Opinion Columnists 23 Aug 2019 The truth about us I ...
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy

The truth about us Indians: Who are we, and why

Published Aug 23, 2019, 7:56 am IST
Updated Aug 23, 2019, 8:07 am IST
The only indigenous people in India are the Adivasis, who Nihar Ranjan Ray had described as ‘the original autochthonous people of India’.
There are scientific ways to discover who we are. Recent advances in genetics have made it possible to draw linkages between peoples of different regions. (Photo: Aneez Shaikh)
 There are scientific ways to discover who we are. Recent advances in genetics have made it possible to draw linkages between peoples of different regions. (Photo: Aneez Shaikh)

Following the new political reality of India, there is a resurgence in the politico-theological narrative of India being a nation mostly of indigenous people and its socio-cultural development being likewise entirely indigenous. Simultaneously, there is an attempt to link India’s mythology on a historical basis. By this, the Ramayan becomes a historical narrative rather than an allegory of a spiritual journey. These notions violently clash with scientific reason.

The only indigenous people in India are the Adivasis, who Nihar Ranjan Ray had described as “the original autochthonous people of India”. All the rest, be they Dravidian or Aryan, Hindu or Muslim, Rajput or Jat, are migrants, with as much or as little claim as the European settlers in the New World have to be known as Americans. It is true that the colonising people in the Americas have managed to forge a distinct new identity, just as the European Jew has managed to become the modern Israeli, and the world acknowledges them as that, but to believe them to be an indigenous people would be akin to the patently bogus Afrikaner claim to be an indigenous African people.

 

Quite clearly, both the Aryans and Dravidians were migrant races that travelled eastwards in search of pastures for their cattle and fertile land for agriculture. This is where we run into ideological problems with the ultra-nationalist and conservative Hindu gerontocracy that, like Gagabhatt did for Shivaji, are foisting a new genealogy upon our nation. The word out now is that we, the Indians of today, are an indigenous people. Nothing can be further from the truth.

There are scientific ways to discover who we are. Recent advances in genetics have made it possible to draw linkages between peoples of different regions. Studies here in India have not only confirmed that Nihar Ranjan Ray was right when he said that the Adivasi of Central India was the only real native of this country. A study by Dr Michael Bamshad, a geneticist at the University of Utah, published in the June 2001 edition of Genome Research, explicitly states that the ancestors of the modern upper caste Indian populations are genetically more similar to Europeans and lower caste populations are more similar to Asians. This was further validated by a study in Nature in September 2009 “Reconstructing Indian population history”, by David Reich, K. Thangaraj, N. Patterson, A.L. Price and Lalji Singh. The last-named was the director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, India’s leading genetic research centre.

The study analysed 25 diverse groups in India to provide strong evidence for two ancient populations, genetically divergent, that are ancestral to most Indians today. One, the “Ancestral North Indians” (ANI), is genetically close to Middle Easterners, Central Asians and Europeans, whereas the other, the “Ancestral South Indians” (ASI), is as distinct from ANI and East Asians as they are from each other. By introducing methods that can estimate ancestry without accurate ancestral populations, they showed that ANI ancestry ranges from 39-71 per cent in most Indian groups, and is higher in traditionally upper caste and Indo-European (Sanskrit derived) speakers.

Another study conducted by Andhra University scientists (B.B. Rao, M. Naidu, B.V.R. Prasad and others) has found the southern Indian to be quite distinct to the northern Indian, in terms of genetic makeup at least. That stands to reason considering that the varna composition in South India, which is weighted overwhelmingly in favour of the lower castes, is very different than that of North India, which has a more even spread of caste density.

Despite the divergent trails of genetic markers, Aryans and Dravidians may not be that far removed from each other. Linguists have for long been agreed that “English, Dutch, German, and Russian are each branches of the vast Indo-European language family”, which includes Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Baltic, Indo-Iranian and other languages — all descendants of more ancient languages like Greek, Latin and Sanskrit.

Digging down another level, linguists have reconstructed an earlier language from which the latter were derived. They call it “Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short”. Dr Alexis Manaster Ramer of Wayne State University in the United States digs even deeper and finds common roots between PIE and two other language groups — Uralic, which includes Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian; and Altaic, that includes Turkish and Mongolian. All these three groups, Dr Ramer argues, find their roots in an older language called Nostratic. If he is right then all Indian languages, Sanskritic or Dravidian, are descended from Nostratic, spoken about 12,000 years ago.

Dr Vitaly Shevoroshkin at the Institute of Linguistics in Moscow, and another Russian scholar, Dr Aaron Dogopolsky, now at the University of Haifa, did pioneering work in establishing the Nostratic language in the 1960s, and this today is the inspiration to younger linguists like Ramer. Incidentally the word “Nostratic” means “our language”. This study of language is really the study of the evolution of the human race after the advent of the anatomically modern human being, a relatively recent 120,000 years ago.

Language, as linguists see it, is more than just the heard word and the spoken, for we can even communicate with gestures and signs. According to Dr Derek Bickerton of the University of Hawaii: “The essence of language is words and syntax, each generated by a combinational system in the brain.”

Dr Asko Parpola, a prominent Finnish scholar, raises a fundamental question as to whether Sanskrit is a Dravidian language, and advances enough evidence to suggest that is just what it is. Other scholars have written on the similarities of words and syntax between the Dravidian languages, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu, and the Finno-Ugrian languages like Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian and the Lapp languages. While the modern versions of these Dravidian languages are considerably influenced by Sanskrit words, the old writings “do not contain a single Sanskrit word”. On the other hand, some scholars argue, a number of Dravidian “loan words” appear in the Rig Veda.

Not only Sanskrit but languages like Latin and Greek too have a number of loan words from Dravidian. For instance, the proto-Dravidian word for rice, arici, is similar to oryza in Latin and Greek, and ginger is inciver in Tamil while it is ingwer in German, and zinziberis in Greek. This lends much credence to the theory that the original Dravidians were of Mediterranean and Armenoid stock, who in the 4th millennium B.C. had settled in the Indus Valley to create one of the four early Old World state cultures along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China’s Yellow River civilisation.

The continued presence of a Dravidian language, Brahui, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, and still spoken by more than half a million people, further suggests that the Dravidians moved eastwards and southwards under Aryan pressure. The struggle between these two ancient races is captured vividly in the mythology of the ages which depicts a great struggle between the light-skinned devas and the dark-skinned asuras.

Whatever be its origins, it seems clear that the Sanskrit that emerged out of the Aryan Dravidian fusion was the language of a light-skinned elite, and was replaced by Persian, another Indo-European language of another light-skinned elite. In northern India, these languages of the elites combined with regional dialects to produce a patois called Hindawi, or Urdu.

Santosh Kumar Khare on the origin of Hindi in “Truth about Language in India” (EPW, December 14, 2002) writes: “The notion of Hindi and Urdu as two distinct languages crystallised at Fort William College in the first half of the 19th century.” He adds: “Their linguistic and literary repertoires were built up accordingly, Urdu borrowing from Persian/Arabic and Hindi from Sanskrit.” They came to represent the narrow competing interests of emergent middle class urban Hindu and Muslim/Kayasth groups.

But the real sting is in the conclusion, that “modern Hindi (or Khari boli) was an artificial construct of the East India Company which, while preserving the grammar and diction of Urdu, cleansed it of ‘foreign and rustic’ words and substituted them with Sanskrit synonyms.”

That makes for some interesting irony, for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the foremost protagonist of Hindi today, takes great pleasure in deriding English speakers in India as “Macaulay’s children”.

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