The fight for self-determination is not an easy one, especially when a dispersed, oppressed community is up against an organized state structure. Yet, some of the world’s most persecuted ethnic and religious groups are not alone. For a long time, citizens of different nations have crossed borders not just as tourists, students, and workers but as representatives and agents of their homelands. While abroad, they continue to maintain ties to their homeland and their state of origin takes the initiative to protect and empower its representatives abroad. For example, it is common for the UK and US governments to entrust their embassies with the protection of citizens abroad when tragedy strikes.
However, state protection and advocacy are not limited to citizenship. Increasingly, governments are concerned about the entire ethnocultural diaspora associated with their countries rather than just their citizens. And when members of such diasporas are productive and welcomed in foreign lands, it is easy for a state to embrace a relationship with them.
The Israeli government, for example, advocates not just for Israeli citizens but the Jewish community, including Jews who have the privilege of American citizenship. In February 2015, in the aftermath of the Paris kosher supermarket attack, Netanyahu advocated “mass migration” of Jews from Europe. He expressed his direct and unfiltered outrage at traditional allies: “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews.” “Jews deserve protection in every country,” he reminded. More broadly, Israel has maintained its influence on global affairs affecting its community through events such as the Eichmann Trial and organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Similarly, the major powers of the Middle East often speak boldly on behalf of the global Muslim community, especially since the recent rise of Islamophobia. Much like Israel, these countries use platforms like the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to expressly represent their people abroad. In March 2017, OIC Secretary General attacked the global rise of the far-right and said that Islamophobia is gradually becoming institutionalized. Recently, Turkish President Erdogan said he had dedicated a Turkish-funded mosque near Washington to mitigate the emerging intolerance and Islamophobia in the US. And of course, countries like Iran are quick to jump at the West for double standards regarding the equality and human rights of Muslim citizens.
Certainly, Israel and the Middle Eastern states take an imperfect approach to this advocacy and their strategic interests always outweigh any advocacy obligations. However, in some cases, countries deliberately and categorically shirk their responsibility to stand up for their communities abroad.
This has been the case with the Indian government and the Roma. Although they’ve been fairly nomadic for most of their history, the Roma mostly see themselves as part of the global Indian diaspora. The “Roma people are an Indian nation,” said Jovan Damjanovic, president of the World Roma Organization. Britain’s Gypsy Council also describes the Roma as Britain’s “first Non-Resident India community.” Moreover, several studies confirm the origin of the Roma in modern-day India and Pakistan. In 2012, a study led by Indian and Estonian academics suggested that the Roma began their westward exodus from modern Punjab between 1001 and 1026.
The Indian state has taken a decidedly lukewarm view of this story, mostly shying away from the issue. From 1976, India has gathered scholars and performers from several countries only three or four times to establish some cross-cultural links and celebrate Roma culture. Recently, the Modi government has been more vocal on Roma issues with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj reiterating that the Roma are the “children of India” and admiring Romani resilience and authenticity in foreign cultures.
However, India has been reluctant to make any concrete moves. Beyond expressing flowery support for the Roma, it is unclear whether Indian representatives have ever raised Roma issues with European diplomats or in formal forums such as the UN. In 2010, when France deported more than a 1000 Roma, the Indian government was silent. Even on softer issues like cultural exchange, no Indian educational institution has been encouraged to conduct research or set up a department on Roma studies, even as some European universities have done so. And certainly, there has been no consideration of giving Roma Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status, which bestows several privileges including visa-free travel to India.
In fact, the Indian state’s evasion regarding Roma issues may belie a darker reality. Traditionally, Indian immigrants abroad have integrated quite well, often joining the most educated, most productive and highest-earning strata of the countries they live in. In the US, Indians are the most educated and richest migrant community and dominate the country’s most powerful technology companies with Sundar Pichai leading Alphabet and Satya Nadela leading Microsoft. A record number of Indian Americans were elected to Congress last year. Some 10-20% of tech startups in the US have Indian CEOs. Similarly, in Dubai and Hong Kong, Indian expats occupy elite white-collar positions and have lower poverty rates than local and national averages. Globally, Hinduism could match up to Judaism as the richest religion per capita. When immigrants integrate easily in foreign lands and contribute to their productive capacities, it is quite easy for the Indian state to embrace them as stewards of the Indian diaspora.
However, when they are discriminated against and develop tenuous relationships with local populations–as in the case of the Roma–the Indian state would much rather look away. For long, India has exported an endless supply of engineering talent to the rest of the world. These people left India in the ‘60s and ‘90s when the country was not the rising economic star it is today and integrated well on their own. However, Roma issues have come to light quite recently and are a stark contrast to the experiences of the rest of the Indian diaspora. A string of cases around school segregation, female sterilization, and police brutality have shaken European courts and the conception of Indians abroad as the flourishing minority. The first coordinated effort to combat anti-Roma sentiment, the Decade of Roma Inclusion emerged as recently as 2005 and ended in 2015, have mostly failed.
It seems like this is too much baggage for India to bear even as Prime Minister Modi stakes out his rare meeting with President Trump to advocate on behalf of Indian IT workers on H1B visas. India’s caste system has enveloped even its lobbying abroad, as high-achieving Indian Americans remain a priority. In fact, research suggests that the Roma were originally “untouchables,” the lowest ranking Indian caste.
With India’s de facto abandonment, the European system faces only its internal conscience when addressing Roma issues. On my own research trip to Central Europe, key Roma activists and advocacy lawyers didn’t mention any support from or interaction with foreign pressure groups, let alone the Indian government. Internally, Roma politicians and civil society groups remain few and fragmented. And while Europe has a robust transnational human right regime, the sluggish pace of progress reflects that the Roma are not a priority. Few, if any, European countries have successfully integrated their Roma communities and without international accountability, there is little incentive to take action. And thus, Roma issues may continue to be gravely under-studied and under-prioritized in today’s world.
Arvin Anoop is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.
This piece is the fifth in a multi-part series on Roma Rights.
1. Europe’s Villified Minority: The Roma Through Pictures by Megan McQueen ’20
2. Charity From Above: George Soros and the Anatomy of Roma Rights Activism by Lisa Qian ’20
3. Law and the Roma: A Fickle Ally by Arvin Anoop ’18
4. Not Yet United: The Challenges of Organizing for Roma Rights by Emma Pred-Sosa ’19