Roma Nation Day

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Today marks the 45th anniversary of the first World Romani Congress, held in London. This first World Romani Congress on 8th April 1971 was organised by the Comité International Rom, in partnership with a number of leading academics and activists and built the foundations of the later International Romani Union, established in 1977 (Acton and Klimova, 2001), by adopting, according to later documentation presented to the UN in 1978, the recommendations and statutes from the 1971 Congress. The Congress in 1971 also established the basis of international identity that we recognise today; the Romani flag, the anthem, “Gelem, gelem (or Dzelem, dzelem)” written, according to the recollection of participants in the Congress, on the coach journey from London to Walsall, in support of a group of Travellers and the death of a young Traveller in Walsall, by by Zharko Jovanovic Jagdino.  An early photograph shows captures the demonstration by the members of the first World Romani Congress; Jan Cibula, Mme Rouda, Jarko Jovanovic, Faik Abdi, Grattan Puxon, Juan de Dios Ramirez Heredia (behind Grattan Puxon) Melanie Spitta and Tomas Holomek. Thomas Acton, though present, was not in the picture but was standing near the photographer, Eva Davidova. The diversity of the participants, Romani, Traveller and non-Romani, was apparent at the very outset of this major political movement to secure rights and equalities.

The Congress was one that sought unity and inspiration through these symbols and the continuing commemoration of International Romani Day on the 8th April, across the diversity of Romani and Traveller communities. In its very first actions, the demonstration in Walsall, the Congress (an by extension, the political movement) supported that diversity and unity of action. Its important to recall this and to remember that the Congress was not exclusively about one constituent part of the community, the Roma, but about Romani and Traveller peoples, a trend that has only partially been followed by other events, movements and initiatives. The European Roma Traveller Forum did recognise this diversity when it functioned for example; the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture does not. The recent World Romani Congress in Skopje does and presentations about electronic voting from a young Traveller woman and IT expert, Nin Hocking and Joseph Jones, chair of the Gypsy Council (UK), continues to illustrate that diversity and the unity that draws strength from this, whatever the major steps that still need to be made to ensure the IRU becomes a viable, democratic and gender-equal institution for Romani and Traveller politics.
The question is, as Dr Jan Selling in Sweden suggested, what is in a name? The language of inclusion seeks to recognise the importance of deconstructing the mythos around the homogeneous nation-state and ensure the diverse and multi-ethnic nature of such states is enshrined in constitutions and legal statutes, correctly describing (if not always successfully defining) the communities that make up societies in all their complex ethnic and religious mosaics. Romani and Traveller rights and emancipation are built upon these principals of inclusion and yet, the struggle to continue the democratic recognition of diversity within and between the Romani and Traveller communities see-saws between the dominance of older political forms of centralised, command politics that demand unitary institutions and definitions and the more pluralist, flexible understandings of identity and ethnicity that recognise the importance of multiplicity, hybridity and notions of allegiance, which the first World Romani Congress did. Seeking to continue the tradition of diversity and inclusion that was made explicit on 8th April 1971, requires us to challenge the exclusivity of single terms and constantly seek to define a broader, more inclusive series of linked and related ethnic communities that constitute Romani and Traveller peoples. That is the heritage of forty-five years of mobilisation and the struggle for emancipation…