Time was a cycle for the wise ones. The glittering stars of the heavens danced to the rhythm of the gods. A thousand mind-born Manus had birthed a thousand humanities. The Blessed Lord had sung his sacred song to a thousand suns and a thousand Arjunas. The divine comedy of karma had crossed a thousand ironies and a thousand tragedies. So for thousands of years, those believers of this great cycle, the Indians, did not write their histories. Indian history became stories moving from ear to ear. A magical tongue rang around sacred fires as these stories soon morphed into a society.
Soon etchings would erupt along the Indus, the Saraswati, the Ganga, the Yamuna, and more and more rivers. Many were lost with time as the history of India captured in its early construction returned to the soils and sands from whence it came. But some etchings evolved. The Itihasa and Puranas would form a cultural encyclopedia of ancient India. Poetry and prose defined its people.
The successors of these great reservoirs of Dharma were the Sramanas. Lord Mahavir and Lord Buddha would turn the wheel of Dharma as a grand march of fire-cloaked mendicants began across India and beyond into the unknown realms of Asia. India entered the Axial Age with a turning of the mind. In the golden shadows of these Mahatmas, we find some of the first records of those who journeyed to India – of the Greeks and the Romans. This is the India they saw.
Migrations have defined the story of humanity. From the great exodus out of Africa to taming the Patagonian wilds, layer upon layer of settlement would create continuums of people across the world. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, would describe this layering of society as a palimpsest, a parchment on which the original writing had been reused or refaced with new writing yet fragments of the old remain. No two societies fulfill this idea of a palimpsest better than India and America, albeit in different ways. Rhodes and Romans and the Renaissance and Rousseau would form a chain of thought bursting into a revolution as America recognized the Atlantic and ripped itself from Great Britain. Integral to this upstart nation was immigration. Echoing their fantastical Roman roots, Americans would be raised by wolves in this new wildland and welcomed any man dogged enough to join their ranks.
A dream was promised and sung across the world of this virgin country of opportunity and tenacity. This torch-bearing democracy would soon attract denizens of a land that hosted one the earliest forms of democracy in the world. Small numbers of Indians would settle on the golden coast of California in the 19th century. The iconic American revolutionary zeal and thirst for democracy would inspire some Indians to found the Ghadar Party in San Francisco in order to fulfill the destiny of a free India. Bhicaji Bhalsara, a Parsi from Bombay, was the first Indian to gain naturalized US citizenship in 1909 after a lengthy court battle. A small trickle of immigration would continue until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act did away with national quotas paving the way for larger amounts of Indians to migrate.
Caste is the basic building block of Indian society and democracy. It decentralizes India and creates a fractal overlay across society enveloping every facet of life. Much can be said about its origins and heterodoxies, but today I want to explore how it influences politics and modern society. While caste’s impact on Indian society is mixed, I believe caste politics is the single most corrosive and destructive element in Indian democracy today. So many policy problems can be traced to the dizzying devilry that results from the lunacy of caste tribalism.
But why is caste so important to Indians in the first place? Caste serves multiple functions. Caste is a community. A sense of belonging and asabiyyah when times get tough. When the riots hit, it is your caste kin who will take and throw punches for you. It gives you your rituals, your traditions, your ways of worship, and so much more. Many castes have a divine origin story or a tale where their caste bravely overcame injustices from that caste. Caste is a polity. When election time comes, the candidate from your caste ensures your castemen will occupy government positions, be forgiven of crimes, and have a seat at the roundtable of power, perhaps even the throne itself. Caste is an economy. It can be a financial safety net, a business network, or a source of credit and capital. It can be the cornering of a market or government seats. Caste is all-encompassing, as real and essential as air and water for so many Indians.
So what separates run-of-the-mill 1990s Mandal-type caste politics from Jatitva? Jatitva is the political expression of Critical Caste Theory. Jatitva is Mandalism taken to its logical conclusions. It is the view that the Indian state should exist to be beholden to one’s caste. If Hindutva means a Hindu Rashtra, Jatitva means Jati Rashtras, where one’s caste must be the most powerful demographic group in their locale; if this isn’t achieved, then India must be decentralized heavily or even break. Jatitva means caste should define India. It claims one’s caste is more important than an overarching Hinduism, if not the rejection of mainstream Hinduism itself. Jatitva presents Hinduism as a societal ruse of ruin, Hindutva as a political conspiracy, and the Indian state as an economic oppressor.
India is changing. For years the BJP has been banging drums, tolling bells, and blowing conches to signal a New India. A mammoth mandate in 2019 was an early smoke signal for the fire that had erupted in the Indian market, but now a flurry of foreign praise answers the call of the drums, bells, and conches previously labeled as empty and enemy propaganda. Ironically, the newly found foreign admirers just a few years back cried wolf as they predicted India to turn into a hellscape due to what they saw as economic mismanagement, not listening to “experts,” religious tensions, some random picture they saw on the internet, or any other reason a comprador elite would pass on from the home country. What changed?
There are plenty of articles about India’s rise, but very few about why. The reason for this is that they would have to associate with someone untouchable in their ivory towers. The government primarily responsible for this rise is not only the arch-nemesis of the narrators of India to the West but also has a terribly difficult time presenting their case in a manner that doesn’t involve frothing at the mouth. There have been many mistakes made along the way. There are many critiques worth their weight. But one has to start acknowledging that something special is occurring in India. Let’s explore why.
For a foreigner, India is an assault on the senses. A land of every extreme you can imagine, every data point you can parse, and every anecdote you can hazard is found in this heterogenous homeland. An opulent ancient structure makes way for decrepit shantytowns which morph into a 21st-century skyscraper. Blaring horns that find a home on every road transform into the blowing of a conch and eternal songs. Pollution stings your nose and strangles your throat until you find refuge in the appetizing aroma of an eatery. Every flavor is expressed in a single bite of a chaat, akin to instruments combining in an orchestra of taste. An omnipresent dust travels across your skin as you hold the hands of a loved one not seen in ages. At this point, I feel a bit like Rupi Kaur narrating a diaspora novella about a visit to the homeland, but I’m guessing you get the point.
As a tsunami of social justice sweeps across the world today, the roots of traditions are uprooted in an unrelenting furor. In India, the axe of modernity grinds against the caste system as caste, the primary identity of many Indians, now faces pressure from more cosmopolitan identities such as political ideology and class. While many see this as a positive development, some seek not only to entrench these age-old divisions but also enflame the trenches with the kerosene of hate. Building upon and going beyond colonial caste activists such as Ambedkar and the Phules, modern sociologists devise a theory designed to shatter Indian society and grant deliverance to the lower castes of India. While much of this theory is plagiarized from the infamous Critical Race Theory of America, caste is not race and race is not caste. You cannot tell someone’s caste by the color of their complexion or the features of their face. With the rise of Hindutva attracting a rainbow coalition of castes granting a decisive mandate to the BJP in India, the opposition seeks to break this coalition by inciting caste tensions, and it is in Critical Caste Theory that they find a prophetic message to part the saffron sea.
Critical Caste Theory does not seek the annihilation of caste no matter how much it harps on this talking point. Rather, it seeks the annihilation of Brahminism, a polemic and deceptive term for Hinduism originally used by Jesuit missionaries and colonial scholars. It is in the rigid contours of caste that CCT activists see the opportunity to exploit and shatter the cultural and religious body of India and Hinduism. Upper castes must be made aware of their ancestral penalties of the past, privilege of the present, and penance of the future. The lower castes must be made aware of the oppression of the past, discrimination of the present, and revolution of the future. The cloak of caste must smother all discourse surrounding politics, economics, and culture. And most of all – caste must be framed as a simple, homogenous concept that conquers time and space; heterogeneity is heresy.
About 45 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate. The union between these earthen pieces bore giants – the Himalayas. These soaring temples of stone would decide the fate of Indians for millions of years. The Himalayan earth wrapped by the highest winds in the world would give birth to water. Glaciers turned into rivers that turned into Goddesses as Indians would later dutifully worship these daughters of the Himalayas. The great mountains would breathe the monsoon winds across the subcontinent as each exhale and inhale covered the soil in greenery. Fertile river basins would flourish as different cultures thrived in this Petri dish of geography, which soon enough would evolve into civilization.
There is nothing that quite mimics the bloodsport and realpolitik of Game of Thrones like Indian politics. Hereditary houses and regional satraps are now collapsing as a dragon-bellied leviathan engulfs India in an unending fire. From the ashes of the old guard spawn new elites eager to stamp themselves into the saga of the saffron march. A peerless leader of ordinary origin puts storied royalty to the sword as internal rivals are bashed by his hilt and banished to the hills.
And yet neither fantasy prose nor bardic poetry can capture the chaotic current of India’s political maelstrom. For over 8 years, international commentary and their increasingly irrelevant local compradors have produced reams of toilet paper (single ply of course) that describe India as they want it – a failed state on the cusp of economic collapse – not as it actually is. According to them, the government is brewing a communal froth that overflows into a front-page genocide. A revolution of minorities and proletariat will soon shatter the state, as well as those pesky bigoted Gujarati politicians and profiteers, ushering in a return to the Nehruvian utopia that featured diversity, secularism, and abysmal development ripe for poverty porn.
Does that mean everything is rosy for the party of the lotus? Definitely not. In fact, prominent supporter ire has been a more pronounced theme than ever before in the past few years, yet the BJP maintains or even increases vote share as election victories abound and opposition governments fall to the quakes in the wake of the election juggernaut.
Nowhere does antiquity animate politics and society like India. Some pan on for a golden age of yore that is more myth than matter. Others want to incinerate the past as they view it as an age of oppression and inherent ignorance. Still, some are completely ambivalent to it, viewing attachments to the era of ancients as useless, tradition as fruitless, and machine-like pragmatism as the sole solution to India’s salvation.
Yet I believe, as in most cases, there needs to be a Middle Path. The roots of Indian identity are deeply embedded in the sacred earth of the subcontinent. People are naturally moved by myths and stories. They fight not only for resources and material goods but also for ideas and gods. A state can only derive legitimacy from brute power for so long; eventually, it must also sustain trust and belief in something beyond the cold machinations of bureaucrats and bullets. A state must uphold something greater than itself. An idea that is based on principle, on struggle, on beauty. For India, the incarnation of that idea is obvious – Dharma. For it is only the wheel of Dharma that has outlasted every hegemon and human that has walked Bhārat.
What makes an Indian? Is it the passport? The genetics? The culture? The religion? The food? The fashion? All of the above? It’s a question that’s been hotly debated amongst the citizens of the Indian Republic since the bloody partition and independence of 1947. Praise of India’s diversity finds purchasing power both inside and outside its borders, but this diversity does come at a cost. Between religion, caste, ethnicity, language, and so many other identities, India at times seems to tear from its seams. Harbingers of hatred need no excuse to dig into the annals of history finding division and discord that can be applied today. One proposed division takes us to the time of India’s infancy. From the southern tip of the grand Indian peninsula came an ideology that posited that Dravidians, a speculative group of people who speak Dravidian languages, as the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. The patriarch of this ideology, EV Ramaswamy, known as Periyar amongst his faithful, spewed venom and violence against the “invader” north Indians and their Brahmin patriarchs and progeny.
But how accurate is this notion? Was there an idyllic, secular, and rational society prior to when the first horse hooves of the steppe stampeded into India? Did these “Aryans” bring a foreign religion called Hinduism into India as well and impose it on the Dravidians who followed a now lost faith? Half truths at least; full falsehoods at most.
Societies are stories. They are the fallout of generations of narrations about our past and who we are. Jawaharlal Nehru, freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister, sought to weave an “Idea of India” that was a composite tapestry of Hindu and Muslim fabrics. That tapestry has been torn to shreds for several decades now. Instead, it has been Hindutva that has supplanted the Nehruvian sacrament as the sacred fire of the yajna of yore engulfs Indians politics and a common Indian identity built on Dharma gains popularity.
But not all bow to the ritual of these ancients.
Politics Is War
There are few places where historical invasions animate the populace more than India. While much of this headspace is focused on more recent Islamic invasions of the medieval era as well as British imperialism of the colonial era, in some pockets of India, headaches originate from invasions in a time where history wasn’t even recorded in India. A missing memory of the subcontinent.
These battles are highlighted in the deep south of India, Tamil Nadu and lately have entered elite academic debates on caste. The conflict in Tamil Nadu is over the ancient peopling of India with an onus on the enigmatic Aryans. But this piece is not going to exclusively focus on the migration of the Aryans into India; there are many that do. What we will examine are the many migrations into and within India as well as the present political consequences. But first, let’s establish some quick background.
The aboriginal Indian, whose genes run through the blood of nearly everyone from the Indian subcontinent, descended into the subcontinent around 50,000-70,000 years ago. This population would become known as AASI – Ancient Ancestral South Indian.
The Iranian hunter-gatherer would enter India around 10,000 years ago and mix with aboriginals to form the Indians who gave rise to the Indus Saraswati Civilization.
The steppe component entered India most probably in waves after 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE. They are usually the big hubbub as they are posited to be the legendary Aryans, but more on this later.
The Austronesian component would enter from southeast Asia at a similar time of 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE.
There are other migrations into and outflows from the subcontinent as well, but for now let’s call the aforementioned out as the prominent ones we know of today. Feel free to dive into the 2 pieces I mentioned prior. I highly recommend them as they are treasure troves of information.
One of the most potent lines of rhetoric that stems from Hindutva discourse is that it is fundamentally an indigenous rights movement. “Indigenous rights” – that phrase is a sacred cow today. Conjuring the bloody European campaign of terror that walked in lock step with colonialism, those who were crushed under the European heel are today demanding their reparations and retribution. In Western discourse, you cannot dare to cross these lines of persuasion. Indigeneity evokes powerful emotions and a primordial attachment to the land, where the spirits of ancestors connect to the soil itself.
But where Hindutva’s call of indigeneity faces hurtles is the proposed ancient migrations into India. Keep in mind that migrations have occurred across the world, yet this notion of indigeneity is only challenged in India. The nomadic Mexica people would clear out the valley of Mexico before they established Tenochtitlan and became the Aztecs. A substantial genetic portion and culture of the ancestors of the emblematic Greeks, Romans, hell, so many Europeans come from the steppe in the model we are discussing. The ancient Egyptians did not speak Arabic nor had a 1 to 1 genetic makeup to modern Egyptians. The massive Bantu expansion across Sub-Saharan Africa was not a Mandelan march of peace. Yet it is only in India that this standard of indigeneity is upheld. Indra, who rides an Indian elephant and blesses the agricultural Indian with rain for their crops, is a steppe central Asian god; but Zeus and Thor are decidedly Greek and Nordic. I think you see the double standard here.
While much attention and ire surrounds the entry of the Aryans into India, little is sounded around the Dravidians. And therein lies the hypocrisy. Politics flows from emotion first, then logic.
As we established prior, the Indian population is a mixture of 3 large waves or migrations. This 2nd migration consists of a group that was related to, but distinct from, Iranian agriculturalists in the Zagros mountains. In the shadow of the Zagros is where the people of Elam flourished. From around 3200-540 BCE, the Elamites formed the eastern frontier of the Fertile Crescent. The Elamites worshipped a menagerie of gods, many of whom they shared with Akkadian Mesopotamians, and spoke a purported language isolate; but some believe it had a cognate. The proposed cousin is to the east, in the Indus Saraswati Civilization; a civilization that the Elamites traded with frequently. The proposition is that the ancestors of the Zagros farmers of Elam kept moving east and mingled with the AASI Indians eventually forming the base population for the Indus Saraswati peoples (and much of the genetic makeup of modern Indians themselves). Ironically, this means there was an earlier set of Indo-Iranians prior to the Indo-European speaking Indo-Iranians. History indeed loves to rhyme and repeat!
The common characterization of these Vedic peoples is that they came into India and wiped out the natives, completely destroying their culture and bringing their traditions as the new centerpiece of Indian civilization. But this is not true either. With climate and geological changes, the Indus Saraswati civilization waned eventually collapsing prior to the entry of the steppe people. These steppe people would come into India and indeed would conquer, but they would then be integrated completely. They came, they saw, they conquered, and then they were swallowed.
The people who wrote the Vedas were in love and reverent to the land of India. The rivers, mountains, plains, forests, even the literal dirt itself was holy to them. Their gods were flanked with Indian flora and fauna. They delved into philosophies and rituals alien to the wider world. They were a profoundly unique people who would not be who they were if they did not live and die in India.
Over time, many of the gods who found the most praise in the Vedas, the lords of the elements such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc…, would give way to other divinities who would eclipse them in prominence. Vishnu’s greatness could be gleaned throughout the early Vedic verses as he was frequently paired with Indra, Surya, Agni, and light itself. He was referenced as the guardian of the highest home, where a soul that has broken the cycle of reincarnation resides. The dawn of Vishnu and Shiva would arrive with the transition to the Puranas and Itihasa epics. In the Yajurveda, Narayana, a popular epithet for Vishnu, is mentioned as the supreme being. The icon of the Pashupati seal of the Indus, Shiva, known as Rudra in the Vedas also makes frequent appearances as a lord of storms and destruction. Adorned with a cobra for a necklace, his home in the Himalayas, the sacred Ganga river springing from his matted locks, and donning leopard skin, Shiva’s iconic Indian brand radiates his local roots.
Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation, watched as his adoptive father, Nand, prepared to pray to Indra to bless them with rain. The young Krishna would chide his father for fearfully worshipping a god who had grown jealous and arrogant with power. He instead told his father and the villagers to pray to the mountain Govardhan and revere their cattle for those were the true guaranteers of their agricultural success. An incensed Indra would send a terrible torrent on Krishna’s home, Braj, flooding the land. The legend climaxes with Krishna lifting Govardhan with his finger, protecting Braj from the storm, and humbling Indra into obeisance. Perhaps this represents the transition of which god(s) curried the most favor with the ancient Indians. Perhaps not, but it is a convenient tale.
So ironic this is, as much of India owes itself to Tamil Nadu. From the wise Vedanta philosopher, Ramanuja, whose ideas catapulted the Bhakti movement across all of India to the great Chola emperors (who funny enough referred to themselves as Aryans) who carried the Tamil crown across the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Tamil Nadu functioned as the incubator and refuge of a Hinduism ravaged in the north during medieval invasions. Scores of Tamil scientists, especially the former Indian President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, would push Indian technology and capability forward making the lives of all Indians better. Yet today, it is Periyar’s ideology that dominates the Tamil political sphere.
One of the more disturbing parts about the effect of such simplistic takes on ancient Indian migrations is a niche form of genetic supremacy that is developing. While some embellish the stature of their steppe DNA, others claim themselves as the true aboriginal of the land due to their large proportion of AASI lineage. They go so far as even asking for reparations based on this poppycock of logic. While there is some correlation between mixes of steppe, IVC, and AASI lineages around caste, it is an imperfect and a diverse amount that is in the end, a mixture. All Indians are an amalgamation of these people to various degrees. There is almost no pure steppe, IVC, or AASI person in the subcontinent (the Andaman Nicobar people may be sole exception on the AASI front). The movement towards heightened caste consciousness combined with the advocation of an almost racial element to caste could be potentially disastrous for India.
India’s history is one of syncretism and synchronization. Multiple identities, ideas, and itihasas were welded together by the Vedic verses millennia ago. Both the Brahmins and Śramanas or priests and ascetics traversed the Indian expanse and spread the message of Dharma. Still, they all agreed on the inherent divinity and sacredness of the subcontinent, of Bhārata. That is what distinguishes these people, these ideas, and these philosophies from the rest of the world. Indeed, as one delves into the story of India, a story that encapsulates much of human history and audacity of both thought and action, one attains the truth in the Mahabharata’s triumphant epilogue: