The Roma are the unsung victims of European racism

October 30, 2010

A version of the following was published in DNA on 21 sept at:

Gypsy or Roma: unwept, unsung victims of European racism

Rajeev Srinivasan questions why the oppression of Roma for centuries does not excite the human-rights-wallahs

A number of events recently point to a massive backlash building against immigrants in Europe. Some of this is predictable – in times of economic trouble, rich white countries look for scapegoats, and immigrants usually fit the bill, especially if they are non-white, as we see in the fierce battles in the US over illegal immigration from Mexico.

There is also the little-expressed European fear of being swamped by culturally alien, demographically fearsome, and demonstratively religious Muslim populations that have burgeoned on their continent. There is a fear of Eurabia — white Europeans, with their comfortable welfare states, their decadent lifestyles, their disdain for their church, worry about being overwhelmed by what they imagine as Muslim hordes imposing their muscular cultural mores.

This has led to the controversy over the French ban on the female veil or hijab, the Swiss ban on minarets, and perhaps more subtly the recent success of Geert Wilders’ determinedly anti-Muslim party in the laid-back Netherlands, and, in a surprise just this weekend, in the entry of a far-right party into the Swedish parliament, with the possibility of them offering key support to a minority government in a hung parliament.

The far-right in Europe has gained a new legitimacy, far removed from the earlier antics of the likes of Enoch Powell in Britain and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, both of whom were considered gadflies with no particular chance of influencing the government. Today’s right-wing, anti-immigrant parties are serious contenders for power. The tide is apparently turning, and Europe, which has a nasty history of intolerance, is reverting to norm: racism, religious animosity, and strife.

The obvious target of all this anger is the increasing numbers of Muslims especially in ghettos like the inflammable banlieus of France. On the other hand, European are also quite conscious that Muslims are not to be messed with: the lessons of 9/11, the British subway bombings, and the uproar over the Danish cartoons have all convinced Europeans that it is best to treat Muslims with kid gloves.

Therefore, they have chosen the usual suspects to victimize: the Gypsy or Roma. There is no fear of retaliation because the Roma are powerless. The other favorite victims in Europe, Jews, have now acquired their own State, and will not tolerate abuse.

So the Roma are left to take the brunt of the hatred. They have been the chosen victims of racism and large-scale oppression for centuries. Ironically, they have been victimized over and over again. The Roma are not originally from Egypt – which mistaken impression is whence the name ‘gypsy’ came about – but from India. It is clear that they are the remnants of formerly Hindu Indian migrant groups, some of which were enslaved and sold by Muslims invaders such as Mahmud of Gazni. There are similarities – both genetic and cultural – with some itinerant tribal populations in India.

Thus the Roma have been doubly unfortunate: enslaved and/or uprooted first, then dispersed as marginal, despised populations throughout much of Europe (the typical adjective used for them is ‘thieving’; also remember the gypsy girl Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame: she did not have too many rights). Later, they were among the groups targeted for genocide by the Nazis, and large numbers of them perished in death camps and gas chambers.

There have been continuous pogroms against Roma for centuries. There was Roma slavery in Romania until 1855. Ten thousand Roma were rounded up in Spain in 1749. In the 18th century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire banned Roma marriages and forcibly took away Roma children. Fascists in Italy in 1926 ordered the expulsion of all Roma. 19,300 Roma were killed in Auschwitz, and 90% of the Roma in areas such as Lithunia that Nazis took over.

The contemporary situation for Roma is none too good. There was a recent act by the French State, which decreed that it was deporting many Roma to Romania (despite the similarity, the words are not related, it just so happens that these particular people were indeed immigrants from Romania). This has brought out a lot of concerns, condemnations, and charges of discrimination everywhere.

There is a feeling of déjà vu in all this. We in India have heard about how poorly Harijans are treated in India. Loudmouthed vested interests equate casteism with racism, and condemn Hindu society. Much of this is instigated by conversion-focused churches. But  when Christians in Europe who belong to these very same churches are brutalizing Roma, where are the voices of righteous indignation? This just goes to show the extent of hypocrisy among Europeans and churchmen. They, as it is said, “see the mote in their brother’s eye, but not the beam in their own”. NIMBY, right, not in my back yard? Amnesty International, anyone?

825 words, 20 September 2010

Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant.



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