Plight of gypsies

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readNov 14, 2020

Source : Google photo of the Roma people in Europe

Synopsis : Not many people know much about the Roma people of Europe or in other countries and show racial discrimination toward them. The blog looks at their history and the continuing injustice they suffer in many countries where they live.

When you are in Rome and just come out of Termini, you will be assailed by women with naked breasts and carrying an urchin in their arms who will follow you around until you part with some money for them. They are followed by other kids in dirty clothes and with dirty face who will try to distract you with something while one of them tries to put his hand in your pocket. They are very quick in picking your pocket.

The women and the kids work as a team. While the women with naked breasts spill something on you and then try to clean it up by saying permesso permesso, the kids go to work. One Englishman was tickled by a bunch of kids to his surprise and was very dismayed when one kid ran away with his briefcase. Many people visiting Rome for the first time are thus victimized by these people who are called gypsies. It seems that they are everywhere near the bus and train stations like Termini. To them it is a derogatory word so they prefer the nomenclature of Romani or Roma.

They wear long colorful skirts and short blouse, some beads or costume jewelries and live in gypsy camps in the outskirts of towns or villages but they move their camps of tents when the pickings get slimmer. Often they find work in fields picking the harvest in fruit orchards or other such jobs to make a meagre living but they also make money by selling trinkets, homemade beads or embroidered clothes and quilts. The older men and women often set up a tent where they read palms or crystal balls for a fee. What they find in anyone’s palm or in a crystal ball is anyone’s guess so my guess is that many are charlatans but I do not blame them for making a living because they need to survive.

My initial encounter with them in Termini left me with a negative impression but I soon found out that I was wrong and they were indeed wonderful people who were trying to survive in a hostile world the best way they can. One should not judge all the Romas just because of a few who hang around Termini or bus stations. So I started to think of them and about them more profoundly and came to know that these people who are wrongly called gypsies because some people centuries ago thought that they came from Egypt are actually nomads who came to Europe hundreds of years ago from India. They multiplied and spread all over Europe freely so you will find them in many countries.

They speak many languages depending on where they are found but they have managed to keep their native tongue their ancestors spoke in India or something similar to it. They still count in Hindi but how much Hindi they have retained is hard to guess. My guess is not much although these women were fluent in Italian and also fluent in the language of the country where they are found.

They never get assimilated into the culture of the country or try to where they are found so they live separately in camps that they set up as temporary shelters. They do not send their children to Italian schools so it is hard to tell how much education they get at home if any thus depriving them of the chances of getting good jobs and a more settled lifestyle.

The governments of Europe consider them as a separate group of people who want to remain separate from the population to preserve whatever identity they have and their gypsy culture so they are deprived of what other citizens enjoy namely an education, job or vocational training, housing, healthcare, old age pension and care, owning properties and living a settled life.

Adolf Hitler considered them subhuman and sent them to the gas chambers en masse so thousands of them perished along with Jews and other unwanted people of Europe. Those who survived have spread to safer corners but they still suffer from the stigma of being gypsies.

Among the groups the Nazi regime and its Axis partners singled out for persecution on so-called racial grounds were the Roma (Gypsies).Drawing support from many non-Nazi Germans who harbored social prejudice towards Roma, the Nazis judged Roma to be “racially inferior.”

The fate of Roma in some ways paralleled that of the Jews. Under the Nazi regime, German authorities subjected Roma to arbitrary internment, forced labor, and mass murder. German authorities murdered tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the killing centers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The SS and police incarcerated Roma in the Bergen- Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück concentration camps. Both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in the so-called Generalgouvernement, German civilian authorities managed several forced-labor camps in which they incarcerated Roma.

It is not known precisely how many Roma were killed in the Holocaust. While exact figures or percentages cannot be ascertained, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around 25 percent of all European Roma. Of slightly less than one million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, scholars believe that the Germans and their Axis partners killed up to 250,000. ( wikipedia )

The degree of persecution these poor people suffer even today varies from country to country and the government’s attitude towards them so the question arises why these people are persecuted and for what reasons?

To find an answer, one has to look at the history of race relations in Europe going back to pre-Nazi era when the white Europeans started to discriminate against them because of their darker skin color and different ways of living. Some gypsies are not dark at all because there has been some mixing of colors due to some indiscretions somewhere in the past like the mulattos but the gypsies have evolved somewhat and do not resemble their ancestors from India any more.

The cold climate of Europe has something to do with it that helps remove the melanin from their skin but they still retain a shadow of their physical attributes they got from their ancestors. Some are quite pretty and look unlike the nomads of India but the Gypsies no matter how they look, remain a distinct race of their own.

They should not to be confused with Romanians, an unrelated ethnic group and nation, nor with modern or ancient Romans, also unrelated.

The Romani (/ˈroʊməni/, /ˈrɒ-/), also known as Roma, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, traditionally nomadic itinerants living mostly in Europe, and diaspora populations in the Americas. The Romani as a people originate from the northern Indian subcontinent,[61][62][63] from the Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of India.[62][63]

Source : Google photo of beautiful Roma girls in Europe

Genetic findings appear to confirm that the Romani “came from a single group that left northwestern India” in about 512 CE.[64] Genetic research published in the European Journal of Human Genetics “revealed that over 70% of males belong to a single lineage that appears unique to the Roma”.[65] They are dispersed, but their most concentrated populations are located in Europe, especially Central, Eastern and Southern Europe (including Turkey, Spain and Southern France).

The Romani arrived in Mid-West Asia and Europe around 1007.[66] They have been associated with another Indo-Aryan group, the Dom people: the two groups have been said to have separated from each other or, at least, to share a similar history.[67] Specifically, the ancestors of both the Romani and the Dom left North India sometime between the 6th and 11th century.[66]

The Romani are widely known in English by the exonym Gypsies (or Gipsies), which is considered by some Roma people to be pejorative due to its connotations of illegality and irregularity.[68] Beginning in 1888, the Gypsy Lore Society[69] started to publish a journal that was meant to dispel rumors about their lifestyle.[70]

Since the 19th century, some Romani have also migrated to the Americas. There are an estimated one million Roma in the United States;[6] and 800,000 in Brazil, most of whose ancestors emigrated in the 19th century from Eastern Europe. Brazil also includes a notable Romani community descended from people deported by the Portuguese Empire during the Portuguese Inquisition.[71] In migrations since the late 19th century, Romani have also moved to other countries in South America and to Canada.[72]

In February 2016, during the International Roma Conference, the Indian Minister of External Affairs stated that the people of the Roma community were children of India.[73] The conference ended with a recommendation to the government of India to recognize the Roma community spread across 30 countries as a part of the Indian diaspora.[74]

The Romani language is divided into several dialects which together have an estimated number of speakers of more than two million.[75] The total number of Romani people is at least twice as high (several times as high according to high estimates). Many Romani are native speakers of the dominant language in their country of residence or of mixed languages combining the dominant language with a dialect of Romani; those varieties are sometimes called Para-Romani.[76] ( Wikipedia )

Source : Google photo of Roma people on the move

If the Roma people arrived in Europe some 15 centuries ago and still retain their native language, customs and traditions they brought from India, it goes to show their resilience under the pressure from their host countrymen to assimilate as second class citizens. Some have changed their religion but still retain their Roma culture. Nearly a million of them immigrated to the United States where they prosper and are free to practice their culture, traditions and language while retaining their Hindu religion while some have become Christians or Moslems.

They have moved to Brazil in large numbers of over 800000 mostly from Eastern Europe but also from Portugal where they were discriminated against. So there is a very large diaspora of Roma people spread in many parts of the world although they have not returned to India. Now that may start to change as the Indian government considers them as of Indian origin so may grant them citizenship if they wish to return.

In Italy I tried to approach them to find out more about them but they did not want to be approached so walked away fast showing mistrust. Given their persecution and neglect in Europe, they are probably justified in their mistrust of other people. I was told that they gather their various clans once a year somewhere to celebrate their culture and traditions but also to find suitable mates for each other so it is like a love festival with lots of songs, dances and judicious amounts of homemade libations.

Source : Google photo of Gypsie love festival in Prague

How long they will be able to maintain their separate identity as Roma people is anyone’s guess but just remember that they came to Europe some 1500 years ago and still remember what they learned from each previous generation. That is truly remarkable.

I see a great deal of similarity between the Romas and the Jews because both have tried hard to retain their language, culture and religion and suffered tremendous persecution because they are perceived as different from others. But there is one notable difference.

The Roma people no matter where they live now do not seek a separate homeland for them but only seek recognition of their rights as human beings and their natural right to live freely anywhere where they can retain their culture, language, their belief system and their separate identity. They do not seek assimilation because they are proud of being who they are so this persecution has to stop.

They are a group of people who bring diversity to any country where the pressure to homogenize is strong so they should be welcome. Their resilience alone is commendable. The world should appreciate them and welcome them just like the United States and Brazil did. The idea of colonialism and exclusivity is as obsolete today as it was then.

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