International Romani Day, 8th April 2021: the 50th Jubilee Year of the First World Romani Congress

The Celebration of 8th April 1971

In her address to the Second International Romani Festival in Chandigarh, India, 29th October 1983, Prime Minister Indira Ghandi recalled the events of April 1971 when she said, “After the First World Romani Congress, in London in 1971, the Roma have become increasingly aware of their special identity and special role.” This role, she had suggested earlier, was “…ideally suited to help bring about international understanding and world peace.” An international role that could bring about world peace and understanding may seem a far-fetched and somewhat romanticised suggestion, with the benefit of thirty-eight years hindsight, but the great Indian stateswoman was expressing an aspiration that the Roma, “…an international community in the truest sense…” were in a uniquely advantageous position to influence the common fate of nations, particularly the drawing together of states and peoples over issues that affected all of humanity, such as the environment, nuclear proliferation (though this was perhaps disingenuous, given the struggle by India to acquire and develop nuclear weapons in an arms race with neighbouring Pakistan during this period), and protection of vulnerable minorities, such as the Romani and Traveller peoples in each of the nation-states where they lived.

In considering the events of April 1971, which were not just the meeting held in Orpington near London, but also the cultural festival that took place alongside the seminal gathering and the additional activism that led to the representatives attending a demonstration against the evictions of Gypsy and Traveller families in Birmingham, where the anthem, “Gelem, Gelem” was first sung publicly in the face of police and bailiffs (the famous photograph of Grattan Puxon, Jan Cibula and others, clearly singing and raising the ‘newly-minted’ Romani flag [flakko Romano] is from this protest), the support of the Indian government, the World Council of Churches, the Romani organisations from France and across Europe, it is critical to recall, as it will be by others writing today in celebration of the 50th anniversary of that event, that the Congress aspired to strengthen Roma political mobilisation and cooperation, to establish common terms around the emancipation movement for Romani rights and a coordinating structure for representation and activation of those rights, the International Romani Union, from earlier organisations, some of which had been the principal movers behind the London Congress. Grattan Puxon’s creative approach to the event’s coordination and programme was one that enabled the day of the 8th April to become one of the seminal moments in Romani politics that is now recognised.

Indira Ghandi could justifiably claim, “I feel a kinship with the Roma people…” as the Indian government continued to support Romani events and activities as they had in 1971. The World Romani Congress and International Romani Union remained closely connected to the Indian government and nation right up until the European Union, the OSCE and the Council of Europe began to take a more active lead in supporting and promoting Roma rights, from the early millennium. The flag is a case in point; the chakra at the centre of the flag was an addition to an earlier blue-green one, originally adopted in 1933 by Romani people in Europe at an international meeting in Macedonia, according to the Indian scholar and tireless advocate for Roma, W. R. Rishi. The chakra, a red, sixteen-spoked wheel was a direct acknowledgement of the Indian origin of Romani people and language and reflected the twenty-four-spoked chakra at the heart of the national flag of India, the Tiranga. Rishi went on to explain, 

The World Romani Congress have adopted a Romani flag which is respected by all the Roma the world over. It comprises of blue and green traditional colours with the red wheel in the centre. Blue is the blue sky and the heavens. Green is the land, organic and growing. The blue symbolizes eternal spiritual values; the green earthly values. The wheel in the centre symbolizes movement and progress.

The anthem, as it was recognised, was based upon a song originally written by Zarko Jovanovic in 1969 and was adopted at the First World Romani Congress and, according to Rishi, sung at every Congress (and many other Romani events) ever since. The text was once widely available on the Internet, at the now sadly defunct (only accessible using the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive), but is less easy to locate these days. Here is the original and an English translation by Ron Lee:

Djelem, djelem, lungone dromensa

Maladilem baxtale Romensa

Djelem, djelem, lungone dromensa

Maladilem baxtale Romensa.

Ay, Romale, Ay, Chavale,

Ay, Romale, Ay, Chavale.

Ay Romale, katar tumen aven

Le tserensa baxtale dromensa

Vi-man sas u bari familiya

Tai mudardya la e kali legiya.

Aven mansa sa lumiake Roma

Kai putaile le Romane droma

Ake vryama – ushti Rom akana

Ame xutasa mishto kai kerasa.

Ay, Romale, Ay Chavale,

Ay, Romale, Ay Chavale.

I have travelled over long roads

I have met fortunate Roma

I have travelled far and wide

I have met lucky Roma

Oh, Romani adults, Oh Romani youth

Oh, Romani adults, Oh Romani youth

Oh, Roma, from wherever you have come

With your tents along lucky roads

I too once had a large family

But the Black Legions murdered them

Come with me, Roma of the world

To where the Romani roads have been opened

Now is the time – stand up, Roma,

We shall succeed where we make the effort.

Oh, Roma adults, Oh, Roma youth

Oh, Roma adults, Oh, Roma youth.

Other extremely useful and information-oriented Romani online resources have also disappeared in the intervening five decades since the First World Romani Congress, ‘Patrin’ for example, where extracts of books by authors such as Ian Hancock could be found (in fact, his book The Pariah Syndrome was reproduced in its entirety on the Patrin website at one time). A great many of the smaller, independent websites of a plethora of Romani and Traveller organisations that were available through the 1990’s and early 2000’s have also disappeared, taking with them a huge amount of comment, opinion, history, language, information and, perhaps counter-views to those of the larger international entities that have become the funders promoters and sometimes arbiters of Romani rights and politics. This shift may have benefits in terms of graphics-heavy websites that are mobile-device-oriented and thus more accessible to a wider community, but the debate and diversity of views, editorials and expressions of that “…colour, spontaneity and zest for life” that Indira Ghandi cited as qualities that are closely associated with the Roma are, perhaps less obvious than they once were on the World Wide Web.

The events of April 1971 eventually sparked a series of seismic changes that resulted in the establishment of major Romani institutions and organisations (such as ERIAC, Roma Education Fund, Roma Initiatives Office), funding programmes from non-Romani donors (such as OSF, Bernard van Leer Fund, various government agencies such as the Swedish SIDA) and international frameworks, conventions and strategies that have operated across national borders and within supra-national bodies, such as the EU and Council of Europe, UNICEF, OSCE, and Save the Children, OXFAM, Amnesty International and MRG. The per capita funding, on a simplistic basis, is much, much greater than it was in 1971 and this is, in very great part due to the efforts of Romani organisations and representatives themselves, stemming from the impetus of the World Romani Congress and International Romani Union translated to the national, regional and local levels. Romani and Traveller political mobilisation and activism has seen an enormous growth in fifty years, engaging with a much broader and more diverse series of communities and ‘voices’ than was the case in 1971. Women, LGBTQ+ Roma and Travellers, those with disabilities, young Romani and Traveller people, children, all have articulated, in various arenas, their aspirations and demands in ways that were not so potent in earlier the earlier forum of Romani politics and representation. Commitment to the principles of organisation and cooperation may not have always avoided the fissiparous nature of Romani politics, such as divisions in the IRU itself and competing claims to authenticity and the right to convene Congresses disputed amongst coalitions of Roma activists, but the overall trajectory and impetus has driven the agenda of emancipation nevertheless, despite non-Romani intervention in what the Dutch sociologist Jan Rath has labelled, “minorisation”, the deliberate forcing of competition for resources for minority ethnic communities by governments intent on keeping such groups from forming coalitions and powerful political movements in common. The worrying trend in political aspirations for Romani and Traveller rights to be tied to short-term, limited objective and outcome project funding means that a great deal has not changed for communities in most of the countries of the world; Roma remain the most impoverished, least well-educated, shortest-living and disempowered community in Europe and beyond, excluded in ways that not even migrants and refugees can be, as Romani and Traveller people are both treated as citizens (or subjects, in the case of the U.K.) of states as regards liability under the law, but punished as ‘aliens’ in application of the law, beyond the ‘ethnos’ of the nation, marginalized as ‘Others’.

Celebration of the 50th Jubilee year of the First World Romani Congress should mark the event with some sober consideration of the realities of past fifty years; the aspirations of Indira Ghandi as regards the “special role” of Roma in international peace and understanding may have been wildly unrealistic, but the event did, as she pointed out, both revive and ensure the retention of Romani identity that has sustained a population that, as Angus Fraser perceptively remarked, has no priesthood, no holy book and no Promised Land in the face of continuing and profoundly hostile circumstances, attitudes and attempts at extirpation.

As the webpage from puts it, “Opré Romale, sastipé, baxtalé!”