Reinventing the DNA of history

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  • With its latest ambition, India treads on a dangerous path

While my parents’ families chose to migrate to Pakistan at the time of partition, many of our relatives stayed back in India and so did their later generations. Had I been born there, a conflicting theory about my existence would have been looming on me today. Being a Pakistani, my roots may just be a basis for classification. For many of my distant cousins in India, however, it is now a major source of worry.

For lovers of the subjects of history, culture and religion, it came as a rather shocking piece of news when Reuters reported last week about a committee appointed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi which aims ‘to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.’

The main objective is to establish a clear line of descent between the earliest inhabitants of the subcontinent and the Aryans, the race associated with Vedic culture. Until now, it has been widely accepted that they were invaders and not the original inhabitants of India. After presenting a series of theories and arguments, John Keay in his book India: A History traces the arrival of Aryans, the generic title of a distinct race of people, in India sometime between 1500 BC and 1300 BC. Their coming as migrants – ‘finer featured, fairer, taller and altogether a very superior people’ and the locals as ‘dark, flat nosed, uncouth, incomprehensible and generally inferior,’ is also recorded in the Vedas, texts constituting the oldest Sanskrit literature and scriptures of Hinduism.

But now many Indians, mainly Hindu nationalists, reject this ‘westernised’ version and are trying to find evidence that Hinduism and Sanskrit culture was not brought to India with Central Asian Aryan invasion about four millennia ago, but it was already prevalent in the region as early as 12,000 years back. They probably would like to believe that the Aryans and their ancestors left their homeland, i.e India early in history, took the Sanskrit culture with them to influence early European languages of Greek, Latin and Persian in Central Asia and returned to India some thousand years later as invaders, replacing the Indus Valley civilisation. They also believe that ‘ancestors of all people of Indian origin — including Muslims and Christians — were Hindu and that they must accept their common ancestry as part of Bharat Mata, or Mother India’. With this core belief, they want all Indians to accept Hinduism as their inherent culture. In short, ‘they want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus’.

Prominent Indian historian Romila Thapar told Reuters that the question of who first stood on the soil was important to nationalists because ‘if the Hindus are to have primacy as citizens in a Hindu Rashtra (kingdom), their foundational religion cannot be an imported one.’ To assert that primacy, nationalists need to claim descent from ancestors and a religion that were indigenous. This suggests that the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in the nation of 1.3 billion people — a kaleidoscope of religions.

The Indian nation includes 172 million Muslims and 29 million Christians, who naturally would be troubled by this latest ambition of the state. Many, like my Indian cousins, who know more as a fact rather than folk lore that their ancestors migrated to India during various periods of Muslim invasions, would be in a fix if asked to prove whether their genealogy is more South Asian rather than Middle Eastern. And what would be the consequences, if latter is the case? Such would be an issue with Christians having an Anglo-Indian background or Zoroastrians, who would prominently bear a Central Asian DNA, since they marry only within their community. Rightfully, those belonging to religions other than Hinduism in India would feel marginalised, fearing mockery of their mixed heritage or not privileged of having a millenniums old ancestry.

Even in the case of the Hindu population, ‘whose DNA-evidence may align with the idea that the ancestors of most Indians have been in the subcontinent for at least past 10,000 years, linguistic and genetic evidence would paint a much more complex history. Because India has been invaded so many times during recorded history, it would be ridiculous to assume that there is not at least some minor genetic imprint from other parts of the world’.

The debate prompted Akhilesh Pillalamarri, an international relations analyst, editor, and writer from India to undergo an ancestry test. It revealed that ‘despite being almost 99 percent South Asian over the past 300 years, I have both a full-blooded English and a full-blooded Yakut (Turkic people living in Siberia) ancestor from the 1700s’, writes Pillalamarri in the Diplomat.

But unperturbed, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s ruling party BJP’s ideological mentor, is on a mission, which is to bring out saffron as ‘the true colour of Indian history.’ It is also believed that this ‘Hindu first’ version of Indian history will be added to a school curriculum which has long taught that people from central Asia arrived in India much more recently, some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and transformed the population. It may not be presumptuous to expect that if Modi’s government, by some means, is successful to prove its point, it would later go on to lure the world to believe that India was the cradle of all civilisations and that the nation and its religion, Hinduism have far reaching impact than the subcontinent. Through its colourful traditions, rituals, aesthetic and spiritual background, India has already successfully marketed its Hindu culture globally since its inception. Now with easier means of communications, it would be little effort on its part to wrap its message in the garb of peace and globalisation.

Until recently, India has arguably maintained its position as a secular and democratic nation, thriving on its diverse, multi ethnic and linguistic background. But now its actions are in direct conflict of the philosophy on which lay the foundations of this country. Earlier, there were incidents by vigilantes. Then the iconic Taj Mahal came briefly under a dispute, when it was said not to be representing Indian culture. There has already been mention of curbing the discussion on the Mughals from history textbooks, despite ample display of Mughal architecture and heritage in Indian culture. But while rewriting history maybe a shameless act, deplorably practised in India’s neighbours as well, attempting to rewrite genealogy could be considered a crime. It would widen the conflicts within the country and across its borders. A nation’s legacy and its past would merely become a collection of stories in a continuous process of creation and recreation.