First, I want to enter into the record that among Punjabis and Sindhis there is almost no West Asian ancestry in Pakistanis.* I qualify this with “almost” because there is some, particularly in Sindhis. You can tell because of African ancestry, which is distinctive in even small fractions, and which is found in some of the HGDP Sindhis. I haven’t checked the 1000 Genome samples from Lahore (which clearly includes Punjabis but also other ethnicities), but they seem “more Indian” than the HGDP Sindhis.
Most people with half a brain can see the above fact in the data. That being said there is some ideological battle between Pakistanis and Indians about the Hindu origins of Pakistanis. Or, should we say “Hindu”?
On both sides of my family, I have “caste Hindu” forebears within the last few centuries. My paternal grandmother’s father was born a Hindu. So I have no compunction in admitting that my ancestors were Hindu, and my genetics indicate a rather generic Bangladeshi ancestry except for the higher fraction of East Asian (my family is from what was Tippera). It helps I’m not Muslim or Muslim-identified.
From Hindu Nationalists there something of schizophrenia on the topic. On the one hand, they loudly proclaim the Hindu origins of South Asian Muslims (correct). Often, there is also an assertion that these are low caste converts (perhaps correct, but specious to the argument). But then, they flip to the assertion that South Asian Muslims are invaders, oppressors, etc.
It’s not totally coherent. Perhaps more coherent is the position of some Pakistanis: “we were never Hindus.” The argument is straightforward, and about ten years ago I was quite open to it. To be frank, I probably leaned toward the proposition that Hinduism as an identity makes no sense without a reaction to Islam and later the British-Christian experience. Though probably not as extreme as “real Hinduism didn’t exist in the 19th century”, I wouldn’t have laughed that assertion out of the house.
There are several reasons I reject or have evolved from my older views.
First, reading Al-Biruni was quite eye-opening. It is clear by 1000 A.D. a coherent sense of self-identity existed among the people of the Indian subcontinent, whom he called “Hindus.” Semantically the idea that Indians who retained native religious beliefs and practices were “Hindu” may have come later, but I am not one who confuses substance with semantics. That is, something can exist even if it does not have a name (or a different name from what you call something).
Second, my reading of the origins of Buddhism convinced me that much of the Eurasian oikumene underwent civilization confessionalization between 0 and 1000 A.D., and India was not excluded from this. Some Indians and non-Indians refer to Hinduism and Indian civilization as “pagan.” I think this is defensible, but not informative and often misleads. Hinduism is not analogous to Greco-Roman paganism because Hinduism underwent a civilizational process of development, integration, and articulation, that Greco-Roman paganism never did, due to the latter’s fading in the face of Christianity.
Third, the resistance of much of the subcontinent to Islamicization is strongly indicative that there was a native religious matrix which exhibited and manifested integrity and coherency. The historiography of this is quite dark to me, as an English speaker without deep scholarly interest, but like “dark matter” the empirical outcome of a subcontinent which is majority non-Muslim after centuries of Islamic hegemony allows us to infer unobserved dynamics and parameters.
Finally, the evidence from the genetic data seems clear that the endogamy associated with contemporary jati seems to have crystallized into a form we’d recognize today about 1,500 years ago. Since I am not a believer in the Hindu religion I am not invested in the argument whether caste and jati is constitutive to Hinduism or not. But, as an empirical matter, there is a close association between Hindu religious identity and caste. Even in societies, such as Bali and amongst the Chams, which did not have jati in an Indian sense, ideas of caste had some resonance if they are Hindu. The emergence in the genetic data of caste to this period is indicative to me of an ideological revolution or systematization.
This brings us to the Hindu ancestors of modern South Asian Muslims. In some cases, one cannot deny the Hinduism of the ancestors of some Muslims. Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Jinnah descend from twice-born caste Hindus. This is known and admitted. There is no doubt that their ancestors converted from what is considered Hinduism to what is considered Islam.
But what about cases such as the Mappila Muslims of Kerala or Bengali Muslims? Genetically there is no strong signal of external admixture in these people. What religion were they? One model, which is not unreasonable, is that these people were not Hindu because they were animists and tribal religionists, due to the narrow purview of caste Hinduism, which was limited to the three twice-born varna. The Mappila are genetically clearly descended from “sudra” and “untouchable” peasant castes, and there is some record of recent conversion from groups like Ezhava.
I am skeptical of the idea today that we should call these people non-Hindu due to their exclusion and marginality from elite Hinduism, as promoted and exposited by the Brahmins. First, the Hinduism of the Brahmins clearly has had a dynamic interaction with the religious beliefs of the masses of India. Limiting Hinduism to the beliefs and rituals of the Brahmins is a position some Brahmins might defend, but it seems to be exceedingly pedantic and parochial. This is like limiting Christianity to the beliefs and practices of Christian monastic communities during the medieval period. There is a certain logic, but that logic leads us down the road to absurdity.
Second, in places like Southeast Asia, where tribal people were outside of the pale of Theravada Buddhist or Islamic civilization, they readily converted to Christianity. This is also a dynamic that exists in India, where northeastern peoples who were never integrated into the penumbra of “Indic” civilization became Christian (the exception here are groups like Chakma, who remained Theravada Buddhist, despite abandoning their native language for a dialect of Bengali). The fact that non-savarana Indians did not convert to Islam despite centuries of domination by Muslims is indicative of two things. One, their native religious traditions were quite robust. Two, the influence of pan-Indian religious movements such as bhakti was clearly important in generating supra-jati identifications.
Obviously, there aren’t too many ethnographies of illiterate peasants in the Indian subcontinent from the 17th century where they explain their thinking. Rather, one has to infer based on worldwide patterns of religious change as well as what we see in the Indian subcontinent. Resistance to conversion to “world religions” only happens when one has some identification with a world religion or strong civilizational identity (e.g., many Han Chinese have weak religious identification, but strong civilizational identity). Indians could very well be the exception to this rule, but I doubt that because most human psychologies are quite similar.
That being said, a large proportion of Indians did convert to Islam. Why? How? The hypothesis that this was due to forced conversion at the point of a sort is not plausible. This is, frankly, the view of the ignorant and stupid. This did occur across Islamic history, but this was the exception, not the rule. Additionally, there is very little evidence of admixture of West Asian ancestry in Indian Muslims overall. That is indicative of a high level of communal integrity in the conversion process. That is, whole jatis converted at once. There was obviously some element of soft coercion in many cases. In other cases, such as among low castes, there was clearly some opportunism. Jinnah’s Hindu grandfather engaged in business associated with fishing, and so found it easier for his sons to become a Muslim, due to the ostracism that ritual pollution brought to his family.
This brings us to Bengal and what is today Pakistan. These were the major Muslim majority regions of the Indian subcontinent that were clear in the 1871 census. Looking at the map the Muslim character of western Punjab and Sindh are totally comprehensible. But what is going on in Bengal?
Since Bengal is not the point of this post, I will address it first. One of the strange patterns in the early censuses is that Bengal was more Muslim the further east you got. Numerically the most Muslim district was Noakhali in the southeast. Traditionally, the Muslims of Noakhali also have a reputation of being particularly devout (the joke is that in Noakhali even Hindus greet you with a salam).
The argument in Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier is that eastern Bengal was settled and opened up to a great extent under Islamic rule. It was a dynamic and fluid cultural and social landscape, which provided an opening to an Islamic identity. This provides a cogent explanation for why Noakhali, and the east in general, are particularly Muslim: they are farthest away from the stable conventionally Hindu civilization.
Eaton’s work dovetails well with cultural evolution work in theory and empirics which argue that “marchlands” tend to exhibit more social dynamism and are more open to change. To give an empirical example, the conversion of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity was fastest amongst those elites from the frontier, as opposed to the Italian core.
Finally, there is evidence from genetics in regards to Bengal. Eastern Bengalis as found in the 1000 Genomes Project are defined by two distinctive things in comparison to other South Asians
1) 10-15% admixture of East Asian (Tibeto-Burman-like) ancestry around 1,500 years ago in a large single pulse. This admixture seems to be higher in people from the east than those further west (e.g., I am on the edge of the 1000 Genomes cluster because I have more East Asian than usual, and my family is from the furthest east of Bengal).
2) The lack of caste-like structure at all with a few exceptions (these exceptions cluster with Dalits and lack East Asian admixture, and were collected at the same time).
Eaton’s theory is that the massive demographic expansion in eastern Bengal happened during the Muslim period, with migration from the west under the supervision of Islamic elites. The problem from a genetic perspective is that the admixture around 1,500 years ago is pretty clear and hard to dispute (I’ve replicated the finding personally with the 1000 Genomes data), but West Bengalis have far less of it. If the demographic source was from West Bengal, it makes no sense why West Bengalis are so much less admixed vis-a-vis East Bengalis. A reasonable hypothesis would be that peasants migrated from the west mixed with local people. But the best fit of the model is that there was a single mixture between Indo-Aryan people and Tibeto-Burman people 1,500 years ago, not more recently. It clearly predates the Islamic period.
Though my confidence is modest, the evidence here implies in situ demographic expansion. That is, the lightly settled eastern region of the delta was opened up and populated by indigenous peasants, who were themselves descended from early Indo-Aryan groups who had admixed with intrusive Tibeto-Burmans. Interestingly, the cline of East Asian admixture is roughly congruent withe the cline of Islamicization.
There is a famous map of Poland and its voting patterns which shows that a century after the end of the rule of Poland by Russia and Germany modern Poles still vote geographically based on whether they were ruled by Germans or Russians. There is no great genetic difference here. Rather, it is all cultural. I believe that the admixture of Tibeto-Burmans may have had a long term impact on the Bengali peasantry in the east in terms of the solidity and integrity of “Hindu” identity in the region. Though not a cause, it may be an indicator of how unstable and fluid the frontier Indo-Aryan peasant society was. Possibly related to this is also the fact that Buddhism was strong in Bengal relatively late.
Assam shows that “Hinduization” can occur, even for invasive Tibeto-Burmans (the Ahom were themselves Tai, but most of the East Asian phenotype people in the region are not Tai). But this did not occur in Bengal because it was conquered by Muslims in the 13th century. The lack of caste-like structure in the genetics of East Bengal, with the exception of Brahmins (one of the samples in the 1000 Genomes Bangladesh sample seems to be half Bengali Brahmin), but its existence in West Bengal (reported by an Asian genome project consortium which hasn’t released its data), is notable and is strongly indicative of the weakness of “Hindu” cultural features.
Now, let’s move to Pakistan. The 1000 Genomes Pakistanis from Lahore are labeled Punjabi, but I assume some of them are Mohajir. Nevertheless, looking at a PCA the contrast between the Pakistani Lahore sample and the Dhaka Bangladesh sample was immediately quite striking when I started analyzing the data in 2014. Like an Indian (Hindu) population the Pakistanis explored much of the “India-cline”. A few even overlapped with Tamil samples from Sri Lanka. In contrast, the Bangladesh samples were tightly clustered, with a relatively even admixture of East Asian ancestry shifting them out of the India-cline.
I decided to investigate further and found a strange result: the Bangladesh samples, unlike the Indian samples and Pakistan samples, exhibited a total lack of the runs of homozygosity that indicate a level of “inbreeding” among South Asian groups. This aligns with anthropology. Bangladeshi Muslims do not engage in cousin-marriage much, unlike Pakistani Muslims, and jati-caste dynamics don’t seem to exist in Bangladesh. Like Chinese or European populations, Bangladeshis seem “panmictic” on the world-wide scale. This surprised me.
Until recently I chalked up the Pakistani runs of homozygosity to parallel-cousin marriage. Runs of homozygosity in Muslim populations tend to be longer than among North Indian Hindus, who are jati endogamous, but gotra exogamous. The new paper, Fine-scale population structure and demographic history of British Pakistanis, have changed my views somewhat. Let me quote from the discussion:
We have carried out the first large-scale investigation of population structure and demographic history of Pakistanis. We found genetic structure in the cohort reflecting the influences of the biraderi social stratification system, with some subgroups forming identifiable and homogeneous clusters (Figures 1 and 2). Our analyses suggest that these subgroups come from a common ancestral population but diverged from one another within the last 70 generations (1,500-2,000 years) (Figure 3a). This is consistent with an earlier finding that the transition from intermarriage to strict endogamy on the Indian subcontinent started from about 70 generations ago, concurrent with or immediately after the drafting of the ancient Law Code of Manu that described a ranked social stratification system.
I’m a geneticist, not a historian, obviously, so the reference to the “Laws of Manu” should not be taken literally. Rather, they should be taken seriously. Contrary to what some “Trads” assert, the endogamy between Indian “communities” which is taken as a given today is not primal, or even Bronze Age, but a feature of the last 2,000 years. It is not recent though and predates Islam, let along the British. There are two dynamics to understanding the emergence of jati and the India-cline:
1) First, there was a mixture of very different groups between six and two thousand years
2) Then, starting two thousand year ago high levels of endogamy began to appear across many groups
These are broad and general stylized facts. It seems likely that between 1000 BC and year 0 there remained pockets of “pure” “AASI.” These were finally mixed in with various tribal populations who had substantial, albeit a minority, “IVC-related”, ancestry. In the Gangetic plain, a population that merged IVC-related ancestry with AASI ancestry had a 10-20% overlay of “steppe” ancestry between after 1500 BC (30% in Brahmins, 15% in peasants, 5% or less in Dalits).
Going back to the issue of Pakistan, unlike Bangladesh, it looks like these Punjabi-related groups began to diverge at the same time as other North Indian groups. The implication is strong that endogamy began all across the North around the same time (the pattern is found in the South as well). Why? I think this relates to the development of a mature Hindu cultural-religious matrix as a reaction and response to Buddhism and other sramana movements. Though I am not convinced entirely, I think it is entirely reasonable to think that the development of jati communalism was instrumental in the extinction of Buddhism and the decline of Jainism, and, allowed for flexible robustness in the face of Islam. There are two regions of South Asia where these caste-like dynamics are attenuated: Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka (the Tamils from the samples in the 1000 Genomes are Sri Lanka; there are clearly a few Brahmins, but on the whole, there is less stratification than the Telugu who are from India).
But Pakistan is a different case. The existence of a strong caste-like structure is indicative of a fully elaborated Hindu society as we understand it. This also makes sense in light of news stories that indicate caste-dynamics of pollution and prejudice in Pakistan, but not Bangladesh. There are caste-like dynamics in Middle Eastern Islamic societies, but they are all based on religion (e.g., Yemeni Jews and other minorities were ghettoized based on their religious identity). In Pakistan caste comes up with Christians who are converted from the lower castes. But I have read instances where it occurs amongst Muslims. I have not heard of anything similar outside of the case of Hindus in Bangladesh (e.g., my mother had a Brahmin friend growing up who told her not to engage or contact some low caste Hindus in the area where they lived when they were teens).
This is not rock-solid. Pakistani readers and commenters like to point out that there are records that define Punjab as mleccha territory. I’m not going to dispute this. Though it’s curious to me that these would be the only mleccha who exhibit evidence of caste in their genetics at the same time that it emerged among Hindus in core North India.
But motivated reasoning is strong. On my other blog ArainGang stated:
The Indian admixture dates from Moorjani are all over the place, ranging from 65-145 generations ago. UP Upper Caste dates are 65-85 generations ago. Per this study, most Punjabis diverged from each other 30-60 generations ago. So despite being conquered by the Aryans several centuries before UP, Punjabi genetic structure is emerging several centuries after their eastern neighbors. This goes against the idea of a uniform caste-crystallization reflecting Hinducization, affecting both Punjab and North India.
I’m a simple man. I don’t have a mastery of Hindu textual sources that these Pakistanis have. But I know the genetics, and he’s clearly garbling two different inferences, confusing the emergence of the India-cline (earlier) with the reduction in gene flow due to endogamy (later). ArainGang is a pretty savvy interpreter of the literature, despite his clear bias and preferences which are similar to the most sophisticated Hindu nationalists in magnitude if not direction, so I reread Moorjani et al. to confirm what I immediately knew from the results that he’s quoting. It is simply impossible to not see that the statistics he’s quoting do not say what he’s asserting they say. He clearly wanted this inference and so confused himself. Most people will not have his familiarity with the literature, so I’m assuming now Pakistanis will feel vindicated.
At this point, I’m going to have to update my views as to how seriously to take this individual since my previous respect meant that I actually reread a paper to make sure he was as wrong as I understood him to be. I invested time that I’m not inclined to ever invest again to give someone the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t know someone’s heart, nor do I care, but my personal assumption is that some Pakistanis want really strongly to differentiate themselves from Indians. This means they want strong evidence of cultural and genetic rupture.
As a parenthetical side-point, I don’t see Pathans doing this at length, though it is clear that they are quite distinct in a way Punjabis are not. To be frank, this tells us something deep, but I’ll leave it to the reader to mull over.
I don’t have a mastery of the primary literary sources like these Pakistanis, so I will leave that off. The more I delve into genetics the more it is clear to me that they have no case, and I can see exactly how they are engaging in either self-deception or plain deception. My confidence in the genetic origins of Pakistanis is weaker than my confidence in the Indo-Aryan migration theory. I would like more papers and also evidence from Sindh. My current best guess could be wrong. But as time progresses I assume I will become more and more confident, just as I have become so with the Indo-Aryan migration theory.
Obviously I am not Muslim, but I come from a Muslim family, and I do not understand why there is such an aversion to being descended from Hindus from Pakistanis in particular. In my family, we were told that being a convert to Islam is actually meritorious, rather than being born into Islam. Ironically, the fixation on descent and bloodlines is perhaps more evidence of just how Indian Pakistanis are!
As I said earlier I was, and to some extent still am, open to the idea that the tribes of modern Pakistan were not Hinduized, so their transition to Islam came from Buddhism or tribal religion. But it has to be admitted that from an orthodox Muslim perspective there is no daylight between Indian Buddhism, tribal paganism, and Hinduism. So the issue here is not about religion, but about cultural affinity (or preferred lack thereof) with North Indian Hinduism, which some people want to push so forward in time.
Readers of this weblog have various preferences and ideologies. That’s normal. Hindu nationalists often present a caricature of Greater India 2,000 years ago that is ahistorical, anachronistic, and unbelievable. It is in fact less plausible than some of the ideas Pakistanis are presenting. Pakistan is not as important, so I have not paid as much attention to it, but it does seem that the “Two-Nation-Theory” (which to be frank I broadly agree with as a contemporary historical matter) has given birth to a very strange impulse to deny the fundamental likely Indianness and Hinduness of people across the past in Pakistan (which by the way was observed and recorded by West Asian Muslims almost from the beginning when those people began to interact with people in the Indus valley).
* Will exclude Pathans from this treatment since they are liminal South Asians.