Roma Then and Now

New Internationalist, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

Roma Then and Now


The Roma originally came from northwestern

India - a fact originally discovered through linguistics, because the Roma language is Sanskrit-based, but more recently confirmed through DNA analysis. They were not a particular ethnic group. Rather, they came from a number of different social groups and castes recruited by the Aryan rulers of the Rajput Confederacy to defend the area from Muslim invaders led by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century. Part of these Rajput forces were driven northward by the constant attacks, migrating through what is now Kashmir to the Upper Indus Valley. Even here they were susceptible to attack and, over generations, eventually migrated west along the Spice Road from China to Persia. Their route can be determined through the traces of local languages retained in Romani words and grammar today. After further stops in modern Turkey and Armenia they ultimately reached southeastern Europe during the 14th century.

'Gypsies, tramps and thieves'

The term 'Gypsy' derived from the early notion that the Roma were Egyptian in origin but has generally negative connotations. Their skills as warriors and smiths were prized by some Renaissance courts but the Roma have generally tended to be regarded with suspicion. When they arrived in 14thcentury Wallachia and Moldavia they were immediately enslaved - and remained slaves for the ensuing 500 years. Elsewhere they were often regarded as spies for the Ottoman Turks then threatening Christian Europe ironic, given that the Roma had over centuries been forced into migration by hostile Islamic forces. They have tended to be regarded as a nomadic people, though their Indian forebears were certainly settled - as indeed are the vast majority of Roma in the world today.

Oppression of the Roma continued during the 20th century, notably when the Nazis and their allies targeted them for systematic extermination alongside the Jews - this genocide is known as the Porajmos. The number of lives lost is impossible to ascertain, given that the Roma were not covered by census data, but has been estimated at as low as 200,000 and as high as 1,500,000. The Roma of Bohemia and Moravia were completely wiped out, with no trace of their dialect remaining. In communist Bulgaria Romani language and music were banned, while in Czechoslovakia Roma women were sterilized. Roma were also forcibly sterilized in Norway until 1977.

Roma today

There are an estimated 15 million Roma worldwide, though in almost every country where there is a significant population the numbers vary hugely between official and unofficial estimates. …

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