahmadnagar’s surrounding countryside still lay with the troops deployed by the Nizam Shahi state of which Malik Ambar was a part of the Habshi military slaves there. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Mughals were aggressively trying to take over the Nizam Shahi dynasty that ruled much of Deccan. In 1600 AD, the Ahmadnagar fort finally fell into the hands of the Mughals. Ahmadnagar’s surrounding countryside still lay with the troops deployed by the Nizam Shahi state of which Malik Ambar was a part. This African slave became a political game changer, he proved to be a major obstacle to the Mughals’ crave for the Deccan.

Malik Ambar constructed a fort at Janzira, located in the Konkan coast, by the end of the sixteenth century. At Janjira, the Africans developed their own kingdom (with their own cavalry, coat of arms and currency) which the Mughals and Marathas failed to occupy despite repeated attacks. Later, the African rulers of Janjira went on to occupy another fort at Sachin in modern day Gujarat. The present Nawab of Sachin, Reza Khan says “the title of Nawab was given to our ancestors by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, since they had not allowed his competitor Shivaji to occupy the Janjira fort.”

The Habshi sultans of Bengal

The Bengal Sultanate was established by Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah in 1352. During this period a large number of Ethiopian slaves had been recruited in the army of the Bengal Sultans. They did not just work in the army, but also rose to get involved in major administrative tasks such as act as court magistrates, collecting tolls and taxes and involved in services of law enforcement. Eventually, they managed to seize power from the Sultans under the leadership of Barbak Shahzada. Barbak Shahzada laid the foundation stone of the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487, and became its first ruler under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah. His successor Saif al-Din Firuz is considered the best of the Habshi rulers as he was a brave and a just king and a patron of art and architecture. Most well known among these is the Firuz Minar at Gaur which still stands tall, in a good state of preservation and its significance as a victory tower. The Habshi rule came to an end in 1493 AD.

Siddi Masood of Adoni

Adoni was a part of the Vijayanagar empire situated in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. Adoni got one of its important governors by the name of Siddi Masood Khan who was a wealthy merchant from Ethiopia. He was a virtual ruler and loved art and architecture. This rule came to an end when Aurangzeb captured Bijapur in 1686.

Siddi scenario in contemporary India

Siddi girl. Image source Wikipedia
Siddi girl. Image source Wikipedia

Today, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis are residing in India and Pakistan, with the majority concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Makaran and Karachi. Apart from their royal heirs, these live in poverty and are cut-off from a normal world. They usually maintain distance and live in forests. Dr. Kenneth Robbins, author of “African elites in India”, is of the opinion that it is necessary to shed light on the ruling status of Africans in India. “The purpose is to see India in a different light, to understand social mobility in India. It is important for Indians to take note of the place that Africans had at one point secured in the country.”

This is a major discovery of the African history, as India is the only country where they could rule because racial discrimination was not a feature.

-by Vrushali Mahajan.

Vrushali is pursuing her graduation in Journalism and an intern at NewsGram. Twitter handle- Vrushali Mahajan 


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Indian Politics and Polity Shift to the Right and Away from Europe

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism

Rahul Gandhi becomes president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi steps down
Rahul Gandhi steps in as President of Congress, Wikipedia

By Dr. Richard Benkin, Chicago

  • India is world’s largest democracy
  • Indian politics is always under international coverage
  • India is witnessing political shift due to its leaders and their transformation

The great democracy was electing its national leader.  It was a fight between the party in power with a leftist tinge; and the more conservative opposition with its upstart candidate. The media was rooting openly for the leftist candidate and would stop at almost nothing, even vilifying the conservative upstart as evil, not just wrong.  The candidate on the left seemed to feel entitled, that being head of state was all in the family.  And, as you probably have guessed, that candidate lost.  You might or might not have guessed that, despite the familiarity to American voters, this was not the United States.  It was India.

will also hold a meeting there with the Indian community. Wikimedia Commons
Narendra Modi’ win in 2014 elections stunned the whole nation. Wikimedia Commons

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism.  Its candidate, then 43 year old, Rahul Gandhi, was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Prime Ministers; and though India is the world’s largest democracy, not the world’s largest monarchy, it was “his turn” to take the nation’s top spot.

The similarities between the Indian Congress Party and the US Democrat Party stop, however, with how the two parties and their dynastic candidates reacted to their defeats.  While there is ample evidence that the Democrats are moving further to the left, India’s Congress, and especially its former candidate, seem to have taken the lessons of their defeat to heart.  Moreover, we too often gauge a polity’s position on the left-right spectrum by which major party dominates.  In the Indian case, however, we get a deeper understanding by examining changes in the out of power party.

Also Read: Rahul Gandhi Elected as President of Congress Amidst Celebration of Followers

The Indian National Congress Party was founded in 1885 and, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was the principal leader of the movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947.  It has ruled India for roughly 57.5 of its 70.5 years as a modern nation (81.6 percent of its entire existence).  Congress fashions itself left-center party with “democratic socialism” as one of the party’s guiding principles; and over the years, I have written a number of articles, criticizing what I believe to be weak Congress policies.  It has followed the lead of soft left European parties, in contrast with the Indian nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Amitabh Tripathi is a well-known Indian political commentator.  I caught up with him in New Delhi in February and asked him about how the Congress Party was reacting to its crushing 2014 defeat.

RB:  So, was the 2014 election a strong statement about traditional Indian politics?

AT:  Definitely.  Till 1991, Indian politics was at a status quo with socialist, leftist, and communist stances prevalent.  After 1991, right wing politics emerged as a political force.  Since then, Indian politics has shifted to the right; and from time to time for more than two decades, left and right engaged in direct political confrontations.  Congress led the coalition of leftists; and the BJP emerged as the leader of the right.  The BJP ruled the country for six years (1998-2004) and its policies swung to the right, including a vocal and unapologetic relationship with Israel, moving forward strategically with the United States, and exploring India’s role in the Indian Ocean to contain China and its imperialistic ambitions. When the BJP lost power to a Congress led coalition in 2004, the Indian polity again shifted left; and Congress became a complete replica of its 1960s self—a totally leftist party.

Rahul Gandhi becomes the president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi Steps Down
Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run). It is believed he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.

In 2014, when elections occurred, the Indian polity moved on to the right on issues from economics to culture.  Before the election, Congress did not read the undercurrent of the people and moved even further left on those issues.  This has been widely acknowledged as the reason for its crushing defeat.

RB:  So it was a real shift to the right among Indians, which sounds a lot like our own experience in 2016.  In the US, the losing Democrat party has reacted by moving further left.  Has India’s Congress tried to understand the reasons behind its defeat?

AT:  The latter statement is correct.  Immediately after losing the elections, Congress realized it was not simply an electoral defeat.  Its ideological stagnation led to the historical loss.  And it tried to rectify that and re-invent itself.

RB:  How have they done that?

AT:  I observed it on three fronts, three major decisions.  First, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the former party President and current head of the dynastic family, took an almost “voluntary” retirement.  She had become the face of hard left and anti-Hindu policies.

RB:  Sounds familiar.  Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has become the same here, but she does not seem to be going anywhere.

AT:  Second, in ten years of Congress rule, they openly flaunted themselves as very pro-Muslim, which irritated the majority Hindus in India.  But last year, in prestigious elections in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Gujarat), Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally.  Plus, Congress Party Vice-President (now President) Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run).  We believe he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.  Some people might say it was an opportunistic political move, but I would say it was a well-calculated shift in the party to shed the tags of pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.

Third, since the days of the freedom movement before independence, and during the rule of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi (almost the entire period from independence to 1984); Congress followed the policy of demonizing the wealthy and glorifying the poor.  It seems, however, that Rahul Gandhi wants the population to know that he strongly favors the wealth generating middle class and capitalism; he opposes only crony capitalism.  He says the poor should aspire to become wealthy through greater opportunities and employment.

RB:  What about Rahul Gandhi himself?  Does he have a future in Indian politics?

AT:  Since 2014, we have watched his evolution from entitled politician to serious politician who understands the people’s aspirations and country’s need.  Perhaps most importantly has been his understanding of foreign policy and India’s role and responsibilities at a global level.  He has said that he’s ready to take the responsibility of the office of Prime Minister if elected, and he could make a formidable candidate.

Raul Maino
Rahul Gandhi can potentially cause a shift in Indian politics due to his transformation. Twitter

RB:  I’ve heard a lot of people talking positively about him and his growth in my time here.  I believe you also told me he has spent a lot of this time really listening to people from all classes and communities.  Thank you, Amitabh ji, it’s always a pleasure to hear your thoughts, and always a pleasure to be in India.

In a larger context, we have seen a reaction against decades of leftist overreach worldwide:  Donald Trump’s election; Brexit; and a number of elections in Europe rejecting the European Union and loss of national identity (most recently in Italy).  There has been little focus on Asia perhaps because it has not been in the orbit of traditional left-right equations in the West.  India, however, has become a major player on the world stage under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  It has historical conflicts with both Pakistan and China, and can be a major bulwark against Chinese expansion westward.  India also has strengthened its alliances with both the United States and Israel while maintaining relations with Iran.  The rightward movement there is highly significant in plotting future Indian geopolitical moves.

[Richard Benkin is a human rights activist and author with a strong concentration in South Asia.  Amitabh Tripathi appears often on Indian television and in other media.  He is also a contributor to What is Moderate Islam, edited by Richard Benkin.  This interview was conducted in New Delhi on February 27, 2018, while Benkin was there as part of a recently-concluded human rights mission.]