Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

‘In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections; in a monarchy, you lose your head’. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has gone through many changes. Absolute monarchies are not easy to decipher. There are many opacities and it is very difficult for any outside observer to have a real sense of events. Two main factors are very limited expression by Saudis in their own country and opaque decision making process in the form of decrees with flavor of palace intrigue. A Saudi will not express his honest view in the presence of another Saudi due to fear factor. In view of these limitations, the perspective of an outsider has severe limitations.

Current system of governance of the country is based on accession to throne of one of the sons of the founder of the country Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman al-Saud (d. 1953). He works with other family members especially senior princes, Council of Ministers (most of whom are also royal family members) and Council of Senior Clerics in running day to day affairs of the country. There is a fair amount of competition among all these groups about various issues and King carefully balances his act to avoid open conflict.

Continue reading “Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family”

The Indo-Aryan question nearing resolution

India Today published my review of the current state of the genetics and genomics of the Indian subcontinent, and what it can tell us about the ethnogenesis of South Asians generally. In the piece I tried to be very circumspect and stick to what we know with a high, if not perfect, degree of certainty. Here I will add some comments where I reduce the threshold of certainty somewhat. That is, I’m going to include here my beliefs where I think I’m right, but in some details wouldn’t be surprised if I was wrong.

First, the title is Aryan wars: Controversy over new study claiming they came from the west 4,000 years ago. Writers don’t get to choose titles, and this is not one I would have chosen. But I am not in a position to care or know what draws clicks. Let’s note that this “controversy” is restricted mostly to India. Outside of India it’s not controversial, but a matter of the science, because people don’t have any political or social investment in the topic. It reminds me of debates about genetics and intelligence in the West, where emotions get overwrought and lies fly wildly with abandon.*

Second, there is a reference in the figures to an “Out of India” (OIT)  model. That is, the Aryans migrated out of India, and implicitly the Indo-European languages derive from South Asia. I don’t think this theory has any support at all. That is, I think it is rather clear that proto-Indo-European probably emerged neither in Europe proper, nor in South Asia, but in the Inner Eurasian spaces between. But for an Indian audience ignoring OIT would seem a peculiar lacunae, so there was a reference added to the figure on that account (I pushed back against this, but do not make ultimate decisions on figures).

But I do think it was plausible up until 2009’s Reconstructing Indian History to suggest that most modern South Asian ancestry dates to the Pleistocene. In this framework the Indo-Europeanization of the subcontinent was primarily a cultural one, where small groups of Central Asians imposed their language on the native population. What the genome-wide work has shown is that South Asians are the product of a large-scale mixing process between a population very distant from West Eurasians (“Ancestral South Indians”, ASI) and a population which was indistinguishable from other West Eurasians (“Ancestral North Indians”, ANI).

Since ANI is indistinguishable from West Eurasians I hold it is clearly a West Eurasian population in provenance. Those who reject this position from a scientific perspective believe that there could have been some sort continuous zone of “ANI-like” habitation from northwestern South Asia up into northern Inner Eurasia (and perhaps toward West Asia as well) dating from the late Pleistocene. I do not that believe this is plausible, and I will tell you that prominent researchers who I have brought up this idea to are somewhat incredulous.**

Third, there are major unresolved issues genetically in relation to the dates and the total number of mixing populations. I am quite confident saying around half of the total South Asian genomic ancestry today derives from populations who were living outside of South Asia on the Holocene-Pleistocene boundary 11,700 years ago. Much of that ancestry probably flourished between the Caucasus and Zagros mountains. The remainder somewhere in the vast swath of territory between the Baltic and Siberia (perhaps further south, toward the Pamirs?).

But I am not confident of the relative balances of contribution to the ANI. It does seem that the northern component, which is derived in part from the southern component, is much more prominent in upper castes and northwestern populations. In contrast the southern component is found throughout the subcontinent.

In Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the Near East there is analysis of South Asia in the supplements. The author concludes that ANI can not be modeled as a single population (Zack Ajmal and I were saying this in 2010). The top hits for the sources of ANI tend to be the genomic sample from the Zagros, in western Iran (before subsequent admixture with Levantine farmers), and a population similar to the Yamna culture of the steppe. The issue seems to be that later steppe populations which harbor a fair amount of “Early European Farmer” ancestry (e.g., LBK in Central Europe) due likely to back migration aren’t good model fits.

Below are two plots, one showing a scatter of South Asian groups with their Iran_N (a sample from ~10,000 years ago) vs. Yamna (from ~5,000 years ago), and another with the ratios.


DO NOT TAKE THE PROPORTIONS LITERALLY.  My intuition is that these models are overestimating the proportion of steppe ancestry, but my confidence in my intuition is low.

There are two groups enriched for Iran_N ancestry:

  1. Lower caste groups, especially from South India.
  2. Populations in southern Pakistan.

The reasons differ. If you have done genetic analysis of the Pakistani populations it seems quite obvious that unlike other groups in South Asia Pakistani groups facing the Arabian sea across from Oman have genuine Near Eastern ancestry. This affinity declines as you go north in Pakistan rather rapidly. Notice though one South Indian group: Jews from Cochin. This population clearly has recent Near Eastern ancestry.

The Kharia are an Austro-Asiatic Munda group. For whatever reason Austro-Asiatic groups seem to consistently have very little steppe ancestry. The Mala are Dalits from South India. The further up you go on the modal Iran_N-Yamna cline you see the populations are either upper caste, or, they are from the far northwest of the subcontinent.

The conclusion I derive from this is that first there was an early migration of West Eurasian populations consisting of Iranian farmers. This group mixed with the ASI element. The Indo-Aryans, which probably correlates with the Yamna-like component, arrived later as an overlay (and nearly half of their ancestry was derived from Iranian farmers). Then many South Asian populations have modifications on this base model of compound ANI + ASI; Munda and Bengali have later East Asian ancestry, while populations on the Arabian sea have Near Eastern ancestry.

Fourth, the story in India Today leans heavily on Y chromosome of R1a1a lineage. It is true we are Lords of the Steppe and destined to drive our enemies before us. But, it is not the primary story. And yet Y chromosomal phylogenies are easy for the public to understand. But they only make sense in light of the above framework. R1a1a is found in South Indian tribal populations. It seems likely that Indo-Aryan paternal lineages were highly invasive across the subcontinent, just as they were in Europe. In many cases they likely extended far beyond domains where Indo-European acculturation occurred.

I’m probably wrong on some of the details. But I suspect the final story will not be so different from this.

Finally, I will mention the cultural element here. There is a fair amount of the discussion of the form “so you are saying the ancestors of Indians are Europeans?” or “does this mean Hinduism is not Indian?”

The piece was about genetics and demography, not my opinions about culture. So I will say this:

  1. The “West” as an entity is no older that Classical Greece. 500 BC. My own personal position, strongly held, is that the West should indicate cultures and societies which descend from the European societies which adhered to the Western Church around ~1000 AD (some nations, like Lithuania, became absorbed into this cultural complex hundreds of years later). So Russia is not the West. And Merovingian Francia is not the West.
  2. Indian civilization of what we term the Hindu variety coalesced in the period between between 500 BC and 500 AD, from before the Mauryas, up to the Guptas. Obviously the period before 1000 BC was important in setting the ground-work, but I do not believe it was Indian as we’d understand it in anything but the geographical sense, nor was it Hindu in any way we’d recognize it today (similarly, Shang dynasty China was not China as we’d understand, which came into being after 500 BC).

These positions mean that I think nationalist passions are in the “not even wrong” category. Indian Hindu civilization is indigenous by definition, since it was synthesized in situ on the edge of historical perception and attestation (for the record, I think Adi Shankara was critical in the completion of a crystalized self-conception of Hindu religio-philosophical thought, but its origins predate him). Similarly, Indian civilization was not seeded by white Europeans because white Europeans were only coming into being in Europe when the Indus Valley civilization was collapsing.

That is all (for now).

Addendum: The first tranche of ancient DNA should be out in a few months. Also, there is another paper on Indian genetics in the work from the usual suspects. There won’t be anything totally surprising (or so I’ve been told).

* By lies, I mean the contention that intelligence is an “invalid” instrument in relation to predictiveness, or, if it is valid, it is not genetically heritable. People routinely lie about these facts in discussion or spread lies because there are socially preferred positions which they conform to. Similarly, many questions about Indian history seem to hinge on widely promoted lies.

** This model needs to also confront the massive mixing of the last 4,000 years. If it is true then it is ASI which is mostly likely intrusive, because it is not creditable that these two populations were in nearby proximity for tens of thousands of years without exchanging genes.

Partition stories; a pair of beds in Jehlum

I happened to see a tweet about a museum of objects related to partition

and it reminded me of a story I heard about a particular pair of objects, two old-style massive beds (palang) in a house in Jehlum. Since I doubt that this story has been published anywhere, I thought of putting it down here for posterity:

Continue reading “Partition stories; a pair of beds in Jehlum”

Objectives Resolution: Logical Culmination or Building Block?

The creation of Pakistan was a culmination of the ‘Indian Muslim National Project’ that was started by Muslim Elites primarily based in UP. It was bound to be a country where religion took center stage in the political arena. Led by a charismatic, populist British lawyer, All India Muslim League was a hotchpotch of landed gentry and titled aristocracy. The Second World War paved the way for an early exit by the British and handed a historic chance to Indian leaders to decide their destiny. It is difficult to predict if a ‘United India’ would have survived for some time in the absence of British interlocutors since fratricide and ethnic cleansing in Potohar had started much before the actual partition. The Muslim Elite (Ashraf) that founded Pakistan decided that the country would be an ideological state, the ideology was chosen to be Islam. Not because the elite overwhelmingly consisted of Islamists (with a few exceptions) but because religion is an easy way to manipulate people. The Khilafat movement had provided a glimpse of what mixing religion and politics could achieve and Muslim Leaguers were well-aware of its power, which is why they used the ‘Islam in Danger’ card during the 1945 election.

Continue reading “Objectives Resolution: Logical Culmination or Building Block?”

The Man on Mao’s Right..

The Man on Mao’s Right” is the memoir of Ji Chaozhu, a Chinese diplomat who worked as an interpreter for several decades before being promoted to more substantive positions, ending his career as China’s ambassador to Great Britain and a stint as undersecretary general of the UN. His personal story in intertwined with many important events in modern Chinese history, from the Japanese invasion and a peripheral role in the communist’s rise to power (his older brother was a confidant of Zhu Enlai and more or less a Chinese communist agent in the United States), to the Korean war, the early decades of Chinese communism, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Gang of Four and the rise of post-Maoist China under Deng Xiaoping.

Ji went to school in Manhattan and was a scholarship student at Harvard before most of the family moved back to China to help Chairman Mao build the new China. He is a Chinese patriot and a thoroughgoing Confucian Mandarin at heart, who managed to retain these ideals through decades of purges and ideological twists and turns in China, so he is not inclined to kick up controversy and cross the party’s red lines even in his old age. The memoir seems honest and frank enough when it comes to his personal life, but the politics and political commentary are filtered through a lifetime of extreme care and awareness of what words can mean and what limits are to be kept in mind. He may have exactly these beliefs and attitudes, or he may think these are the beliefs and attitudes he considers safe to share. Either way, opinions that the CCP now considers safe are freely shared, those that could upset the CCP apparently never entered Ji’s head. That’s just how it is in this book.

Continue reading “The Man on Mao’s Right..”

What’s the fuss about dog meat?

Fellow blogger Omar Ali’s recent post on the perils of Orientalism uses the example of an Orientalist’s apologia for the rather uncharitable views on dogs (as filthy animals etc) prevalent in Muslim societies. The Yale professor in question concludes thus:

Knowing this past not only gives us a fuller picture of the most ubiquitous nonhuman animal we welcome in our midst, but it also helps us to understand how our histories with other animals have shaped our current world.

which got me thinking about how parochial the world-view of some Westerners can be.

The lychee and dog-meat festival in the Southern Chinese city of Yulin went ahead as planned last month, in spite of all the brouhaha and rumours of a ban on social and news media both within and especially outside China. The sheer lack of compunction that characterises the Chinese regime is rather well known, so I am not surprised in the least. However, the unease of Western commentators at this Chinese practice is quite obvious and surprising coming from a culture that considers anything from sheep to horses rather kosher. Consider this piece in the latest Economist issue that I read just yesterday on my commute home, which ascribes the popularity of the event to criminality and treats trade in dog-meat at par with drug trafficking!

The “animal love” that is rather partial to the members of the Canis family is a deep-seated Western fad, rather akin to the cow-craze in India. I recall a conversation with a potential (elderly English) landlady many years ago in London, who asked me if I hated dogs. I said I didn’t and added that I’m indifferent to them. That was enough to visibly rile her up! She could fathom people disliking dogs (or liking them, as she obviously did) but an expression of indifference to such “ubiquitous nonhuman animal” was absolutely beyond her tolerance. I can only imagine how she’d have responded if a Chinese tenant in my place had innocently let slip that he found dogs tasty 🙂

I am not quite sure why the dog is such a holy cow for Western (or Westernized) animal lovers. Is it more of a mammal than a cow, or a goat, or a pig? I can understand Indian (including Hindu) aversion to the idea of eating dogs, which takes after the unclean status of dogs in the Islamic world. The same holds for Hindu aversion to pigs too – again an internalised Islamic fad – with a clear religious pathology behind it. But it is hard for me to comprehend how a Brit or an Italian could gobble up finely minced offal cuts of a pig (raised and slaughtered for its meat) packed in the entrails of that very animal for breakfast and yet find the idea of dog steak on a plate emetic.

A dog isn’t anymore angelic than a pig and, who knows, probably dogs taste better. I don’t think the Chinese (or indeed anyone else) should limit their gastronomic repertoire just because some Westerners find it off-putting. If the animal-lovers are doing it out of a genuine moral duty, isn’t saving the poor cows of this world from the abattoir an equally noble endeavour? If so, they ought to be supporting Indian beef-bans too (akin to the ban on commercial sale and consumption of dog meat in the US and various European countries), i.e. unless they do not mind being called specieists. Knee-jerk reactions on dog-meat are reminiscent of the loony Hindutva fringe, who are wont to get their knickers in a twist every time someone mentions the b-word. To their credit though, caninophiles haven’t lynched a Chinese person, at least not yet.

My advice to all the caninophiles of the world: like any other domesticated animal, your pet’s species is edible too .. get over it! Now how about some Dalmatian kebab with lychees?

Brexit: the oxymoronic democratic referendum

Being a foreign-born Londoner and one who has sold his soul to the big bad world of finance, the momentous decision of the British electorate to leave the EU has personal resonance. Therefore, I have been meaning to pen my thoughts on Brexit for some time.

The run-up to the Brexit process rent the country into two politically (and sometimes personally) antagonistic camps – the Leavers (buccaneering “Brexiteers” to the latter) who wanted UK to leave the EU and Remainers (“Remoaners” to the former) who wanted to stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the referendum pitted brother against brother, friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour. Leave and Remain campaigns saw a lot of familiar dog-whistling about immigrants, fanciful promises of redirecting EU transfer payments to the UK National Health Service painted on buses, lofty talks of Independence from the Eurocratic elite, facetious (and patronizing) arguments about EU being a civilizing force etc. Where one fell on the Leave-Remain axis was, rather unsurprisingly, correlated to family income distribution, age and rural-urban background. Typically, older people hard of means hailing from small towns were the implacable Brexiteers, as opposed to Remoaning younger city crowd in well-paying jobs. However, out of these three main explanatory factors, age was by far the strongest determinant: even the city-dwelling, indubitably middle-class, older folk tend to be Brexiteers. As the adage goes, Brexit was a gigantic fuck-you! from the grand-dads and grannies.

The Brexit referendum itself was a political gamble by the ruling Tories, led by David Cameron. The decision to hold the In-Out referendum was primarily Cameron’s, widely advertised as a Tory election promise. Cameron’s intention was to use the Remain result (famous last words!) as a giant UK-sized stick to beat the traditional Eurosceptics in his party with. However, the Brexit referendum decision was also endorsed by other political parties, notably UKIP (UK Independence Party), a party of right-wing fruitcakes in Cameron’s own words. The decision to hold the public referendum was arrived at in a rather slapdash fashion, with very little understanding of the public mood, no recourse to a stronger two-thirds majority (as any Constitutional change normally requires, esp. one of this magnitude) and no forethought or planning about the political cataclysm an Out (Brexit) vote would unleash.

The nominal objective of the Brexit referendum was to leave the EU, which essentially meant moving out of the European Council-Commission-Parliament triumvirate and removing the European Court of Justice as the supreme law-making body for the UK. For the uninitiated, the EU law originates from the European Commission, essentially a cabal of bureaucrats drawn from the upper echelons of the civil services – one from each of the 28 member states – that is paid to think European. Any draft directive initiated by the Commission is then debated by the rather emasculated European Parliament, consisting of MEPs elected on a proportional representation basis in constituencies throughout the EU. The number of constituencies (and therefore the number of MEPs) per country is notoriously not proportional to the population of the country. The degressive proportional system leads to perverse outcomes such as the vote of one Luxembourgish or Maltese worth those of over 10 Brits or Germans. It is essentially the same recipe that led to Trump becoming President in spite of a smaller vote share and the last we saw such perversity in our own neck of the woods was Pakistan’s so-called Parity Scheme in the long build up to Bangladesh Liberation. Finally, the Council comprises the heads of member states and the bureaucrat-in-chief a.k.a. President of the Commission. It is meant to provide guidance to the bureaucrats of the Commission and make strategic executive decisions in times of crisis, and throw lavish dinner parties in the meanwhile. The obvious democratic deficit, seriously bloated bureaucracy and other systemic flaws of the EU model are not unknown to European leadership either.

Over the years the European Union has created a financial and economic ecosystem too. This includes, primarily, the European Economic Area (EEA) within which any individual can have visa-free access, seek employment and do business without restrictions or tariffs, a Eurozone i.e. the region where Euro is legal tender (largely isomorphic with the EEA, with UK as the notable exception) and a Eurosystem of banking and finance under the aegis of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – the lender of last resort for the Eurozone. The complex network of these institutions (other than the Eurozone which the UK is anyway out of) is what the Brexit referendum sought to sever the UK from permanently.

Before coming to the nub of this blog post – i.e. whether the Brexit decision was the right choice – I would like to briefly discuss the nature of democracy, which I think is critical in informing the debate around Brexit. [I was initially planning to cover this question in some detail here, but I realized that it’s important enough to need a blog post of its own. So I will be brief and ask you watch this space for a soon upcoming blog post on Democracy.]

Democracy is in its essence an error-correction mechanism. In political terms, it’s a system to remove bad leaders without violence, not a system to elect good ones per se. This may initially seem like a trivial statement, but I urge readers to take a moment to mull it over. This definition of democracy was first mooted by Karl Popper in his seminal work on The Open Society and its Enemies coincidentally published in the same year the Third Reich fell, yet still remains rather poorly understood. What the true will of the people is, or whether such a thing even exists, is of little importance or consequence in a democratic setup. What’s more important is how the system is designed to use that will expressed via the ballot box to ensure terrible leaders (autocrats, revanchists, communists, religious-fascists and other forms of political-utopia seekers generally) can be removed non-violently before it’s too late. The better any electoral system translates the swing in public sentiment into gain/loss of power, the better it is for hedging against downside political risk. It can be argued that First Past the Post tends to do this better than all such systems currently in existence.

Another corollary of this definition of democracy is the nature and function of whom we elect to power. The primary function of chosen representatives (not delegates) isn’t carrying out what some vaguely-defined popular will delegates to them, anymore than it is an airline pilot’s job to fly the plane on passengers’ instructions. Nonetheless a certain class of politicians, the populists (e.g. Messrs Kejriwal, Farage and Trump), take the silly idea of the will-of-the-people too seriously and are perfectly happy to crowd-source solutions to intricate questions of constitutional law and political organization. Such exercises of popular “decision-making”, the kind that animates a populist’s wet dreams, are called referendums. Referendums are therefore (rather paradoxically) antidemocratic, because they confound the whole point of the exercise of seeking votes from people.

The political brinksmanship behind the In-Out referendum decision, dog-whistling of the Brexiteer populists, oligarchical nature of the EU Commission (fancy continental version of a village panchayat or tribal jirga), democratic deficit of the EU Parliamentary system and the sheer pointlessness of putting Constitutional changes to popular vote makes the Brexit story look like a farcical plot from The Thick of It rather than real life. But it is very real and it happened, even after several prognostications by leading opinion-makers of British society that the actual Brexit decision was too radical to come to pass. Brexit and the political drama in its aftermath has also inspired creative fiction, which has essentially been critical of the decision.

My personal take on Brexit is that it’s a terrible means to a good end. Referendums like Brexit and Indyref (the one before on Scottish Independence) have created a terrible precedent in UK’s political culture to settle debates by popular voting. It encourages rank populism, incentivises escaping responsibility/blame in politicians by outsourcing important decisions to the prevailing whims and fancies of the public and diminishes the historically constructive role of the Parliament. Nonetheless, Brexit did save the UK from an undemocratic (and frankly dangerous) Eurocracy. Europe’s democratic politics is still in its infancy. E.g. most countries of Continental Europe have not had a long experience of democracy – half of Germany became a proper democracy in the 50s and the second half in the 90s, Spain and Portugal in 70s and 80s, Italy in the 50s, France in roughly 1890s and the less said of Eastern Europe the better – compared to UK’s Bill of Rights of 1689 that made the Parliament sovereign. As many Europeans themselves will grudgingly admit (perhaps after a pint or two), the British invented the modern concept of Parliamentary Democracy. Therefore, the British ought to be justifiably protective of their superior political culture against its slow dilution by the ever paternalistic EU. In conclusion, the normative last word on Brexit is a function of how consequentialist one is prepared to be – to follow Gandhi’s example or Kautilya’s. I chickened out and chose the former when voting Remain.

Right Hand Path Orientalism vs Left Hand Path Orientalism

A few days ago, Razib posted a piece about “Castes of Mind” that discussed Historian Nicholas Dirk’s book that argued that the Indian caste system as it exists may be (mostly) a colonial creation. I have not read Dirk’s book, but it is my impression (from hearing about it) that it is not superficial and has useful information and perspectives in it. Still, what less informed readers take from it, or what residue remains in the Zeitgeist from that book, is a tendency to blame evil British colonialism for whatever is worst about the caste situation in India. In that sense, it has joined the long (and growing) list of “Right Hand Path Orientalism” pieces, written by Western scholars eager to exculpate orientals when it comes to practices that are not in line with current fashions and opinions (as opposed to old fashioned “left hand path Orientalism”, which was much better informed (and far more useful), but frequently racist). Currently the most favored (and sometimes unwilling) recipients of this largess are Muslims, some of whose cultural and religious practices are now considered passe, but since the RightHandPath orientalists do not wish to “blame” Muslims for these views and practices, they prefer to find some way to blame colonialism, capitalism or some other aspect of modernity.  A trivial but truly outstanding example is this astoundingly ignorant and illogical (but extremely well-meaning) piece  about dogs and Islam. 

Continue reading “Right Hand Path Orientalism vs Left Hand Path Orientalism”

Headwinds Ahead : The Growing Divergence Between Truth and Productivity?

Throughout Human history, Productivity has required an understanding of nature, whether it meant predicting the seasons for agriculture or navigating the seas for trade through astronomy or curing diseases through medicine. European societies gained a huge advantage over other societies by creating incentives for exploration of ideas by institutionalizing patent & copy right laws in the late medieval period and eventually by enshrining the notion of free speech.

Productivity leaped ahead in these societies, which promoted a culture of intellectual exploration of ideas. And never has there been a society where a scientist like Einstein gained a degree of popularity transcending his own time to become the visual cognate to the word “genius”. All this gave a great boost to the social status of many scientists in these societies. And in the 20th century people across the world are now familiar with the name ‘Einstein’. Meanwhile, the establishment of awards to scientists has been an annual affair for over a century by the prestigious Nobel committee. However, the nature of progress itself thus far should not reassure us with regards to the future.

Continue reading “Headwinds Ahead : The Growing Divergence Between Truth and Productivity?”