South Asians and “communalism”

In Who We Are and How We Got Here one of the things that David Reich states is that while China consists to a great extent of one large ethnic-genetic group, India (South Asia) is a collection of many ethnic-genetic groups. To some extent, this is not entirely surprising. People from the far south of the subcontinent look very different from people from Kashmir or Punjab.

But that’s really not what Reich is talking about. People in Hebei look quite different from people in Guandong. Perhaps less different than a Tamil from a Kashmiri, but still quite different. But these regional differences grade into each other along a cline.

South Asia is different because strong genetic structure persists within regions. Both Tamil and Bengali Brahmins share some distinctive genes with local populations, but genetically they’re still a bit closer on the whole to Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh (I say this because I’ve looked at a fair number of genotypes of these groups). Similarly, Chamars from Uttar Pradesh and Dalits from Tamil Nadu share more with each other than either do with Brahmins from their own regions (though again, Chamars share more with Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh than Dalits from Tamil Nadu, in part because of gene flow from Indo-Aryan steppe pastoralists into almost all non-Munda people in the Indo-Gangetic plain).

When I read Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India in the middle 2000s it seemed a persuasive enough argument to me. I had read other things about caste during that period, by both Indians and non-Indians. The authors were historians and anthropologists and emphasized the cultural and social preconditions variables shaping the emergence of caste..

The genetic material at that time did not have the power to detect fine-grained differences (classical autosomal markers) or were only at a single locus (Y, or, more often mtDNA). By the middle to late 2000s there was already suggestion from Y/mtDNA that there was some serious population structure in South Asia, but there wasn’t anything definitive.

A full reading of works such as Castes of Mind leaves the impression that though some aspect of caste (broad varnas) are ancient, much of the elaboration and detail is recent, and probably due to British rationalization. The full title speaks to that reality.

This is one reason I was surprised by the results from genome-wide analyses of Indian populations when they first came out. On the whole, populations at the top of the caste hierarchy were genetically distant from those at the bottom, and the broad pattern of the differences was mostly consistent across all of South Asia.

To give a concrete example, there are “lower caste” groups in Punjab which may have more steppe pastoralist ancestry than South Indian Brahmins. But within Punjab “highest caste” groups still have more ancestry than “lower caste” groups.

But this wasn’t the most shocking aspect. That was the fact that many castes are genetically quite distant, and anciently so. In a recent paper, The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia:

We identify 81 unique groups, of which 14 have estimated census sizes of more than a million, that descend from founder events more extreme than those in Ashkenazi Jews and Finns, both of which have high rates of recessive disease due to founder events.

Some of this is due to consanguinity among Muslims and some South Indian groups, but much of it is not. Rather, it’s because genetically it looks like many Indian communities stopped intermarrying ~1,500 years ago. This reduces the effective number of ancestors even in a large population due to increased drift. At a recent conference, an Indian geneticist suggested that this might have something to do with the crystallization of caste Hinduism during the Gupta period. I can’t speak to that, but anyone who has looked at the data sees this pattern.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, assume ~1% introgression of genes from the surrounding population in a small group. Within 1,500 years 50% of the genes of the target population will have been “replaced.” The genetic patterns you see in many South Asian groups indicates far less than 1% genetic exchange per generation for over 1,000 years in these small groups.

But this post isn’t really about genetics. Rather, I began with the genetics because as an outsider in some sense I’ve never really grokked South Asian communalism on a deep level. Yet the genetics tells us that South Asians are extremely endogamous. It is unlikely that this would hold unless the groups were able to suppress individuality to a great extent. Though people tend to marry/mate with those “like them”, usually the frequency is not 99.99% per generation.

In the United States, things are different. Interracial marriage rates were ~1% in 1960.* This was still during the tail end of Jim Crow in much of the south. Since then the fraction of couples who are in ethno-racial mixed marriages keeps increasing and is almost 20% today. There is still a lot of assortative mating, and ingroup preference. But fractions in the 10-20% range are worrisome for anyone who is concerned about genetic cohesion over a few generations.

Though some level of group solidarity exists, explicitly among minorities, and implicitly for non-minorities, individual choice is in the catbird seat today. This was not always so. By the time I was growing up in the 1980s social norms had relaxed, but a black-white couple still warranted some attention and notice. In earlier periods interracial couples had to suffer through much more ostracism from their families and broader society.

In some South Asian contexts, this seems to be true to this day. But unlike the United States the situation is much more complex, with numerous ethno-religious-linguistic subgroups operating in a fractured landscape of power and identity.

I have wondered in part whether the South Asian fixation on sensitivity and feeling when it came to offense and insult is a function of the strong communal/collective aspect to honor, identity, and decision-making. Muslims outside of South Asia are similar to this, and in the Islamic context the rationale is quite explicit: non-Muslims and heretics are tolerated so long as they don’t challenge the public ethno-cultural supremacy of Islam. For example, atheism is punished less because of deviation from religious orthodoxy and more because it destabilizes public order and is seen as a crime against the state.

The conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in relation to religious parades have their clear analogs to strife between the dominant Catholics and the new Protestant communities in Latin America. But among Hindus the same tendencies crop up in inter-caste conflicts. The sexual brutalization that is sometimes reported of lower caste women by upper castes in parts of the Gangetic plain is a trivial consequence of the power that land-holding upper castes have over all the levers of power over low castes in certain localities. Lower caste men are powerless to defend their women against violation, just as in the American South enslaved black men couldn’t shield their womenfolk from the sexual advances of white men.

Will any of this change? I suspect that economic development and urbanization is the acid that will start to break down these old tendencies and relations in South Asia. It also seems clear that all South Asian communities which are transplanted to the more individualistic West have issues with the fact that collective and communal power is not given any public role, and in a de facto sense has to face the reality that individual choices in mates and cultural orientation are much more viable in the West.

This is particularly important to keep in mind on a blog like this, where many people are reading from South Asia (mostly India) and many are reading in the USA and UK. The conflict of values and signifiers occasionally plays out in these comments! For example, a Hindu nationalist commenter once referred to me as “Secular.” As an atheist, materialist, and someone who is irreligious in terms of identity and affiliation, secular describes me perfectly…in the West. But I was aware of the connotations of the term in India in particular, I told him that in fact, I wasn’t “Secular” in the way he was suggested. The reality is that unlike Indian Americans I don’t take a strong interest in what India does so long as it’s a reasonably stable regime, and so don’t signal my affiliation with Hindu nationalism or anti-Hindu nationalism.

* Latinos were not counted as part of this in 1960, so the rate looking at those numbers is 0.4%. I assume this is an underestimate because of Latinos.

58 thoughts on “South Asians and “communalism””

  1. “strife between the dominant Catholics and the new Protestant communities in Latin America”
    I hadn’t heard much about that, and at first assumed you were going to make a comparison to Northern Ireland, where parades have also associated with communal violence.

  2. 1. People often point to India’s remarkable diversity as a reason why it is more like Europe than it is like France or Germany. However, if the remarkable part of the diversity is local, I guess things are even more complicated? Is this perhaps a reason why regional secession movements have been less successful in India, that maybe there is a fractal quality here that besides common language, going to a regional level does’t increase homogeneity in India?

    2. “The reality is that unlike Indian Americans I don’t take a strong interest in what India does so long as it’s a reasonably stable regime, and so don’t signal my affiliation with Hindu nationalism or anti-Hindu nationalism.” In my conversations with some Asian Americans, I could feel a pride in the recent success of Asia and China as increasing their stock in the America. Since India is still a mess, I guess that narrative doesn’t play out as much among Indian Americans. I am curious if you have wondered if the South Asian American experience/social status would be impacted if India were to sort things out?

    1. Since India is still a mess, I guess that narrative doesn’t play out as much among Indian Americans. I am curious if you have wondered if the South Asian American experience/social status would be impacted if India were to sort things out?

      i think a lot of indians, especially but not exclusively, gujus, feel a lot of pride.

      the weird thing is a lot of indian american SJW types are somewhat saffronish when it comes to india. it causes issues.

      i am not a typical exemplar of anything probably for south asians.

      1. “the weird thing is a lot of indian american SJW types are somewhat saffronish when it comes to india. it causes issues.”

        I’ve noticed it too. Perhaps they’re primarily Hindu Justice Warriors (HJWs) and SJWs in the western context only because it advanced HJ cause by proxy?

        1. the american left hates hindu nationalists. that’s the issue i’m talking about.

          i know a brown american SJW that posts anti-islamophobia stuff on FB but says anti-islam stuff to me privately in a very indian way.


          1. “i know a brown american SJW that posts anti-islamophobia stuff on FB but says anti-islam stuff to me privately in a very indian way.”

            Yes that is very Indian. The majority of first generation Indian Americans I know do that. It is interesting if many second gens do as well. Indian pathologies persist.

          2. It shakes off into the second gen I think as they become more Westernised but now the West itself has large Muslim minorities.

            Post 9-11 we saw the bifurcation of British Asian identity into the BA and British Muslim; Goodness Gracious Me in the Late 90’s was Peak Asian.. very sad (the cleft had in fact started with Satanic Verses after a successful “black” movement in the 80’s).

            The unsung history of the Diaspora..

          3. I notice the same thing in liberal circles in India as well. In terms of public policy, many liberals are stridently pro-minority and for defending muslim civil liberties ect. But privately a bit allergic to muslims on a cultural level, don’t appreciate the parochialism and purdah of the middle class. Also in many cities, muslims are prominent among the skilled trades which are undervalued by people who fancy themselves knowledge workers. Its a “why can’t they be more like us” situation.

          4. girmit;

            I think the babri masjid should be reconstructed. i think that is the where hindu nationalism really took a wrong turn and has in turn made muslims insular and hindus belligerent.

            My gripe is with muslim politics which fails to evolve. To read ambedkar’s views on islam and to think that in 2018 where senior members of the RSS have stated that they are ok with the decriminalization of homosexuality, while muslims are still out on the streets demanding that the legislation against tripe talak be take back, its as if muslims politics is still stuck in the 1920-40’s mode (khilafat movement and henceforth).

            And i understand that expecting muslims to embrace liberal ideals while hindus keep badgering them is not going to work, but 100 years is a long enough time to get your head out of the sand.

          5. Zachary;

            Have to disagree there. don’t want to set up a precedent considering hundreds of such sites are scattered all over india, plus what happened on 6th dec, 92 was a crime and even if there was a temple that existed there 400 odd years ago, the mosque is what was standing there on 15th aug, 47.

          6. I guess it’s because of the unfair ways they have had to endure because of Abrahamics. Take the case of the debate of “Freedom of religion” it is framed entirely from Abrahamic perspectives.

        2. Sort of like American Jews; left in the US centrist when it comes to Israel
          Or British Muslim, most support Corbyn but wouldn’t want him ruling Pakistan..

          1. +1 On the American Jewish comparison.

            However, there is more appreciation of Israeli right’s greyness in American progressive circles than of Hindutva. The latter is painted in a broad dark brush (perhaps for good reason, but there are still greys IMO).

        3. // “lot of indian american SJW types are somewhat saffronish when it comes to india. it causes issues.” //

          I guess it’s because of the unfair ways they have had to endure because of Abrahamics. Take the case of the debate of “Freedom of religion” it is framed entirely from Abrahamic perspectives.

          I was trying to respond to this but the post is below other posts which is creating confusion so i am reposting the response & i request for the earlier post to be deleted.

          // Deep Bhatnagar says:
          April 19, 2018 at 11:49 am
          I guess it’s because of the unfair ways they have had to endure because of Abrahamics. Take the case of the debate of “Freedom of religion” it is framed entirely from Abrahamic perspectives. //

  3. well i don’t have those. i’m probably a bit the opposite 😉 more anti-muslim in my public face than in private (though the muslims who are my friends are a very biased sample).

  4. I don’t hold much optimism that economic growth and urbanization will dissolve communal/caste identity in South Asia. To the contrary, I think you would agree that modernization makes things worse (internet Hindu, Salafi muslim, job reservations).

    I would go the other way — caste and communal identity will never leave south asia. It is an old and essential feature and has proven to be robust to all sorts of disruption.

    The more interesting question is how the South Asian subcontinent found itself in this stable equilibrium, with extreme inter group segregation and distrust within a highly diverse society, while the other Eurasian subcontinents (SE, west, NE, and even to some extent SW) did not.

    How did desis wind up this way?

    1. There is simply no way caste can persist in India. In a pre-modern society, being a member of a jati provided some sense of security and social belonging. In modernizing India, it continued to provide a basis for political mobilization and access to government jobs, in addition to being an important network for marriage and jobs.

      For Indians working in the private sector, brought up in nuclear families, there is little point in emphasizing caste. The only variables that determine your social capital are your education (college networks, genuine competence) and how good looking (proximate to Iranic, fit etc) you are. Was hearing stand up comedy the other day about Sharmas and Tiwaris (UP Brahmin last names) having no chance against Malhotras and Khannas (Punjabi Hindu last names) in Delhi Tinder circles.

        1. Punjabi and Kashmiri Hindus (including the non-Brahmin/Kshatriya Khatris) tend to be more Iranic looking than Brahmin and Kshatriya groups from the rest of India.

          The Khatris include Malhotras, Khanna, Khurana, Kapoor etc.

          1. The preference for fair skin/Iranic look is pretty consistent all across South Asia. A good chunk of South Indian actresses are Punjabi/Pahadi.

            [i know. i’m not speaking as someone from south asia. at least now]

        1. Yes this is true – the Hindu upper middle classes in India are sort of practising a voluntary 1 child policy lol

      1. My wife’s family is no longer “joint” (her parents’ brothers all have separate homes) but it is extended (all of her uncles live with their married sons etc).

        But Sindhis are a funny lot; extremely cosmopolitan but also reliant on their caste trading network..

        Caste is a very mutable tradition I find..

    2. I would go the other way — caste and communal identity will never leave south asia. It is an old and essential feature and has proven to be robust to all sorts of disruption.

      aside from a few half-brahmins and a small number who seem to be dalits the bangladesh 1000 genomes sample looks like a non-south asian one its distribution (ie not a lot of internal structure).

    3. Intermarriage among upper caste upper class Hindus (and to some extent Muslims) does bind the elites.

      Pakistan’s elite is completely intermixed and has a stabilising influence on the rest of the country (Memons still have trouble marrying out). It will eventually percolate downward in Pakistan.

      In a Pakistani context the three agents are Local (Indic) culture (the biraderis, some caste like tendencies), Islam (especially the newer more rigorous/vigorous types) and Westernisation (mainly elite level but also accessible through phones & social media).

      Islam in Pakistan (haven’t been in 10yrs) seems to be Rolling back; the fact that Cake played on the tension between local Sindhi culture and the Westernised urban one was shocking whereas Khuda Kiye Liye was all about political Islam..

    1. 90% of white men marrying non-whites were married to Asian women.

      the numbers you link to don’t even show that.

      yes, there is some inflation due to hispanics, but you see that in there (“other” is mostly hispanic).

      second, the total # of marriages is not the important stat, it is new marriages. it’s like looking at indian american outmarriage rate and not correcting for the fact that lots of indian americans are adult immigrants who arrive with a wife/husband from india. when you lookat 1.5 or 2nd gen outmarriage rates are like other asian americans.

  5. Vikram, lots of forward caste Hindus have told me Jati is disappearing or will dissolve. No SC/ST/OBC has ever told me that.

    It reminds me a bit about how white Americans think black/white distinctions are vanishing, or middle class Brits who talk about a “classless society”. Or white Brazilians who tell me there is no racism in Brazil! Folks on the top of the pile always talk like this. It’s never true.

    Still, you are an Indian and a Hindu. I am not. I am open to renewing this discussion in 20 years or so to see if your prediction, which seems so unlikely, came true.

    1. No SC/ST/OBC has ever told me that.

      where do you meet these people? they exist in north america?

      (though some indian americans tell me patels are OBC originally?)

      1. Yes. But it takes some work and sometimes alcohol to get them to open up.

        Forward castes will “name drop” their brahmin or whatever status after ten minutes of conversation (you can even see an example in this comment thread!).

        Other Hindus clam up. One guy admitted to me, after getting very drunk, that his father had changed his last name to something brahmin sounding after arriving in North America, but it made no difference in caste discrimination (so he mostly hung out with whites and Muslim desis). Another guy never gave a clear answer when gauche whites asked him his caste — just long convoluted stories about his (unamed) community. It took some googling to figure it out.

        Hindus are wierd.

        1. Yes but also every Muslim knows their ancestry/caste as well.. the legacy of our Hindu forbears.

        2. @Ikram

          I largely agree but sometimes things can be a bit more complicated, especially for those Americans hailing from the far south of India. For example, the Nair community of Kerala were originally considered Shudras by the “Jenmi” landholding Namboothiris but over time most of them became landholders themselves and were conscripted as fighters for local chiefs, especially during Tipu’s raids in Malabar. Many were given temporary Kshatriya status, often in exchange of tributes to Namboothiris. Many also added Namboothiri genes by the practice of matrilocal descent “Marumakkattayam” since younger Namboothiri males couldnt inherit and would join with Nair women. Today, they’re out of the OBC list and considered privileged in Kerala but they’re probably closer to Shudra than to Kshatriya if one is forced to delineate.

          My point here is only that some hesitation in declaring caste status in America could also owe to genuine confusion, especially for those hailing from far outside the Indo-Gangetic plain.

    2. Like I pointed out earlier, it is not that India will have no hierarchy. But the hierarchy will be based on other parameters. It makes little sense for a woman to want to marry a fellow Brahmin in the name of caste, rather than a IIT educated OBC who earns a lot more and is far better connected in the sense of today’s India.

      We forget sometimes that earlier caste did conflate very highly with class. Brahmins typically did own land and/or served in administrative posts. This conflation is breaking down. The hardest hit have been the Kshatriya. This article might help understand how drastically different caste calculations are in India today,

      “In 1999, acceding to their long held demand, Jats were granted other backward class status in Rajasthan, thus raising the stakes in the bitter Jat-Rajput rivalry. As Gurjars and Meenas already had reservations, fears arose among the Rajput community of the complete erosion of their leftover clout. In 1952, when the first elections were held to the state assembly, there were 54 Rajputs MLAs in a house of 160 while only 12 Jats were elected. By 1998, the number of Jats had risen to 42 while the Rajput numbers had been reduced to half of what they’d been.”

      There are other references from academia which record Jats beating up Brahmins if they talked to a Jat girl in their college.

        1. Nop if you actually look into it you will notice that democracy has actually increased caste division.

          Let me mention a factor which people tend to forget about ‘Civility of indifference’ & there is a book by name but you should simply look at the youtube lecture that’s enough to understand which phenomenon is termed as ‘civility of indifference’.

          Now if you look at the type of discrimination, physical atrocities & so on you will find a constantly increasing trend of physical attack & assertion and the phenomenon like ‘Karni sena’ & ‘Bhim Army’ are just 2 examples of this phenomenon.

          For better understanding of this phenomenon you need to read –

          The Culturalization of Caste in India: Identity and Inequality in a Multicultural Age (Routledge Contemporary South Asia)

          The Persistence of Caste: India’s Hidden Apartheid and the Khairlanji Murders

          Last but not least always remember about the problem i.e. {Who is} Informer & {Who is} Informed.

    3. // Jati is disappearing or will dissolve. //

      I come from so called forward caste & No it will never go away caste because it is ‘ascribed status’ & a way to box individuals & certain amount of votes in the form of ‘vote banks’.

      If you want to understand how this process started & how this debate moved forward look into the debate of “Backwardness”.

      So since an individual is boxed in an ‘enumeration category’ on the basis of birth it will never go away till govt. itself stops ascribing these caste identities based upon birth.

        1. They can dissolve easily if govt. simply stops recognizing them. That’s the whole point of the video “Civility of Indifference”, if rulers at that time enshrined individuality in constitution the fight over identities would have been less sharp & might have allowed the time for progressive changes to happen.

          Note the emphasis on rulers for application of caste rules.


          The modern research though paints a complex picture of how things actually worked on the ground in Indian subcontinent during ancient period –

          The Spirit of Hindu Law
          Studies in Hindu Law and Dharmasastra
          Hinduism and Law: An Introduction

          Text did not matter as much {since they rarely were applied as they were written} in the law as the local culture did.

        2. // Race would dissolve if affirmative action came to an end? //

          Do you remember the civil rights movement ? All appeals in it were made based upon individuality, look at the ‘enlightenment’ & the role of individuality etc. Yes all group identities are divisive & by acknowledging the groups the govt.’s play the divide & rule to keep the middle & poor classes pitted against each other while politicians & industrialists support each other.

          Without Individualism there would have been no advancement of law & Justice, no end of slavery etc.

          See this –

          All collectivist identities are a way to reduce the individual tendencies so that elites can keep pitting these ‘groups’ against each other & keep their hold over most of the resources of the world.

          And elites know that they can keep doing this because the rest of population can only do few things –
          1) Revolts or Revolutions which destroy the current system completely & create a temporary equality in terms of resource distribution.
          2) Or negotiate on table {which is already controlled by elites in the form of knowledge creation, narratives etc.}

          Check this book –
          The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Economic History of the Western World)

  6. 20 yrs is too short, one has to look at second generation after economic expansion. There is a study of behavior of people who became rich from point of poverty and their behavior didnt change much vs second generation that didnt see any poverty.

    A good measure would be something like bollywood where there are lot of marriages even across religion. In my personal experience, I have seen quite a bit of inter caste marriages/love marriages. Often times “love marriages” are across across same social background. One needs to look at love marriages in India as good proxy to what to really expect.

    1. Love marriage is usually the boy “marrying up” the caste/ANI ladder; a reverse of what has traditionally been the case in South Asia..

  7. I have a theory for why it happened about 1500 yrs ago. I would argue that vedic system was entirely oral tradition. I think, India has the oldest and most exhaustive transmission of knowledge across generations than anywhere in the world.This created a unique event unlike any in the world. It created class of people who were repositories of this knowledge. Things were fluid, however, from the time of Ashoka, writing system was introduced and this reached its classical period under gupta empire. Followed by collapse of gupta empire by huns. This created perfect dynamics of a class preserving its interests followed by others doing the same. The creation of a class based on oral tradition followed by introduction of writing system that threatened this class followed by collapse of gupta empire set this dynamics in motion. One is not sure of what would have happened Had Islam not showed up in India, would buddhism have comeback, or new orders like vira shaiva, ramanuja and others taken over from older views. It would have given space for internal criticism more. Followed by growth of knowledge in areas of science, industry,math help break older views.

  8. I my highly endogamous caste (Bhumihar), at least 25% of my cousins have married outside caste, one of them across regions and outside varna. There is virtually zero chance that my son will marry in the same caste.

    Caste barriers are coming down fast, I think within 2 generations the situation will opposite i.e. more inter-caste marriages than intra.

  9. one has to take the bull by the horns by some organisation, there are no hindus in proper sense of organisation, as those rights are largely gone, except in politics. rss/bjp.with congress ,others cutting them down on caste lines must give them disincentive to do more on this issue.

    except I dont see much hope. sure, if things were allowed to evolve for next 200 yrs without interference and other kinds of things, there will be improvement. But that is laughable.

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