October 22, 2017

The Roma and the Subaltern Communities of India

By Jekatyerina Dunajeva, Gopalakrishnan Karunanithi, Andrew Ryder and Nidhi Trehan

The editors of the Indian Journal of Social Work are pleased to announce the publication of a special edition entitled ‘Collectivity and Empowerment in Addressing Marginality: The Roma and the Subaltern Communities of India’. The main objective of this special edition is to reflect on a comparison between the European Roma and the Dalits in India by focusing on strategies to reverse their marginality and to gain potential for sharing and mobilising a counter-narrative to their predicament.1

The relationship between Europe and India is one of great antiquity and sadly, more often than not, has been fraught with tension. Edward Said in his seminal work ‘Orientalism’ (1978) captures the dichotomy of that relationship by noting how a constellation of false assumptions underlay Western attitudes toward the East and a Eurocentric prejudice against Eastern peoples and their cultures. This interpretation can certainly be applied to much of the troubled and tense history of Western and Indian relations centred on colonialism and exploitation, which is not so distant, often that legacy and new forms of control and hegemony continue to shape that inter-relationship. Furthermore, the postcolonial body of literature, delineating the subordinate position of the “Other” or “subaltern”, aptly describes the position of Roma within contemporary European society.

This special edition details how the links between the Roma and India were first celebrated and became a facet of the Romani movement when the first World Romani Congress met in London in 1971 and adopted a Roma ‘nationalist’ agenda of emancipation, which included an anthem and flag. Indeed the flag incorporated the Ashoka Chakra, a potent symbol in Indian history, which remains a powerful symbol of Roma nationhood and solidarity to this day.

Another key aspect of the politics of identity in the Roma and India inter-relationship have been the ideas and stratagems of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, which have deeply influenced global identity politics and therefore the Romani movement. Of course the perennial question is whether such politics fragments the marginalised by usurping old social movements centred on economic interpretations with ones centred on the less precise politics of identity – at least as some suggest – in its understanding of a neoliberal order. And yet such a dichotomy may not be so sharp or clear.

According to Fraser (2007), the interrelation between economy and culture may take a multitude of forms in terms of strategy. Fraser emphasises the premium value of transformative action being structural and thus superior to reformist and affirmative gestures. Yet Fraser recognises value and worth can derive from the latter despite its more limited scope and ambition, and may even be nurtured and developed into a force which is more profound and transforming.  This quality is captured in the article in the special edition on the Ambedkar School in Hungary, a school which caters to marginalised Roma and is influenced in its mission by the core philosophy and principles of Ambedkar. Outside of the mainstream and through what is in effect an affirmative measure, the school seeks to build up the confidence of young Roma and nurture critical forms of thinking. Perhaps given its intake of marginalised young people and actually being physically located in one of the poorest parts of Hungary, the school provides a dynamic example in tandem with the theorising of Freire and Gramsci of acting as a catalyst, entering the ‘ghetto’ and shaping and nurturing the thoughts of the marginalised, thereby threading and linking localised and personal conceptions of exclusion with broader structural drivers which move beyond the confines of identity.

In recent years, within the Romani movement and scholarship we have seen others take this path through the development of a critical form of Romani Studies, which has been heavily influenced by Indian postcolonial thinking and subaltern studies; this perhaps is at the heart of this special edition as a number of articles explore the potential of inclusive forms of community development, as pioneered in India through microcredit and forms of collectivity, to create for the Roma and the marginalised not only voice, agency and livelihood, but also associationalism. Associationalism seeks to challenge neoliberalism by placing the subaltern at the heart of community development and utilising the resource of social networks and fraternity and empowering the marginalised. But the question remains can these localised islands of collectivity and fraternity be sufficient to challenge, tame and erode the inequity of a rampant neoliberalism?

What should be the role of intellectuals – both academic and organic – in this search for empowerment? The special edition explores the role participatory action research can play in nurturing grounded insights but also forms of critical consciousness leading to change and transformative action. It is a discussion which needs to be placed in the broader context of Romani Studies, and knowledge production and the perennial struggle between the positivists -those imbued with the principles of scientism – who exalt objectivity and detachment, and conversely, those who subscribe to embodied research, which places value on experiential knowledge and the agency of the subaltern. The commodification of research and the self-preservation strategies of the academic establishment in Romani Studies and other branches of inquiry often frustrates the vision and realisation of more emancipatory forms of research (Ryder, 2015).

Today the symbiosis of globalisation, the cross fertilisation of ideas between the West and India continues, but alas through this channel it could be argued that new forms of colonialism have penetrated the Indian lifeworld in the form of neoliberalism, an ideology which in fact India can be said to have embraced enthusiastically now as a rapidly developing economic power. It is a position though that has been attained through ever widening inequality, and, some would say, with India turning its back on the collective intellectual legacy bestowed upon it by thinkers such as Gandhi, Ambedkar, Sen and Spivak, thinkers whom this special edition seeks to celebrate and explore.

The dysfunctionality of the neoliberal order as indeed evidenced in parts of the world has manifested itself in the politics of authoritarian populism where charisma and scapegoating not only divides and rules, but also detracts attention from the deep structural flaws of the neoliberal order. For how long can such ruses and deceptions be sustained? Sadly, Roma civil society and leaders have at times been susceptible to the lures and influences of authoritarian populism, and their activism has been hijacked or they have become lackeys of the state. The most recent and sad manifestation of such a process is reflected in the story of Dorin Cioaba, a Romanian Romani leader and the self-titled ‘international King of the Roma people’, who recently offered US President Donald Trump the services of Romani construction workers to help build the projected wall at the US-Mexico border, as they are “good craftsmen.” The special edition muses and reflects on the broader failings of Roma civil society which arguably may have been emasculated by forms of donor control and hierarchy. How should the Roma movement respond to this profound moment of global crisis now confronting the world?

The special edition for the Indian Journal of Social Work ‘Collectivity and Empowerment in Addressing Marginality: The Roma and the Subaltern Communities of India’ hopefully will act a catalyst to greater comparative discussion and analysis on the experiences of Roma and subaltern communities elsewhere in the world, including India; a discussion which we hope will nurture solidarity and inclusivity.


Fraser, N (2007) ‘Identity, Exclusion and Critique. A Response to Four Critics’, European Journal of Political Theory, 6 (3), 2007

Ryder, A (2015) ‘Co-producing Knowledge with below the radar communities: Factionalism, Commodification or Partnership?  A Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Case Study’ University of Birmingham: Third Sector Research Centre Working Paper


  1. The Indian Journal of Social Work ‘Collectivity and Empowerment in Addressing Marginality: The Roma and the Subaltern Communities of India’ (Volume 78, Issue 1) has been published in hard copy format and will be available online later in the year. If you would like more information and to join a network of scholars interested in Roma/Dalit issues please email: romaindia2017@gmail.com

Post source : http://www.errc.org/blog/the-roma-and-the-subaltern-communities-of-india/177

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