There are very few cultures in which the phrase “genetic study” could lead to a frisson of excitement coursing through society. We, in India, must count ourselves as lucky for living in one.
On June 16, senior journalist Tony Joseph wrote an article in the Hindu, based on a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, that “put all of the recent discoveries together into a tight and coherent history of migrations into India” to arrive at the conclusion that the DNA evidence supported the Aryan Migration Theory: a scenario where Indo-European speakers (earlier called “Aryans”), speaking early forms of Sanskrit, streamed into north-west India around 4,000 years back.
Jospeh’s article caused a storm in Hindutva circles, as tweets, status messages and articles were feverishly typed out in order to refute it. Just one right-wing website, Swarajya.com had – as of Monday – attempted as many as three rebuttals to Joseph’s piece.
But why was there so much brouhaha over a dry theory of human migration dating back 4,000 years?
Why did so many right-wingers think it relevant to Indian politics in 2017?
And why did they feel that disproving the migration – which genome writer David Ski said was now so certain that “anyone with at least moderate thinking capacity, whose mind isn’t poisoned by extreme bias, has to agree” with “no ifs no buts” – was so crucial to their politics?
A kinship of blood
The answer lies in the way Hindutva defines nationalism as jus sanguinis – right of blood– rather than other (more common) version that sees it as delineated by geography – jus soli, right of soil.
Originally Indian nationalism – as seen broadly by the Gandhian Congress – was one defined by geography. Anyone born within the borders of the British Indian Empire was Indian. Yet, outside the Congress stream, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva, based his nationalism on blood. A true Indian would be one who belonged to the faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhsim and Jainism. Any faith – notably Islam and Christianity – that came from outside was a lesser sort of Indian. It did not matter if the Muslim or Christian was born in India – in the Savarkarite scheme of things, not belonging to the right group was enough to debar him from full citizenship rights. Later, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the highly influential second chief of the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh, took this blood nationalism to its logical end, comparing India to Nazi Germany, where also nationality was defined by blood. Golwalkar claimed that the “purging the country [Germany] of the Semitic Races” was a “good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”.
How did Hindutva intellectually justify this special treatment for Hindus? It used first-come, first-served. Golwalkar claimed, “Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of this soil always from time immemorial”. This supposedly in situ development of Hindus meant they had the sole claims on India and johnny-come-latelies such as Muslims and Christians would have to be happy with second-class citizenship. So vehement was this theory that the RSS’ Adivasi schools even refuse to use that word, since it literally refers to an aboriginal inhabitant. Since Hindus are the aborigines of India, as per Hindutva, Adivasis are called vanvasi, Sanskrit for “forest dweller”.
Any theory of Indo-European migration, therefore, deals a body blow to the blood nationalism of Hindutva. The ideas that formed the Hindu religion also came into India just like Islam and Christianity. Sanskrit, it seems, was preceded by the Dravidian languages as well as the Munda tongues, now spoken only by Adivasis. So genetic studies – and earlier linguistic and archeological studies – which confirm Indo-European migration aren’t a dry academic exercise: they are vital to the intellectual underpinnings of Hindutva, the ideology of India’s ruling party. Without it, there is no way to justify that Hindus on the one hand and Muslims and Christians on the other, have differing claims on India. In fact, when leading Hindutva intellectual Koenraad Elst responded to Tony Joseph, one of Elst’s issues with the article was that it was “affirming that Muslims and Christians are equally entitled to whatever India has to offer” – a preposterous idea within Hindutva nationalism.
In response to this existential challenge, Hindutva is pulling out all stops to discredit academic work behind the theory of Indo-European migration. While the genetic evidence is just coming in, linguistic and archeological evidence has existed in favour of the Aryan Migration Theory for some time now. Hindutva, therefore, came up with the Out of India Theory, which posits that Indo-European languages spread throughout Eurasia from India – a theory with almost no academic backing and one that Michael Witzel (a professor for Sanskrit at Harvard University in the United States) called a “Hindutva fantasy”.
Hindutva’s version of Intelligent Design
In effect, the impact of evidence behind Indo-European migration on Hindutva is very similar to that seen by American evangelical Christianity to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Stephanie Jameson (Professor, Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles, United States) says, “the parallels between the Intelligent Design Issue and the Indo-Aryan Controversy are distressingly close” – both desperate measures to claw out of logical traps placed by science. Jameson calls the Out of India theory “essentially a religio-nationalistic [read: Hindutva] attack on a scholarly consensus [of Indo-European languages being bought to the subcontinent]”.
Michael Witzel also connects the claims for Out of India to today’s politics of othering Muslims and Christians:
An obvious goal is to display the “hoariness” and uniqueness of ancient-most Indian culture and its imagined importance for the rest of the world.
Against such a background, no cultural innovation and certainly no trickling in, immigration or “invasion” from the outside is allowed. Everything created by “Indian” civilisation for the past 9000 years or so, beginning with the early agriculturists of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan(!), has been local and no (major) influences from the outside can be tolerated. This, of course, would make it the oldest tradition on the planet: The Rig Veda, to recall Talageri’s [a prominant OoI supporter] words, “is the oldest and hoariest religious text of the oldest living religion in the world today: Hinduism.” Underlying these claims is the familiar Hindutva agenda that suggests that all non-Hindus are ultimately “foreign” peoples in India, and a blot on the body politic.
One culture (Vedic), one language (Sanskrit), one people: Bhårata ueber alles!
And, in spite of certain well-attested cultural influences (e.g. in astronomy!), of repeated immigrations and of actual invasions – from the Old Persians and Greeks to the Huns, Turks and Moghuls and the interaction and acculturation that all such political developments brought with them.
In other words, history is written with an ulterior motive in mind, that of “nation building.” Facts count little, dates nothing!
Corrections and Clarifications: An earlier version of this article had incorrectly attributed the quote by David Ski to Razib Khan. The article has been updated accordingly.