By Pardeep Singh Attri
Dispatches from Hungary - I
Jai Bhim Network is a group that is working among the Romas (derogatorily referred as Gypsies) in Hungary. In their effort of creating linkages with the SC/ST movement of India and draw inspiration the network has been in constant interaction with many of the young SC/ST activists in India. The network is also instrumental in inviting young SC/ST students and activists to stay with the community in Hungary and exchange their views. Towards this three of us – me, Swati Kamble and Bharat are in Hungary since last fortnight and will be writing for our blog on our experiences. Here is my first post.
It was 14th April 2008, when I wrote an article titled Schools, Toilets or Temples? On the same day I got an email from one Mr. Derdak Tibor, appreciating the article. He is a Hungarian activist working with the Roma community in the country.
This was the beginning of long email exchanges between us where I was able to learn a lot about the lives and the problem faced by Romas (derogatorily referred as Gypsies), especially in Hungary. Till then I had a very limited knowledge about the community, derived mostly from the English movies that I saw.
‘Gypsies’ are normally considered to be a nomadic group with the worldwide population of about 12 million, originally from south Asia. With their 8 million population in Europe they constitute one of the biggest minority blocks in many European countries and have the history of being discriminated, stigmatized and persecuted by white Europeans based on their prejudices and stereotyping of the community. They are still mostly found segregated from the mainstream, hated and ridiculed by the white society.
After communicating with Tibor, as an Indian Scheduled Caste I was not surprised to recognize the fact that most often than not these movies displayed the prejudices and stereotypes that are prevalent in Europe against the Romas.
Babasaheb as a source of inspiration
One of the most interesting facts that Derdak Tibor informed me was that his group of Roma activists and community leaders in Hungary derive their inspiration from Babasaheb Ambedkar and Buddhism and trying to inculcate Ambedkarite thoughts in their movement towards equal rights for the Roma community. They have created a support network called Jai Bhim Network, embraced Buddhism and opened an high school in the name of Dr Ambedkar High School for the Roma children in Hungary.
Roma activists find their situation in the otherwise ‘white’ Hungary almost akin to the SC/STs of India and therefore they now call their community, ‘the SC/STs of Europe’ as the Romas are also found in other European countries too and face the similar prejudices and discrimination every where.
Apparently, the connection with Babasaheb and the Indian SC/STs started when Derdak Tibor found a book on Babasaheb in Paris and got inspired after reading it. He was immediately able to draw the linkages between the discrimination faced by Indian SC/STs and Romas in Europe. Fascinated by the life and struggle of Babasaheb, he together with his group of Roma activists interacted with Friends of World Buddhist Order (FWBO), a group that has been working with Ambedkarite Buddhist in India for quite some time now.
This interaction led Derdak Tibor and Janos Orsos (one of the Roma leaders) to visit India and to meet SC/ST activists, particularly in Maharashtra in December 2005. By then both of them knew about the work of Babasaheb and had been deeply impressed by what they had read of his work and the suffering of his people. But after visiting India they felt very deep connections with the SC/STs here and got convinced that Babasaheb’s message of social transformation is deeply relevant to the Romas as well.
After this visit, both these activists started introducing Dr. Ambedkar and his philosophy of social transformation amongst the Romas in Hungary and are making huge efforts to bond with Indian SC/ST movement by creating various linkages through their platform ‘Jai Bhim Network’.
One of them is to invite young SC/ST activists to Hungary and provide them opportunities to interact with the Roma community and through this to provide exposure to both the Indian SC/STs and the Hungarian SC/STs about each other’s struggle towards a just and humane society.
I am writing these dispatches from Hungary being part of one such Indian SC/ST delegation that has been invited by the Jai Bhim Network to visit, interact and stay with the Roma community living in a small town called Sajókaza in Northeast Hungary.
On 24th September 2009, me and Bharat reached Budapest, the capital city. Both of us were little nervous being travelling abroad first time and were much relieved to see one Mr Saboj from Jai Bhim Network waiting for us at the airport. Within no time in the company of Mr. Saboj, we felt completely at ease and started interacting as if we knew each other since decades.
Perhaps our respective movements created some synergy between us and I immediately felt a fellow feeling, a bond and a deep relationship between us though we lived thousands of miles apart and were meeting for the first time. At night we reached Sajókaza village where we had to stay with the Roma community. Swati Kamble, our fellow companion from India, had already arrived there.
Sajókaza is a village about 30 km north east of Miskolc and has a population of about 3300 people with half of them from the Roma community. It is a very beautiful village. Big fields around the village refreshed my memory of the villages of Punjab.
However, majority of the Romas live in the outskirts of village in the ghettos. Their life style is totally different from other Hungarians of the village. Once upon a time, in 1900s, almost all Romas of the village were employed in the nearby mines but now there are all unemployed and live on monthly benefits, which they get from the government.
Hungarian people consider Roma people the most problematic community of Hungary as they are different from the other Hungarians. Hungarian people hate them just because they need someone to hate in difficult times and being helpless Romas are the easy target. Even a local police chief Albert Pasztor said publicly that, “The perpetrators of all crimes are gypsies”.
The Roma kids are forced to sit in the separate classroom. The children grow up constantly being dehumanized, humiliated, persecuted and rejected. I read there were separate cup plates for their kids around 10 years back.
I also became aware that the Roma kids are declared mentally challenged and are send to special schools and now days around 90% of special school students are from this community only. Even the special schools seems to take more interest in these students rather than other students, may be because they get higher grants/money/benefits in the name of these ‘mentally challenged’ kids.
It was very interesting to find that, during our travel, most of the Hungarian people thought that we were also Hungarian Romas till the time we spoke English. Then only they could understand that we are not Romas but from some third world country.
Our physical similarities with the Romas are so striking that even many Romas thought that we belong there. It made us feel like at home, being among our own community and people and delighted me to no end. It became a bit emotional when old Roma women, knowing that we have come from India and are from the SC/ST community, said, “You are like my grand children”. Perhaps the Indian origin of Romas, our physical similarities and similar conditions of facing prejudices and discrimination from the rest of the society made us feel that we belong to one community.
During our stay, on the first hand itself it became very clear that the life of Roma people is not an easy one and suffer as much discrimination as faced by us SC/STs in our every day lives. There are 3 churches in Sajókaza, but not even a single Roma visit them. When I asked why it is so? The young Romas replied, “We are not treated well in the society and are looked down. Hence we don’t feel like visiting them”. It immediately reminded me of the Hindu temples in India that actually prohibits our entry.
Later during our stay we were invited to teach more about India, its culture and the problem of caste at Dr. Ambedkar High School there. Our students included Roma children and women from all age group. All of them listened us patiently and were very curious to know more about our community, its struggle to reclaim human dignity which they found resonating completely with their own struggle in Hungary.
I was also pleasantly surprised to know that due to the regular activities of Jai Bhim Network, most of our students were aware of the caste virus and the role of Dr Ambedkar. Our next stop was at nearby place called Hegymeg and we interacted with the students of Dr Ambedkar High School there also on the same lines.
Next evening, we went to the local community centre called Pink House accompanied by two other young Roma activists Benö and Kubu to teach English to the women and also attended an awareness programme organised by Roma activists for nourishing dreams of good life among Roma people. There we also participated in the drama and singing classes organised by Benö where we danced to our heart content.
During the proceedings of awareness programme, I enquired one participant about her dream. She replied, “I would like my kids to go to school then university and get some good jobs and earn well”. She was pained with the stigma that gypsies are lazy and are not interested in education. Her sentiments perfectly echoed that of any person from our community who also share the same dream of being free from caste-based stigmas and is able to provide for education of his/her children. We also visited the nearby kindergarten in Sajókaza and interacted with the kids and played with them.
English Language and Romas
However, before writing more about my other experiences here working with Jai Bhim Network, I would like to write about English language. The local Roma community speaks a dialect of Romanian language and not many can speak and understand English.
However, the Roma activists understand the significance of English language in today’s world and are making efforts to promote English among the community that will open new opportunities for young Romas in globalised world together with creating an avenue to highlight about their discrimination and to get support from the international community.
In this, the Roma activists give example of the Indian SC/STs who due to their struggle for education and relative access to English language is able to globalise their struggle. While interacting, I also tried to emphasise on the importance for English for our emancipation and empowerment and narrated the struggle of Jotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule for modern English education and their urgings for SC/STs and other marginalised sections of the society to learn English.
During one of our interactions, I even recited one poem written by Savitribai Phule known as ‘Mother English’. I also referred to the appeal of our Babasaheb for SC/STs to come out of their ghettos/villages and march towards cities. In contrast to Gandhi’s silly romanticism about villages, it was the farsightedness of Babasaheb that knew that the development of the SC/ST community is not possible till they live in ghettos/villages. Only coming to the urban centres could get them better access to schools and other facilities. I feel the same is true with the Romas too.
While interacting with the students of Dr. Ambedkar High School at Sajókaza, I mentioned about the language problem that I was facing there and told about my helplessness in interacting with them with more freedom. I got an interesting reply from one of the student (Benö’s brother) that “Till recently we were not given right to study, now we are learning and you come again next year, we will learn English by them”.
Jai Bhim Network and its work
Not many Europeans are interested in knowing Roma people and are grossly insensitive towards the problems faced by them. Jai Bhim Network inspired by Dr B R Ambedkar’s work is working mostly in the northern part of Hungary, where they have been running a school named Dr Ambedkar High School in Sajókaza and another one in the same name in Hegymeg. They are working in the areas where the chances for Roma kids to get higher education are very low. Hardly anyone there goes even to secondary schools.
The objective of the Network is to uplift the living standards of Roma people, to help them come out of poverty and to achieve equal social & economic status in the Hungarian society. Moreover the Network is soon going to start Microfinance Institution on the lines of Grameen Bank from Bangladesh, which changed millions lives there.
to be continued…