Several scientists, historians, writers, former bureaucrats and others on Friday wrote to the Ministry of Culture to express concern over a report claiming that the ministry was funding a project to “trace the purity of races in India”.
In the open letter, the signatories said that the notion of tracing the “purity of races, whether in India or elsewhere, is extremely worrisome”.
“A plan to do so would be both absurd and dangerous,” the letter, signed by 122 persons, said. “It is absurd because the concept of biological races was discarded long ago.”
The signatories include geneticist and statistician Partha P Majumder, biologists Amitabh Joshi, LS Shashidhara, Satyajit Mayor, Raghavendra Gadagkar, historians Romila Thapar and Ramchandra Guha, among others.
The letter came two weeks after a media report had claimed that the culture ministry was in the process to acquire DNA profiling kits and related machines to establish “the genetic history and trace the purity of races in India”.
The report had said that the project involved the Anthropological Survey of India, some scientists and scholars of the Lucknow-based Birbal Sahani Institute of Paleosciences and archaeologist Vasant Shinde. The project had begun in 2019, according to the media report.
“We want to see how mutation and mixing of genes in the Indian population have happened in the last 10,000 years,” the report had quoted Shinde as saying. “...You may even say that this will be an effort to trace the purity of races in India.”
However, on May 31, the Ministry of Culture said that the report was misleading.
“The proposal is not related to establishing genetic history and ‘trace the purity of races in India’ as alluded in the article,” the ministry said in a tweet.
On June 2, Shinde, too, refuted the report saying that his statements were twisted and fabricated. He criticised the use of the term “racial purity” in the media report.
“It is a known fact that no race on the earth is pure due to people’s movements and mingling,” Shinde wrote.
In their letter, the signatories welcomed the response by the culture ministry and Shinde regarding the media report.
“We think that all concerned should issue public disavowals of any present or future project related to race, especially one for studying racial purity,” the signatories said in the letter.
They said that the term “race” was invented as part of an effort to classify humans into distinct groups based on physical features such as bone structure and skin colour and social characteristics such as faith and religion.
The signatories said that the idea of “purity,” besides being meaningless, implies that some groups are less or more pure than others.
“Human history is replete with examples of horrible injustice meted out to ‘less pure’ groups by ‘more pure’ groups,” the signatories wrote. “Racial stereotyping of humans has been discarded, and there should be no attempt to revive the concept in India.”
They added: “What else is expected to result from the project under consideration of the Ministry of Culture, we do not know. But if it touches on questions of ‘racial purity’, one guaranteed outcome will be the exacerbation of disharmony among Indians.”