The Romas, a discriminated minority in Hungary, turn to Ambedkar and Buddhism in their quest for dignity and equality. Pardeep Attri journeys to Sajókaza and Budapest to find out how the Dalits and Romas connect.
Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle.
— Dr B. R. Ambedkar
On 14 April 2008, when Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s birthday was being commemorated across India, I got an email from an unknown person – Derdák Tibor from Hungary – appreciating my article, “Schools, Toilets or Temples?”which he had read on an e-group. My article had lamented that “at every street corner we have built temples, but not toilets or schools.” Tibor said he was a sociologist, and a former member of the Hungarian Parliament now working for the Roma community (derogatorily referred to as Gypsies across Europe). This was the beginning of endless emails we exchanged. While I gradually learnt about the lives of and the problems faced by the Roma community in Hungary, I explained to him the conditions of Dalits in India.
What intrigued me was Derdák Tibor said that he and another Roma leader, Orsós János, had been inspired by the philosophy of social transformation of Dr Ambedkar and his work among the Dalits, and that they were now trying to deploy Ambedkarite ideas in their struggle for equal rights for the Roma community. How and why Ambedkar? Tibor had chanced upon a book on Babasaheb in Paris and a new world opened up. He immediately could see the similarities between the discrimination faced by Dalits in India and Romas in Europe.
Romas/‘Gypsies’ are normally considered to be “members of nomadic people of Europe with dark skin” with a worldwide population of about 12 million, originally from North India. With their 8 million population in Europe, they constitute one of the biggest minority blocks in European countries and have a history of being constantly opposed, refused, discriminated, persecuted and stigmatized by white Europeans. Constituting about 7 per cent of the total population, they are Hungary’s biggest minority group.
After discovering Ambedkar, Tibor and other Roma activists interacted with Friends of World Buddhist Order (FWBO), a group that has been working with Ambedkarite Buddhists in India for years now. This resulted in a visit to Maharashtra by Tibor and János in 2005 and 2007. They felt a deep connection with the Dalits of India and with Dr Ambedkar’s emancipatory agenda. After returning to Hungary, they made sustained efforts to bond with the Dalit movement. In 2007, they founded the Jai Bhim Network, embraced Buddhism and opened three high schools named after Dr Ambedkar in Sajókaza, Ózd and Hegymeg for Roma children in Hungary.
The Jai Bhim Network believes that “even a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” One of the activities of the Network is to invite young Dalit activists to Hungary and provide them with opportunities to interact with the Roma community. Recently, I was part of one such three-member delegation and lived with the Roma community in the village Sajókaza for almost a month.
Life in Sajókaza
On 24 September 2009, I reached Budapest and we were quite nervous, as this was our first ever visit abroad. Szabolcs Vicze from Jai Bhim Netwrok received us at the airport and in no time, we felt completely at ease and started interacting as if we had known each other for years. We bonded instantly though we lived thousands of miles apart.
One the same night, we reached village Sajókaza, where the Jai Bhim Network carries out most of its activities such as educating the Romas and bringing them into the mainstream. Sajókaza is a beautiful village about 30 km northeast of Miskolc. The big fields around the village reminded me of the villages of Punjab. It has a population of about 3,300 people, half of them Romas. The majority of the Romas live on the outskirts of the village in ghettos, forced into a lifestyle entirely different from the other Hungarians of the village. In their neighbourhood, there is no tap water, no street lighting and no sewage disposal. A few meters away, in the adjoining non-Roma streets, all these basic amenities are provided.
There was a time when all the Romas of the village were employed in the nearby mines but now almost all of them are unemployed and live on a monthly dole from the government. During our stay, it became evident that the Romas suffer as much everyday discrimination as Dalits do. There are three churches in Sajókaza, but not even a single Roma visits them. It immediately reminded me of the Hindu temples in India where our entry, though guaranteed in law, is prohibited in practice.
The foremost hurdle in the education of Romas in Hungary is the segregation of Roma children, who are forced to sit in separate classes. They attend different schools/classes in dilapidated buildings without basic amenities, whereas Hungarian children attend regular, fully equipped schools. Tibor says there were separate cups and plates for Roma students till ten years ago. Roma children grow up constantly dehumanized, humiliated, persecuted and rejected. Roma children are declared ‘mentally challenged’ and are sent to special schools; so much that about 90 per cent of special school students in Hungary are said to be from this community. Segregation is not limited to schools. In 2003, the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) conducted field research in Hungary and documented 44 cases of so-called “Gypsy rooms”—segregated maternity wards.
Stereotypes are potent tools of hatred. And the Romas suffer form the worst kind of stereotyping by the whites. The ‘Gypsies’, for the average white European, are necessarily cheaters, beggars, thieves, pickpockets, nomads, people who live in dirty conditions and don’t like to work. It is believed by non-Romas that the Romas cut their forefingers so that they could easily pick pockets. It is also believed that ‘Roma’ children wear long clothes so that they could hide the chickens they steal from white farmers’ homes. These prejudices are thriving today.
Most websites that promote tourism in Europe today offer gratuitous advice to be wary of ‘Gypsies’. One site, under the heading ‘Personal security in Rome’, says: “Gypsy children could surround you, and shamelessly start robbing your belongings, taking advantage of your surprise. They would then pass the belongings to older gypsy women…” Here’s Leif Pettersen, who describes himself as a Lonely Planet author: “Pickpockets are to certain parts of Romania like a wino is to a Bartles and James tanker accident. Unfortunately, more often than not, the offenders are gypsies. Many locals in Romania and Moldova will tell you that gypsies are all beggars and criminals.”
The image of ‘Romas’ being thieves is so strong that they are the first to be rounded up by the police if there is a crime in the neighborhood. Most often they become easy victims of police inefficiency and are brutalized just for being Roma. Despite the odds – with only 0.3% of Romas holding a college or university degree – many Romas have excelled, such as the painter Mara Oláh; the second Roma member of European Union, Lívia Járóka; author Menyhért Lakatos; and the 1972 Olympic boxing champion Gyorgy Gedo.
One of the most horrific stories I heard white Hungarians cook up was about pregnant ‘Gypsy’ women. A 3 September 2009 report from the website, www.hungarianambiance.com, claims “Gypsy families induce oxygen deficiency in their newborns to make them mentally retarded; this is to get more child support payments.” In September, Oszkar Molnar, the Mayor of Edeleny in Northeast Hungary, accused Roma women in his town of intentionally harming their unborn babies in order to secure extra child benefits. The Equal Opportunity Authority issued sanctions against Oszkar Molnar, a representative of main opposition party Fidesz, but he has vowed to launch a legal appeal against the Authority.
On 11 October 2009, about 1,500 Romas gathered at Heroes Square in Budapest to protest Mayor Molnar’s views, and to demonstrate against segregation in schools and discrimination in everyday life. One slogan caught my attention: “A child’s head is not a pot that has to be filled, but a torch that needs to be ignited.” Says Orsós János, president of Jai Bhim Network, “There are many people who are deeply critical of us, even hate us. After our turn to Ambedkarite Buddhism, people ask, ‘Are these gypsies real Buddhists? How can you teach Buddhism to gypsies?’ What we are doing is quite strange in Europe, where Buddhism is largely the leisure hobby of the middle classes. But it is easy to answer them: they don’t offer effective secondary education for Gypsies, and we do! Whatever people say, we just carry on with our work.”