THE OR­A­CLE BONES

While ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions since 1963 have iden­ti­fied Rakhi­garhi as a sig­nif­i­cant ur­ban set­tle­ment of the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion, it was only re­cently that new ad­vances in ge­netic anal­y­sis made it pos­si­ble to ex­tract vi­able sam­ples of DNA from th

India Today - - RAKHIGARHI - Graphic by Ni­lan­jan Das

host of the Euro­genes blog—well re­garded by some of the world’s lead­ing ge­neti­cists as a go-to site for the lat­est de­bate. Wesolowski’s site wit­nessed fre­quent ar­gu­ments over the like­li­hood that Rakhi­garhi DNA would turn up the R1a1 marker. Here, ex­tended and nu­anced dis­cus­sions of the finer points of molec­u­lar ev­i­dence would of­ten con­clude with kiss-offs along the lines of “you’re an id­iot” or “you’re go­ing to need psy­chi­atric help when the re­sults are out”. In the event, Wesolowski’s own pre­dic­tion, “Ex­pect no R1a in Harappa but a lot of ASI [An­ces­tral South In­dian]”, would prove to be spot on.

Be­hind the surly in­vec­tive and the jour­nal­is­tic mis­di­rec­tion were ru­mours and whis­pers of a face­off be­tween a ris­ing tide of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence and the po­lit­i­cal pres­sures of na­tivist, Hin­dutva sen­ti­ments. The saga of ‘Hin­dutvist his­tory’ is by now another fa­mil­iar tale, with its ori­gins in early Hindu na­tion­al­ist re­ac­tion to colo­nial ar­chae­ol­ogy and lin­guis­tics, a mono­ma­ni­a­cal ob­ses­sion with re­fut­ing the ‘Aryan in­va­sion the­ory’. It is per­haps most clearly ex­pressed in an irate pas­sage from for­mer RSS sarsanghch­a­lak M.S. Gol­walkar’s screed Bunch of Thoughts (1966): “It was the wily for­eigner, the Bri­tisher, who…car­ried on the in­sid­i­ous pro­pa­ganda that we were never one na­tion, that we were never the chil­dren of the soil but mere up­starts hav­ing no bet­ter claim than the for­eign hordes of Mus­lims or the Bri­tish over this coun­try.”

In re­cent years, this re­sent­ful im­pulse has fo­cused par­tic­u­larly in­tently on as­sert­ing the wish­ful con­clu­sion that the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion it­self must be ‘Vedic’. This has un­der­stand­ably gained trac­tion in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion in tan­dem with the po­lit­i­cal rise of Hin­dutva. In 2013, Amish Tri­pathi, a best­selling au­thor of ‘Hin­duis­ti­cal fan­tasy’ nov­els, gave vent to the keen­ing de­sire for a ‘Vedic IVC’ in a short fic­tion in which fu­ture ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­cover clinch­ing ev­i­dence “that the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion and the Vedic—er­ro­neously called Aryan—civil­i­sa­tion were one and the same.” The story is poignantly ti­tled, ‘Sci­ence Val­i­dates Vedic His­tory’.

In­evitably, the ad­vent of a BJP ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment in the gen­eral elec­tions of 2014 has given new en­ergy—and fund­ing—to the self-grat­i­fy­ing urges of Hin­dutvist his­tory. The charge has been led by the Union min­is­ter for cul­ture Ma­hesh Sharma, who has pri­ori­tised the pro­ject of ‘rewrit­ing In­dian his­tory’, whether by ap­point­ing a pli­ant ob­scu­ran­tist as head of the In­dian Coun­cil of His­tor­i­cal Re­search or pro­mot­ing the ‘re­search’ of para-sci­en­tific out­fits such as I-SERVE (In­sti­tute of Sci­en­tific Re­search on Vedas) and a for­mer cus­toms of­fi­cer who uses hobby as­tron­omy soft­ware to es­tab­lish that “thus Shri Ram was born on 10th Jan­uary in 5114 BC...around 12 to 1 noon­time [in Ay­o­d­hya]”. In March this year a Reuters re­port re­vealed de­tails of a meet­ing of a ‘his­tory com­mit­tee’ con­vened by Sharma at the of­fice of the Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of In­dia in Jan­uary 2017. Its task, ac­cord­ing to the com­mit­tee chair­man K.N. Dixit, was “to present a re­port that will help the gov­ern­ment re­write cer­tain as­pects of an­cient his­tory”. The min­utes of the meet­ing ap­par­ently “set out its 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”.

Yet, if the ‘rewrit­ing of In­dian his­tory’ was lurch­ing ahead on the Hin­dutva fringe of academia, main­stream sci­ence was steadily ad­vanc­ing in quite another di­rec­tion. In March this year, the Har­vard pop­u­la­tion ge­neti­cist David Re­ich pub­lished an over­view of the state of re­search in his field, the sur­prise best­seller Who We Are and How We Got Here, in­clud­ing an ac­count of how the ex­treme sen­si­tiv­ity of lead­ing In­dian sci­en­tists about ear­lier ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing an an­cient mi­gra­tion of Eurasian peo­ple from the North­west into the sub­con­ti­nent had nearly scup­pered an im­por­tant sci­en­tific col­lab­o­ra­tion in 2008. The In­dian sci­en­tists Lalji Singh and K. Thangaraj “im­plied that the

sug­ges­tion of a mi­gra­tion…would be po­lit­i­cally ex­plo­sive”, Re­ich writes. The is­sue was ul­ti­mately re­solved by means of a ter­mi­no­log­i­cal sleight-of-hand—us­ing the nomen­cla­ture ‘An­ces­tral South In­dian’ (ASI) and ‘An­ces­tral North In­dian’ (ANI) to ob­scure the rev­e­la­tion that ANI rep­re­sented a pop­u­la­tion with a sig­nif­i­cant ge­netic con­tri­bu­tion from out­side the sub­con­ti­nent. But the same dy­namic ap­pears to have emerged this year around a pa­per in­volv­ing both Re­ich and his team at Har­vard on the one hand and the sci­en­tists lead­ing the Rakhi­garhi pro­ject on the other. En­ti­tled, rather flatly, The Ge­nomic For­ma­tion of South and Cen­tral Asia, this pa­per (usu­ally re­ferred to by the short­hand ‘M Narasimhan et al’)—made pub­lic as a ‘pre print’ in April—would make head­lines in the In­dian press and so­cial me­dia and re­veal some more of the po­lit­i­cal pres­sures that

IF THE ‘REWRIT­ING OF IN­DIAN HIS­TORY’ WAS LURCH­ING AHEAD ON THE HIN­DUTVA FRINGE OF ACADEMIA, SCI­ENCE WAS STEADILY AD­VANC­ING IN ANOTHER DI­REC­TION

colour re­search on an­cient In­dian his­tory to­day. Shinde said that he had com­plained to Re­ich about an ear­lier draft of that pa­per, and in­sisted that any ref­er­ence to ‘mi­gra­tions’ into South Asia be avoided. Or else. He sug­gested the more am­biva­lent term ‘in­ter­ac­tion’ be used in­stead. Given that Shinde con­trolled ac­cess to the Rakhi­garhi sam­ples which Re­ich was keen to work on, this would have been a po­tent threat, and in­deed the pa­per man­ages to es­chew the term ‘mi­gra­tion’ en­tirely while ul­ti­mately mak­ing more po­tent state­ments about the im­pact of post-Harap­pan ‘Mid­dle to Late Bronze Age’ (MLBA) Steppe pop­u­la­tions on the In­dian gene pool. How­ever, the tim­ing of the pa­per re­mains cu­ri­ous to say the least, given that it would have ben­e­fit­ted from the Rakhi­garhi data which it seemed to pre-empt—de­spite the fact that sev­eral of its co-au­thors, in­clud­ing Rai, Shinde, Thangaraj, Narasimhan and Re­ich now share credit for the mys­te­ri­ously de­layed pa­per.

The of­fi­cial word on this was that the Rakhi­garhi re­search was be­hind sched­ule due to the ‘con­tam­i­na­tion of one sam­ple’, but at the time the ge­neti­cist com­mu­nity was abuzz with ru­mours that the slow­down was be­cause of the In­dian team’s dis­com­fort with po­lit­i­cally in­con­ve­nient re­sults. Ac­cord­ing to one US-based re­searcher, who prefers to re­main anony­mous, “It was com­mon knowl­edge through the grapevine that the Har­vard team be­came im­pa­tient and even­tu­ally pushed to re­lease their pre­print be­fore In­dian col­leagues were to­tally com­fort­able. Some sam­ples [read ‘Rakhi­garhi’] were re­moved be­cause of dis­agree­ments be­tween col­lab­o­ra­tors.”

In more re­cent con­ver­sa­tions with this writer, Shinde seemed in­tent on dis­sem­bling the re­sults of his team’s pa­per, of­fer­ing that the re­sults showed that Rakhi­garhi’s in­hab­i­tants were “just like the lo­cals…with some con­tact with South In­dian trib­als”. Pe­cu­liarly, in a re­cent mag­a­zine in­ter­view, Shinde is con­vinced that the an­cient peo­ple of Rakhi­garhi were “tall and sharp-fea­tured like the mod­ern Haryan­vis”, lead­ing the jour­nal­ist to la­bel Wazir Chand Saroae, a prom­i­nent lo­cal his­to­rian of Rakhi­garhi and a self-iden­ti­fied Dalit, as a ‘Sirohi Jat’.

How­ever, Shinde is no ge­neti­cist, and from what we now know, the Rakhi­garhi study en­dorses the find­ings of the Narasimhan pa­per—in­deed, it can be seen as a com­pan­ion piece to that ear­lier work of the com­mon au­thors. Sig­nif­i­cantly, while Narasimhan and oth­ers pre­dicted a model of the Harap­pan genome us­ing sam­ples of DNA from an­cient skele­tons of ap­par­ent In­dus Val­ley ‘visi­tors’ found in sites that were in trad­ing con­tact with the Harappans, as well as re­mains of post-Harap­pan (1200-BC-1 CE) in­di­vid­u­als from Swat, the Rakhi­garhi pa­per sug­gests that this model was ac­cu­rate. It rec­om­mends that the Narasimhan pa­per’s ten­ta­tive la­bel of ‘In­dus Val­ley pe­riph­ery’ for this model is a sig­nif­i­cant match for I4411 of Rakhi­garhi and this ge­netic clus­ter should now be recog­nised as the ‘Harap­pan cline’. It’s Still Com­pli­cated As the re­sults of the Rakhi­garhi study leak steadily into the pub­lic do­main, a po­lit­i­cal back­lash seems in­evitable—and largely pre­dictable: some ex­ul­ta­tion from Dra­vid­i­an­ists and the le­gion of anti-Hin­dutva In­di­ans for many of whom the fall of Delhi in the 2014 elec­tion is seen as a calami­tous re­play of that fa­bled ‘Vedic Aryan in­va­sion’. And we can ex­pect sullen scep­ti­cism from the saf­fron right. In­trigu­ingly, some of the strong­est reser­va­tions about the Rakhi­garhi pro­ject have al­ready been ex­pressed from an un­ex­pected quar­ter: es­tab­lished his­to­ri­ans. Romila Thapar, al­ways a name to reckon with in an­cient In­dian his­tory and a peren­nial tar­get of Hin­dutva polemic, has fol­lowed the ge­net­ics story keenly, but ex­pressed her reser­va­tions about this new sci­ence. As it turns out, the Rakhi­garhi re­search was not without glitches—ap­par­ently, a mis­lead­ing ‘East Asian’ sig­nal in the early data is the rea­son why the Korean sci­en­tists who first worked on the sam­ples may not be cred­ited in the fi­nal pa­per. Mean­while, another re­spected his­to­rian, Nayan­jot Lahiri, de­clared com­plete dis­in­ter­est in the work on ‘Harap­pan DNA’, voic­ing im­pa­tience at the ob­ses­sion with the ‘Aryan’ ques­tion and scep­ti­cism about the nar­row sam­pling of an­cient ge­netic ma­te­rial. “As far as the whole ques­tion of Aryans and the Vedic com­po­nent in the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion goes, un­til the Harap­pan script is de­ci­phered, it’s not de­cided,” she says.

While such re­sponses may be un­duly harsh—even small ge­netic sam­ples can re­veal con­sid­er­able de­mo­graphic depth and ge­neti­cists are in any case ex­pand­ing the range of sam­ples at an im­pres­sive rate—some cold wa­ter is not amiss. Cer­tainly any tri­umphal­ism or de-

spair on the ba­sis of the emerg­ing ge­netic pro­file of the ‘Harap­pan In­di­ans’ would be mis­placed. While the ev­i­dence does point con­vinc­ingly to the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion be­ing a dis­tinct pop­u­la­tion from the ‘post-Vedic’ pop­u­la­tion in­fused with MLBA Steppe genes that stamp In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion to this day, it’s also the case that the IVC pop­u­la­tion rep­re­sents “the sin­gle most im­por­tant source of ances­try in South Asia” to­day (as the Narasimhan pa­per puts it). Sim­i­larly, any im­pulse to equate the ap­par­ent Dra­vid­ian affini­ties of an­cient In­dus Val­ley peo­ple with the cul­ture and peo­ple of South In­dia to­day or to cast the lat­ter as the ‘orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants’ of the sub­con­ti­nent would be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Quite apart from the fact that the peo­ple and cul­tures across the sub­con­ti­nent to­day dis­play ev­i­dence of hav­ing mixed with each other (and pop­u­la­tions be­yond the bor­ders of present day In­dia) over mil­len­nia, there is also no pop­u­la­tion in the re­gion that can claim to rep­re­sent a ‘pure’ lin­eage of an­cient In­di­ans. Not even the Irula or any other South In­dian or ‘Adi­vasi’ group. Nor should the ev­i­dence of the deeply in­ter­twined ge­netic his­tory of In­dian com­mu­ni­ties lull any­one into a cosy fa­ble of Indic cos­mopoli­tanism. What our DNA tells us in­stead is that while In­dia wit­nessed phases of ex­ten­sive ge­netic mix­ing for a mil­len­nium after the col­lapse of the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion, this was fol­lowed by a long pe­riod of deep en­dogamy—which has been a uniquely un­healthy stamp of the sub­con­ti­nent. Re­ich summed it up in his re­cent book: “Peo­ple tend to think of In­dia, with its more than 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple, as hav­ing a tremen­dously large pop­u­la­tion… But ge­net­i­cally, this is an in­cor­rect way to view the sit­u­a­tion. The Han Chi­nese are truly a large pop­u­la­tion. They have been mix­ing freely for thou­sands of years… The truth is that In­dia is com­posed of a large num­ber of small pop­u­la­tions.”

If this sounds com­pli­cated, that’s be­cause it is. And the more we dis­cover about In­dia’s past, the more com­pli­cated it is likely to be­come. One of the more in­trigu­ing asides in the Rakhi­garhi study, is a sug­ges­tion that while the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion pop­u­la­tion was ev­i­dently multi-eth­nic, a per­sis­tent ge­netic ‘sub­struc­ture’ also in­di­cates that the Harap­pan civil­i­sa­tion may have been char­ac­terised by ‘high within-group en­dogamy’.

Such teasers in­di­cate that there is still much work to be done; they are re­minders not to jump to con­clu­sions or pro­ject mod­ern fan­tasies onto an an­cient civil­i­sa­tion we still know so lit­tle about. In truth, this has been a pathol­ogy of the ‘lib­eral’ imag­i­na­tion in In­dia as much as it has been of the ‘Hin­dutvist’. In that foun­da­tional text of In­dian na­tion­al­ism, The Dis­cov­ery of In­dia, Jawa­har­lal Nehru could not re­sist a mo­ment of sec­u­lar­ist rap­ture when he first set eyes on Mo­henjo-Daro. “What was the se­cret of this strength? Where did it come from?” he won­dered. “It was, sur­pris­ingly enough, a pre­dom­i­nantly sec­u­lar civil­i­sa­tion, and the re­li­gious el­e­ment, though present, did not dom­i­nate the scene.”

At the end of the day, Nehru’s vi­sion too is a mod­ern na­tion­al­ist fan­tasy. In the years to come, we are cer­tain to dis­cover much more about the en­dur­ingly mys­te­ri­ous civil­i­sa­tion of the Harappans and what el­e­ments of cul­ture and so­cial be­hav­iour they be­queathed us—along with their genes. For now, mirac­u­lously, their ears are speak­ing. We would do well to lis­ten for a while.

Graphic by TANMOY CHAKRABORT­Y

An­ces­tral North In­di­ans An­ces­tral South In­di­ans In­dian hunter-gath­er­ers

EAl­tai Mts ASIA TARIM BASIN Pamir Mts KUSH r e n I HINDU HI­MALAYA 2000-1500 BCEEGanges Harappa Ara­bian Sea

UN­EARTHING AN­CIENT ORI­GINS The re­searchers took ex­tra care to re­duce sam­ple con­tam­i­na­tion to the min­i­mum

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