Towards the end of October Srimala and I drove all the way across the Island to her sister’s house, near Stansted Airport. And the next morning I was dropped off at the airport and flew on to Budapest. There I was met by Miklós, a mitra from a gypsy community in Southern Hungary who is my usual guide when I come to Hungary. We spent the first moments of our drive catching up on the political situation in Hungary which from most points of view is pretty dire.
Just a week or so previously the governing party, Fidesz, had won a great majority of the local government elections including Budapest, which is the most “liberal” city in Hungary. This gives the prime minister Victor Orban, a very dominating position in Hungarian politics, which he is exploiting to the full, centralising authority and entrenching his own party in control, for instance, of the press commission, the constitutional court and all the supervisory organs of State. Naturally our Gypsy friends are very upset and disturbed by this because especially in Northern Hungary where our main work is all the local governments are dominated now not merely by Fidesz but by Jobik, a party that it is hard to call anything but fascist with explicitly anti-Gypsy and anti-Jewish rhetoric.
Miklós is in charge of I.T. at the Buddhist College, the Dhamma Gate, in Budapest, which is a strange survivor from the liberal opening up of Hungary after the end of the Communist system. He drove me to a flat owned by János, a mitra who is the president of the Jai Bhim Network, the organisation through which our mitras work in Hungary. He has bought himself a very nice two-room flat in an old apartment block not far from the centre of the city.
It is a typical central European style building with a large open courtyard going up six floors with metal balconies running all the way round by which one gains access to the separate flats - you could see this in many Hungarian films e.g. Fateless. János’ flat is right on the top floor and although it does not have a view, it feels very isolated and tranquil. He’s done it up beautifully and it’s clearly a place that he loves and where he feels able to relax, after all the struggles to keep the schools running in Northern Hungary. Here we sat and waited, watching an enormous flat screen television with a Gypsy band from Romania belting out very lively and witty music - I recommend the Shantal & Bukovina Club Orchestra if you want to liven up your party. János and Miklós then began initiating me into other bands including Gogol Bordello, a group with which I was already familiar.
Then Tibor came up along with a young Indian who is studying for his Phd at the Central European University in Budapest. Vinod knows Maitriveera Nagarjuna and I think I might myself have probably met him in the crowds at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Interestingly his Phd is on the subject of discrimination within the Indian diaspora communities in England, about which there has recently been quite a bit of talk, since there is strong evidence of caste discrimination: I’ve been told by young English Buddhists of Punjabi origin that there are caste-based gangs in their schools and that the Jat caste, which is the dominant one, sometimes torments Buddhists and other Dalits (they also informed me that much Bhangra music in Punjabi is openly casteist).
And then a German film-maker, now living in Austria, turned up, Stefan Ludwig. He is making a film about the Jai Bhim Network, based especially on János and his movement into Buddhism. Maitriveer and I met him last time we were in Hungary and encouraged him to make the link between the Movement in Hungary and the Movement in India - and that is what he is going to do. He and his crew are bringing Tibor and János and another mitra to India at the end of November and will be filming them at the anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar’s cremation in Mumbai on the 6th December as well as bringing them up to Bhaja. We talked through all the necessary arrangements and he formed his basic plan - recognising that anything could happen.
After lunch we drove off in a cavalcade towards Slovakia. This involved miles and miles of wooded valleys with hardly a settlement anywhere. At one point the road simply disappeared into a morass of mud and we had to retrace our steps and find another route. As always in crossing the border into Slovakia from Hungary there is an almost startling change in the quality of the roads and even the general appearance of houses and public facilities - in Slovakia they are noticeably better. Hungary always used to be much wealthier and better cared for than Slovakia, especially when it was part of Czechoslovakia. But in more recent times, partly because of European Union funds, Slovakia has leapt forwards and Hungary has slipped back, ruled by it’s kleptocracy.
As we went through a few small villages we couldn’t help noticing that the proportion of Gypsies to Slovaks was much higher than it would have been to Hungarians in Hungary. I believe that the population of Gypsies in many areas in Eastern Slovakia is more than 20%. We were in an area of Slovakia where there are many Hungarian speakers - indeed before 1919 and the Treaty of Trianon this was part of Hungary and briefly was re-annexed by courtesy of Hitler. In the town that we were heading to we were told that 17% were Hungarian speakers.
This town is called Sepsi in Hungarian and Moldava nad Bodvou in Slovak. There is a large Gypsy colony here, where people live in the worst conditions I’ve ever seen humans occupying. The main settlement is about three kilometres outside the town in a disused industrial wasteland amid piles of rubbish and with an open sewer running through the middle. There are two very battered apartment blocks, crumbling and often windowless, and then what in India would be called ‘clusters of hutments’: huts patched together out of wood and plastic and broken corrugated sheeting. 700 people live here of whom about 500 are children.
Not long before my previous visit sixty riot police had entered the settlement and systematically beaten up all the young men. This had become a national outrage and the settlement has since received quite a bit of attention. One of the major forces in the settlement is a Gypsy women, Irma, of formidable character and effectiveness. Her brother, who had been addicted to glue for many years, now studies at our Dr. Ambedkar High School in Hungary, along with two or three others. This is easy enough for them to do because although they are in Slovakia their official language is Hungarian - although the language of the settlement is Romany, a language noticeably closer to Hindi.
When I visited last time with Maitriveera Nagarjuna and Satyadasa I found a visceral revolt arising in me in what I saw - humans should not have to live like this and they don’t have to. I felt I should just stay there and help - but knew that probably my best help was in supporting our mitras who, being Gypsies themselves, have a natural line of communication and understand the situation far better than I could. Human beings don’t have to live like this if other human beings chose to stop it.
Igor came with János, Tibor, Kubu, Anikó and Miklós to Maes Gwyn in May, when we did four days of retreat together, running through the five aspects of Dhamma practice. He knew nothing about Buddhism and found much of what we did a bit strange. However, it was very clear in the shrine room that he was meditating deeply. On the last day of their time in Wales we’d gone to the beach at Porthmadog and then on to Harlech Castle. This was the first time Igor had seen the sea.
After they left Maes Gwyn they went to the LBC where they were treated royally, which pleased them greatly. We’d fixed up through a mitra at the LBC, a meeting with a Euro MP who was very sympathetic to their position and already seemed to know quite a bit about the difficulties that they faced. Through a cousin of Jnanavaca’s they visited the House of Lords and were able to sit in the Stranger’s Gallery and watch a debate. We were told before hand that there was a strict dress code and that men would have to wear suits and ties, so they’d all gone down to Lama’s Pyjamas and had great fun being kitted out and in the end sailed in like lords.
All of this and his contact with János, Tibor and Kubu and others has made a big impression on Igor and he now considers himself to be a Buddhist. So he wanted me to come and give a talk in his town and he’d organised a programme in the cultural hall of the local authority and his sister and other friends has managed to persuade some Hungarian speaking Slovaks who were standing for the city council elections to attend.
So rather than the settlement we found ourselves in a civic building, quite new and well appointed, with about 40 people waiting. We were greeted with great warmth by Igor and Irma and almost immediately ushered to the front where I sat behind a table with János on one side and Tibor on the other. First of all the notables introduced themselves: that is the candidates for the local elections, and then Tibor spoke about the Dr. Ambedkar High School and János about the Jai Bhim Network - at least this is what I think they were talking about because my Hungarian is extremely rudimentary.
Then I was asked to speak. I must admit I was extremely unsure of what I was doing there and who I was talking to and about what, although Tibor had briefed me that I should give the background to their work. I stood to speak and, as usual, there was a little discussion about who should translate me. Anikó, a Dhammamitra whose brother is János, was elected and came to stand beside me. I was very pleased because I know she has excellent English and translates really fluently. However she’d come with her granddaughter, a very lively two year old, who was not at all happy that her grandmother was not with her and started complaining volubly. Anikó tried translating with little Anna in her arms but it was just not possible. So Tibor took over and he too is an excellent translator.
I’d picked up as people were speaking the phrase “Gypsy problem” (or rather “Roma problem” - there is some debate about whether to use ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Roma’, I’m guided by János who should know who prefers to be called a ‘Gypsy’ because ‘Rom’ simply means ‘person’ or ‘man’ in the Romany language and therefore indicates only a portion of the total Gypsy community: so he prefers ‘Gypsy’ and therefore I do).
“Gypsy problem” “Gypsy problem” “Gypsy problem”: this is what I heard. So I started off by saying this is what I’ve heard but there doesn’t have to be a Gypsy problem. The Gypsy problem can be ended. And I know this because I’ve seen very similar marginalised, excluded and suppressed communities in India, who were considered a problem, come forward. And the way they’ve come forward is by taking responsibility for themselves and gaining an education. I went on to explain that this happened in the course of conversion to Buddhism - and here I think I made a tactical error because I appeared to be making a conclusive connection between the ending of the Gypsy problem and becoming Buddhist which is clearly not what the Slovaks wanted to hear, being mostly Catholics or Calvanists. It’s probably not so much of a problem for most Gypsies because, although they’re often Christians, they have no active participation in the Church, even being effectively excluded from normal services. But I hadn’t quite gauged my audience. Whether this has has any long term disadvantage it’s difficult to say. But I hope not - sometimes I’m appalled that how ignorant I am of the subtleties of so many situations everywhere and I unwittingly put my feet on to somebody’s toes.