This research article will be submitted in the new journal Intersectional Gender and South Asian studies. Dedicated to VisionIAS - especially Smriti Shah
Roots of divergence between Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia
South Asia in general has been a diverse place demographically as well as geographically. Unlike the myth of ancient civilization conjured up by well-meaning anti-colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries, South Asia neither had a coherent identity nor a dominant mass religion. It only became a political unit after the forceful amalgamation of different polities under the Colonial British Raj. Since getting independence, Bangladesh has diverged a great deal not only from former West Pakistan but also from India. Not only in economical terms but also in terms of women empowerment. Unlike most democracies, Bangladesh has been governed by women for a significant duration of time since its independence.
What explains this divergence? Especially between North Western South Asia and North Central South Asia on one side and Eastern Central South Asia, Western Central South Asia and South Eastern South Asia on other ?
Why Mamata Banerjee, a strong woman hell bend on fighting Brahminical patriarchy, doesn’t become a contender for leadership in India while cis-Brahminical counterparts rule the roost in the largest geography among South Asian nation-states?
Why are Islamic states Pakistan and Afghanistan home to the most patriarchal societies while Bangladesh represents a pushback against the patriarchy?
The answer lies in the ancient roots of these regions.
Ever since the emergence of genomics, drawing a lot of new insights has become possible which wasn’t the case earlier. In South Asia, the eternal caste system has left a lasting impact on the population genetics of the region. From Indus to Cauvery Caste endogamy is a lived reality. Brahmanical patriarchy has ruled these lands, and laws made by deeply patriarchal and casteist men like Manu (Manusmriti) have shaped the lives of the people of South Asia. Patriarchy and Casteism are two sides of the same coin we have come to recognize as Brahminism eka Hinduism. But where did this Brahminism originate and what cis-hetero-patriarchal antecedents was it building upon to create these levels of cis-hetero-patriarchy?
Maria Gimbutas, a groundbreaking archaeologist, feminist, and scholar was the first to clearly present the hypothesis today known as the Kurgan Hypothesis. Gimbutas’s theory was that the egalitarian and matriarchal societies of the Old Copper Age Europe were conquered by the deeply patriarchal and violent societies originating from the Pontic Caspian Steppe. Now we know these Steppe warriors were also the ancestors of violent cis-hetero-patriarchal men who composed the Vedic literature in Northern Western South Asia. Surely something along the lines Gimbutas suggested would have happened on the plains of North Western South Asia.
The Indus valley civilization which was a Bronze Age South Asian civilization was egalitarian in every respect compared to its contemporaries. (some scholars have compared it to Old Europe and its matriarchal culture with goddess figurines). When the warlike and cis-hetero-patriarchal Aryans encountered the populations of the Indus valley who were struggling with climate change, they quickly dominated them and imposed on them their cis-hetero-patriarchal system with help of their war chariots — which are incidentally perfectly suited to the Northern South Asian plains. These interactions of the Yin and the Yang are what gave rise to the multi-axial intersectional oppressive systems (cis-hetero-patriarchal and racist-apartheid) that went on to dominate South Asia (especially Northern South Asia). This is crystallized in the Manusmriti — the ancient law book of the Vedic Aryans which was burned by the Dalit (a term for those who reside outside the bounds of Hindu society) Buddhist scholar Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in his fight against the racist/casteist Hindu practices of British India.
But how does this model of elite oppression by means of Brahminical patriarchy explain the differences on yardsticks of Patriarchy and Equity in modern nation-states of South Asia? Again genetics and ancient texts may have some clues for us. The genetics of modern Bengalis make it clear that caste boundaries have been more fungible in Bengal compared to the rest of South Asia. This is also correlated with less cis-patriarchy and earlier enlightenment. Whereas despite millennia of rules of comparatively egalitarian Central Asian Muslims, regions of Ancient Gandhara and Punjab still maintain Caste endogamy like other Northern South Asians (Hindus and Sikhs of Modern fascist nation-state of India). Answers to these questions may lie in a combination of very recent groundbreaking scholarship and ancient Brahmanical texts.
Mahabharata, the longest ancient text which originated in South Asia may have some answers to this. Though the epic is a singular work of literature one cannot ignore the violence, hierarchy, and patriarchy glorified in the text. The kingdoms of Gandhara, Madra, Kuru, and Anga all play a major role in the epic. Gandhari and Madri who hail from modern regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan are “Bought” by the Kuru Patriarch Bhisma for his blind and impotent nephews. This means that the Brahmanical Ideas of the Core — Kuru Pancala regions did not just have positive reception in Gandhara and Madra, but people of Gandhara and Madra were trying to bend over backward to please the Kurus. Madri who committed suicide on her husband’s pyre for having intercourse with him can be seen as the first recorded instance of Sati. Gandhari blinded-folded herself as her husband was blind. It becomes clear from these examples that Brahmanical patriarchy was also ascendent in regions of modern Northwestern South Asia during the composition of Mahabharata (200BCE to 200 AD). On the contrary the low-caste anti-hero Karna is the king of Anga. Clearly around 200 BCE as well Anga represented an egalitarian outlook while Gandhara, Madra, and Kuru represented different flavors of Brahmanical patriarchy.
The recent trilogy of books by scholar Johannes Brockhorst represents a radical new thesis on the emergence of Brahmanism as the dominant power in South Asia. Brockhorst proves that the region of Greater Magadha was outside the Vedic Aryan culture and it was the region that gave rise to the radical Counter-religions. The most consequential among these, Buddhism strongly challenged the orthodox Varna system, patriarchy, and animal sacrifices. Many of these innovations were slowly integrated into the Brahmanical framework via the Upanisads. However, this didn’t result in erosion of oppression in Brahmanism. But on the contrary, it further ossified the society as clearly visible in the genetic data. The mechanisms of this change are not clear but Shunga (Brahmins) overthrow of Maurya (Shudra Sramanas) is seen as a watershed event by most scholars. How Brahmins won the battle for supremacy is difficult to theorize, but they not only managed to defeat the Buddhists and but also imposed themselves as the superior Varna across South Asia. However, the Pala rulers that emerged in Bengal in the 8th century were patrons of Mahayana Buddhism. Just after the decline of Palas, Bengal was rapidly conquered by Muslims. Interesting to note that the variant of classical Hinduism that became popular in Bengal were Shakti traditions which clearly go back to the pre-Aryan matriarchal IVC as pointed out by Asko Parpola in his research. Around this time the regions of North-Western South Asia were ruled by the Brahmanical Hindu Shahis.
So we can conclude that around the time Islam was to make inroads into South Asia the two march-lands (Northwest and East) were under different ethical systems — Brahmanism and Buddhism. The Muslim rulers were violent but didn’t initially take any interest in wholesale alteration of the native ethical systems. As a result, North-Western South Asia remained in the clutches of Brahmanism fused with Islam while in Bengal anti-Brahmanical Buddhist and Shakti ethical systems contributed to Bengali Islam.
Another outlier wrt Patriarchy in South Asia is the clearly Matriarchal Tamizh country which clearly carries the Dravidian legacy of Indus Valley civilization. We can thus conclude that the regions of South Asia which are more Brahminical tend to correlate positively with more patriarchy. This makes the differentiation between Bangladesh and Pakistan and India clearer. Unlike India where feminism mostly means Savarna feminism — which itself is as problematic as Brahmanism because it sees the female (Savarna) conflicts with subaltern men through the lens of feminism clearly ignoring the intersectional nature of oppression. Whereas feminism in Bangladesh is not fettered by the undercurrent of Brahminism, unlike India or Pakistan.
Incidentally, Afghanistan which has the worst record in South Asia on women’s rights is also the place from where hails Gandhari – who was forced by societal Brahminical mores to become blindfolded for life. The descendants of those Brahminical societal mores are the ones who want to force their women into full-body burqas. Why have these practices peaked in Afghanistan and not Pakistan and India? Clearly, the patriarchal roots go all the way back to the times when the original warlords from central Asia began making inroads into South Asia. Thus even the patriarchy of Taliban has its roots in the Proto-Brahmanical Steppe Aryans who camped in the BMAC region in the Bronze age. This doesn’t absolve the patriarchal elements in Islam that have no doubt played a role in the current state of affairs, but sadly the focus on Islam as a determinant is clearly overstated.
Also, some have even argued that Islam itself began to truly crystalize in its current cis-hetero-patriarchal nature around the time of the Abbasid takeover from Ummayads. Could the Ummayad interactions with the Brahmanical kingdoms of Northwestern South Asia also played a role in it? Maybe, but that’s speculative as this angle has not been studied in South Asian and Islamic studies and beyond the limited scope of this essay.
In essence, to tackle the problems of patriarchy in South Asia, “Smashing Brahmanical Patriarchy” is imperative as illustrated by Bengal and Bangladesh. Before Malala and thousands others have a chance at justice, we must first look to give justice to Kuru Queens of the Iron Age.