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Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers

Following free traders and artisans who migrated to and traded with India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in the fist centuries of the common era; from the 1300s onward, East Africans from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania and adjacent areas entered the Indian subcontinent, mostly though the slave trade. Others came as soldiers and sailors. They were known as Sidis and Habshis. From Bengal in the northeast to Gujarat in the west and to the Deccan in Central India, they vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement.

The success was theirs but it is also a strong testimony to the open-mindedness of a society in which they were a small religious and ethnic minority, originally of low status. As foreigners and Muslims, some of these Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.

From humble beginnings, some Africans carved out princely states — Janjira and Sachin — complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended them from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian State.

Today, about 50,000 to 70,000 Sidis are scattered across a country of 1.2 billion people. The vast majority of Sidis are Muslims, a few are Christians or Hindus. The latter stand apart because they do not fit into the very strict Hindu caste system. Some Sidi settlements, organized as separate communities, have the status of "scheduled tribes," which offers a modicum of affirmative action programs. Depending on where they live, Sidis speak Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Konkani, or other local languages. Education, the need to maintain their distinctive culture and have a strong leadership are some of the priorities expressed by various Sidi groups.