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
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.
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