Major Amin; a few words on Pakistan, Afghanistan and China

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

Last time we interviewed Major Amin just after the fiasco of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. That was a relatively substantive interviey w (you can listen to it at this link: Major Amin on the age of strategic anarchy) and proved extremely popular, so there was a lot of demand to invite Major Amin back for an update. I caught up with the Major in a less than sober mood initially (some of you may have heard that recording) when he expressed his disappointment with how badly things are going in his homeland in somewhat colorful language, but at his request we have now redone this interview (the exact same questions) in a more sober tone. Enjoy.

Book Review: Rivals by Dr Saad Shafqat

Rivals: Saad Shafqat: Bloomsbury India

A review I wrote for India Today a few months ago.

Rivals is the third book and second novel from the pen of Dr Saad Shafqat, professor of neurology at the Agha Khan Hospital and Medical School in Karachi. He started writing with pieces about cricket and is the proud author of Javed Miandad’s autobiography (“cutting edge”) as well as a previous medical thriller (“breath of death”). This book is set in the same “Avicenna University Hospital” (a thinly disguised version of the author’s actual place of work) as his first novel, but the main protagonist in this one is not terrorists or terrorist hunters but doctors competing for a prestigious department chairmanship.
The book opens with Dr Tanya Shah at her morning constitutional and the author is clearly familiar with the world of Karachi’s rich and famous. As she puts on her Maria B lawn suit and grabs her Luis Vuitton bucket bag and heads out to work, every detail is lovingly described; Unfortunately, another character is also at his morning constitutional at exactly the same time, shaving his pubes and underarms so that he can be in a state of ritual purity when he meets his 72 virgins. Yes, there is a suicide bombing in chapter 2, but while it will play a bit of a role in the drama that unfolds later, this is not really a book about Islamist terrorists or their victims. It is a book about Dr Tanya Shah and her colleague Dr Hammad Khan, professor of ophthalmology and her rival in the race to become Avicenna’s next chief of surgery. Dr Hammad plots sexual escapades with medical reps and underhand maneuvers to undermine Dr Shah’s candidacy with his hangers on while sipping cocktails at an elite club, while a “white tiger” type ambulance driver and a bomb victim’s poor mother add some working-class spice to the mix. There is also a lot of medical excitement (operating room, trauma surgery, that sort of thing) that is well written and interesting.

The book is generally well written and is a fun and easy read, but the characters are not fully developed and promising detours frequently fade out without getting anywhere genuinely exciting. Still, it is set in Karachi and anyone with any connection to the medical world will find many familiar sights and sounds and depictions to keep him interested. And while there is a suicide bombing and some run ins with poor people, the book cannot be accused of relying on either poverty porn or Jihad-mongering for cheap thrills. Instead, Dr Shafqat stays mostly with the world he knows well and avoids any temptation to crudely take notice of how westernized and “un-Islamic” it is. These doctors are worrying about publications, presentations, trainees, committee meetings, departmental politics and sexual scandals and their stories hold no grand political lessons and attempt to correct no terrible historical crimes. That at least is refreshing. Overall, a fun read, but one is left with the feeling that it could have been better.

 

Afghan Chaos. Dr Hamid Hussain’s view..

From Dr Hamid Hussain. As readers of this blog know, our other Pakistani military history contributor (Major Amin) has a harsher version of the same situation: that there is chaos in Afghanistan and it will drag all neighbors into trouble with it. Dr Hamid, a nice guy at heart, is willing to hope for peace a little more than Major Amin.. (the initial response is about what the American policymakers are thinking of doing)

17 October 2021

Following was part of conversations with many with first hand knowledge about the region.  This gentleman had front row seat to many changes in the region and he was kind enough to candidly share his views with me & my response. It may be of interest to some.

Hamid

Thanks Sir.  I think you got it right about potential risks for the region.  I know that in polite conversations, these topics are not discussed but in the real and cruel world people talk about their dreams and delusions and it is directly proportional to the level of their knowledge or ignorance. This has been at least my experience of dealing with many from different countries who have front row seat to this blood sport.

Here are my two cents.  In my view, there is no agreement yet about the policy going forward but there are conversations about what is called ‘controlled chaos’.  Some see huge opportunities in current situation where all potential trouble makers in Washington’s eyes can be paid back in the same coin.  Keeping Russia busy defending its southern borders by spending more military and diplomatic capital, highlighting human rights violations of Uighurs on diplomatic front and limited support to do some fireworks in Xinjiang by using Wakhan corridor, destabilize Iran’s eastern border thus almost completely encircling Iran as currently, Israel is using Iraqi Kurdistan and Azerbaijan to cause troubles.  Igniting another border and more involvement in Afghanistan will waste more Iranian intelligence resources.  Turkey under neo-Ottoman dreamer Erdogan has gone from ‘zero trouble with neighbors’ foreign policy of decades to ‘100 % trouble with every neighbor’ quagmire.  He is arrogant and ignorant enough to be easily enticed into putting his hand in the snake pit of Afghanistan.  There have been reports of increasing Turkish parleys with Pakistan and several mysterious military flights from Istanbul to Chaklala air base have landed.  We don’t know the details yet but I’m suspicious that the cargo has something to do with Afghanistan and it is not humanitarian aid.

Everyone and his cousin in Washington is very angry at Pakistan.  The dangerous part is that now Afghanistan is not seen as a separate entity for management purposes.  The talk is about region and it is now ‘Pak-Af’ that means support of anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly on political front at this stage and if needed in future a military front can also come into play.  Goal is to create a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around Talib country of southern and eastern Afghanistan that is traditional Loy Kandahar and Loy Paktiya regions.  This means strengthening both Pushtun and Baloch nationalist forces in Baluchistan.  In Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK), if Pushtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is converted into a political party and moribund Awami National Party (ANP) wakes up and revamps its structure, it can create a political barrier to Taliban narrative.  In addition to these ethnic forces, two major political parties; Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have no love lost for Afghan Taliban.  During their respective tenures (2008-2018), they have tried desperately to get rid of flea infested Afghan blanket but army came in the way. Even limited retreat of the army in current scenario provides the room for push back for all anti-Taliban forces.

Afghan Taliban leadership will try a hand at ‘reverse strategic depth’ by supporting religious segment especially fellow Pushtun Deobandi lot of KPK, Baluchistan and metropolis of Karachi.  This will be their attempt at political front.  In future, if circumstances force a military front then their natural allies will be Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

For the northern part of the region, there is talk about the Kurdish model that was adopted for Iraq.  A de facto independent region although Afghan scene is quite different as there is no history of separatism among non-Pushtuns and also it is not one single ethnic entity in the north.  If somehow, this time around non-Pushtuns come to the conclusion that Taliban are a dominant military force in control of Kabul for forseeable future who are not willing to share and they don’t have strong Pushtun partners to wrest control back and run as a joint venture, then other options come to the table.  Even in that case, this model will require some modification.  One possibility is the ‘canton model’ attempted in Syria for different ethnic and sectarian groups.  The base for northern plan will likely be Tajikistan.  Contrary to popular belief, it will be Afghan players that will determine the future course, outsiders will be simply enablers.

In my view ‘controlled chaos’ is a misnomer as chaos takes its own course and apprentice sorcerers can not even comprehend let alone control it. My personal view is that like every government change (although we may not agree with the method of taking control), Taliban should be given a chance of at least three years to prove what they mean?  Formal recognition can be kept at back burner for now while channels kept open at different levels.  In the meantime humanitarian aid channeling directly to the people to prevent famine and further dislocations while gently pushing Taliban to modify their stance on some issues especially inclusion of other groups and female education.  On part of Talib, if he can keep violence below a certain threshold where it does not hamper daily activities for the next few years, that will be an achievement.  In my view patience is needed but alas patience has never been an American virtue.

“The everlasting battle stripped from us care of our own lives or of others”.  T. E. Lawrence

Warm Regards,

Hamid

Early Hinduism – the epic stratification

This essay is highly speculative in nature and I have many doubts about many of the things stated below, but I have tried to coherently bring together distinct threads of early Indian history into an explanation for the great stratification of Jati-Varna


Ancient history is in general a tricky subject to delve into, but when it comes to ancient Indian history, the tricky becomes almost entirely speculative. The entire narrative is based on a series of texts, from the Vedic canon to Pali texts – none of them are dated precisely in absolute terms. The paucity of inscriptions from ancient India makes dating much more difficult as oral texts are much harder to accurately date.

Ms Sarah Welch, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Ashoka’s major rock edict – the earliest inscription from Ancient India.

One of the early inscriptions from Ancient India, Ashoka’s 13th major rock edict from Kandahar reads

Except among the Greeks, there is no land where the religious orders of Brahmanas and Sramanas are not to be found, and there is no land anywhere where men do not support one sect or another.

Here Brahmanas are mentioned but not as a Varna per se but as analogous to various Sramanas (priests / philosophers). Some academics have come to regard the Sramana traditions as somewhat antagonistic to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions. However, the earliest written reference to these traditions, Ashoka’s Rock Edicts mention them always together. Patanjali and others too mostly mention them together and never as quite as antagonistic as later Sramana canon or modern scholarship would have us believe.

However, it is undeniable that one cannot be understood without the challenges presented by the other. Ahimsa and Vegetarianism are generally acknowledged (and contested) to be Sramana influences on Classical Hinduism. A lot of digital and literal ink has been spilled to answer the question of how these two currents have interacted and shaped each other – mostly through the lens of Ahimsa, Dha(r/m)ma, Moksha and only rarely Karma.

Vedic deities Indra and Surya at the entrance of Buddhist cave in Bhaja (200 BCE – 100 CE)

Johannes Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha thesis offers a tenuous but interesting take on these interactions. The basic premise of the thesis is that the region of Greater Magadha was home to the Proto-Sramana traditions while the Kuru-Panchala region to the Vedic Brahmanas and that many ideas central to classical Hinduism like Karma, Rebirth, and Ayurveda came into it from the Sramana traditions of the Greater Magadha via the esoteric Upanishads (especially the ones which were composed in the horizon of Greater Magadha). The whole thesis rests on the revised chronology which only makes sense if the thesis is true – so I doubt the book is going to convince anyone. But it has catalyzed a rudimentary and dormant theory that came to my mind years ago while reading Ambedkar’s writings.

The composition of the Manava Dharma Shastra (100 BCE to 200 AD) is generally considered to be an indication (or instrument) of Varna ossification. The Varna system in some form ought to have existed (especially in the Gangetic heartland) since the late Vedic period (Purusha Sukta), yet both textual and genetic evidence points to this period as being one of great mixing. Hence it is fair to assume that whatever rudimentary Varna system existed, it was not very rigidly followed in these times. Also its important to note that traditional Varna system may have never been a reality south of the Vindhyas.

It is difficult to pin the Varna ossification to any particular political period. The only pan India ancient empire – the Mauryas are unlikely to have imposed any Varna hierarchy on their subjects as the pedagogic Ashoka doesn’t once mention Varna in his Rock Edicts. The Shungas are seen as the Brahmanical pushback against excesses of the Mauryan state but their power was both too limited in time and too restricted in region to have made any major impact. The same is true for most other political powers in the country for the next 500 years.

Brahmins had begun moving out of the Gangetic heartland as early as the late Vedic period itself. So why did the Varna system, suddenly begin to ossify  centuries later? Surely some metaphysical, philosophical, and/or political explanation is required to make sense of this phenomenon. Also, Jati endogamy which is the true hallmark of the Indian Caste system cannot be explained by the Brahmanical Varna system – even the rigid one prescribed in the Manusmriti. The answers may lie in a core philosophy of the Indic faith systems.

So what is the common characteristic that defines Indian religious thought? The answer is easy – the concept of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma. Even if we reject the thesis of Greater Magadha, we have to accept that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma are explored in far more detail in the Sramana schools – namely Buddhists, Jainas, and Ajivikas. The whole philosophical aim of the Sramana schools is to avoid Bad Karma to primarily get Good Karma and finally Moksha. This is in clear contrast with mainstream Vedic thought. Though the early Upanishads (Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka) touch the Karma doctrine it’s in no way as critically dissected as by the Sramanas. The lengths to which the Jainas and Ajivikas go to avoid all Karma; the detailed linking of the intention of the “Actor” to the Karma done by Buddha illustrate that the Sramanas, in general, were way more focused on Karma than their Brahmana counterparts. More importantly, the concept of Karmic retribution in Rebirth is much more detailed in early Sramana traditions than the Upanishads (Yajnavalkya doesn’t link Karma directly to Rebirth but discusses both separately). So it remains fair to assume that even if doctrines of Rebirth and Karma didn’t come into Classical Hinduism as an import from Sramana traditions, it can surely be thought that the Sramana innovations in the Karma and Rebirth doctrines challenged the more “this-worldly outlook” of the Vedic Brahmanas.

But how does this matter to the Jati Varna matrix? The initial conception of Varna sees it as a natural order of things (not unlike stratification seen in most ancient societies). Moreover, this conception is in no way rejected by the Sramana traditions even Buddhism – thought Buddha did not give Varna the emphasis it received from the Vedic Brahmanas.  Even today caste is practiced in the Jainas. So how did the conception of Karmic retribution affect this system? The answer seems obvious enough. It meant that the position of one in the Varna hierarchy could be justified as the fruit of Karma of previous births and not only as a Natural order. In other words, the ritual status was awarded to certain births for their good Karma and vice-versa. In many ways, Karmic retribution is a fundamental shift from the “this-worldly” ways of the composers of Rigveda.

This change is captured in the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most important book of the Hindu canon. While there continue to be many interpretations of the doctrine of Karma espoused in the Gita, the one reading tells us to fulfill the Dharma (of your Varna/ Position/ Situation) with the implication that it would result in Good Karma and better Rebirths – the ultimate aim of Moksha notwithstanding. That indeed seems to be one of the simplistic messages of the Gita which would have begun spreading in the society with the final versions of Mahabharata. The prescriptive Manusmriti is one thing, but the bonafide revelation of Gita is another (though it is not my point that Karmic retribution is the core message of Gita but it is hard to argue against it being a vehicle of the spread of these memes). This doesn’t mean that Varna became birth-based at this moment in history – it is fair to assume it always was at least partially birth-based though more flexible. But we can state that at this stage, one’s Birth became Karma-based and Varna also became inextricably linked to Karma. 

This could have resulted in two primary effects:

  • It would mitigate the sense of injustice perceived by sections of the society who had it tough. The injustice of birth was not injustice but the karmic justice of previous births.
  • It associated “ritual Varna hierarchy and division of labor” with moral dimension (Karma of previous birth). Potentially this moral dimension would buttress the existing Varna hierarchy.

It’s easy to imagine how this would in turn result in decreasing porousness between Varnas. Incidentally, this is attested through the first/second-century inscription near Nasik by Brahmana Satavahana Queen Gotami, which praises how her son prevented the mixing of the Varnas. This is one of the most solidly dated references against the mixing of Varnas (as it is an inscription) issued by a political authority (not just religious abstractions).

However in a pre-modern subcontinent without a strong centralized state, these ideas would have spread very slowly through the network of Brahmins and various (particularly) Vaishnava sects through the vehicle of Gita. The Hindu Golden age of the Imperial Vaishnavite Guptas – who ruled the second-largest and arguably the richest empire of ancient India, in the fourth/fifth century AD nicely correlates with these timelines. Thus we could say that by the time of the Huna invasions of the 5th and 6th century the Varna ossification was prevalent, but even that doesn’t explain the complete story. Still, we have no philosophical or scriptural basis for Jati endogamy.

Irawati Karve – a pioneering Indian Anthropologist / Indologist

Anthropologist Irawati Karve in her book “Hindu society” was one of the earliest to claim that the Jati system was a pre-Aryan reality upon which the abstraction of the Aryan Varna system was imposed. Academically her work has been contested and not accepted in mainstream Indology, but her case is very compelling, given that it is based on her immense fieldwork in “Non-Aryan” tribes who have maintain very strict endogamy. But how does her thesis map onto what we know from genetics? Endogamy in India roughly seems to have ossified between 0 AD and 500 AD but who is to say that less rigid endogamy (not detectable) was not the norm earlier? Is it possible that the self-conception of Jatis is indeed is an ancient Pre-Aryan reality that was less rigid during the Vedic times? Clearly, there are no easy answers as all we can do is speculate and wait for Ancient DNA from India to show if there existed any pre-Aryan structure in the populations of the Indus valley.

Many tribal (hunter-gatherer) societies have endogamy baked into their cultures. But generally, as these tribal societies get integrated into the agricultural societies, this endogamy tends to break down – as evident for recent genetic findings (particularly Europe). But what if the tribal societies which integrated into the emerging Urban civilizations (first the Indus and then the Ganga) , never fully gave up their tribal/clan identities? The hundreds of excavated IVC villages point to sophisticated trade/occupational specialization. If both the sexes work in their ancestral trades per se, it would naturally result in tribal endogamy as it makes occupational sense. But that would not necessarily lead to rigid endogamy to the levels we see in the subcontinent- probably because this doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Though the identities of groups by kinship (precursor to Jati) may have existed even before the Varna system began to take form (let alone become rigid).

But why does this Jati endogamy become sharper with the ossification of the Varna system? Some take the explanation as Jatis arising out of the mixing of Varnas seriously, but that thesis (ludicrous imo) can be jettisoned without a second thought as Jatis exists even in those who are outside the Varna hierarchies. A potential answer may again lie in the doctrine of Karmic retribution.

Unlike the original simplistic Varna hierarchy – the concept of Karmic retribution enables hierarchies within hierarchies. Every Jati can be ranked within the Varna hierarchy based on the perceived moral inheritance (Karma) of their profession. Additionally, better births and even salvation are promised to the ones following their Jati-Varna Dharma. Thus Jatis would have both religious as well as occupational/cultural reasons for enforcing stricter endogamy which is far more believable than assuming these norms were somehow imposed across the subcontinent in pre-modern times by machinations of Dvija Varnas.

None of the above points are sufficient but all are necessary to explain the great vivisection of Indian society. Chronologically first the kinship-based (not gotra) groups were integrated into the expanding Aryavarta both culturally and genetically while the late Vedic abstractions of Varna and ritual purity began to take root in the orthodox Vedic traditions. When the rudimentary conceptions (Vedic or non-Vedic) of Karma and Rebirth were taken up by the Sramanas, taking them to a complex, philosophical, and rigorous extreme, they began to affect the Vedic philosophies.

In essence, the religious innovations of Karma, Rebirth and Dharma when coupled with pre-existing concepts of Varna, ritual purity, and tribal occupational endogamy conjure up a perfect storm that continues to flow through the blood of around 1/4th of humanity, in form of thousands of distinct streams. 


Post Script: 

  • What is not discussed above is the impact on the subcontinent of the violent Huna invasions which along with internal strife resulted in the collapse of the Gupta empire. The rapid de-urbanization which is speculated to have occurred in the fifth and sixth centuries would have also played a crucial role in this ossification. The second millennium with the Turkic invasions would have also played some role in the maintenance of this now-steady state.
  • I continue to have a lot of doubts about the above speculations, but when I read books on Indology and Indian prehistory, I find even more tenuous speculations (made by professional academics) than the ones I have proceeded to make in this essay. At least these speculations seem to align with the history alluded by the genetic data of caste (Or I have made them align).
  • I had thought along these lines even before reading about the interactions of Brahmanas and Sramanas but while reading the Greater Magadha thesis and following a YouTube seminar I thought the thrust of my current argument was staring me in the eye. I expected someone to draw the conclusions I had drawn, but was extremely surprised than no one has gone there.
  • The references for this essay are numerous and diverse to be noted here. Anyone interested please reach out to me.

 

Browncast: Anti Hindu violence in Bangladesh with Alex

Anti Hindu violence in Bangladesh

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

In this episode of Browncast, Mukunda and I host Alex Zuvran – the Ex Muslim Buddhist from Bangladesh. We touched upon the recent Anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh, Islamism, the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina, Cricket and a lot more. It was a fascinating conversation and some of the things Alex talked about made me feel slightly more hopeful about the situation.

The Sintashta horses!

The origins and spread of domestic horses from the Western Eurasian steppes:

Domestication of horses fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare1. However, modern domesticated breeds do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling…at Botai, Central Asia around 3500 BC3. Other longstanding candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia5 and Anatolia6, have also recently been challenged. Thus, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses have remained unknown. Here we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they expanded rapidly across Eurasia from about 2000 BC, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioural adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association7 between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe around 3000 BC driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the scenario in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium BC Sintashta culture.

The paper is open access. Basically the Sintashta seem to have triggered the equine revolution across Eurasia.

Thanu Padmanabhan, A Noted Indian Physcist Passed Away Last Month

https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/theoretical-physicist-thanu-padmanabhan-passes-away-in-pune-7514922/


https://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/pune-news/noted-physicist-thanu-padmanabhan-passed-away-in-pune-101631884585211.html

“Professor Ajit Kembhavi, former IUCAA director, who worked along with Prof Padmanabhan for the past more than 30 years, said, “He was an outstanding physicist, astronomer and scholar. He has written a series of highly acclaimed and technical books on different aspects of Theoretical Astrophysics and Theoretical Physics. It is a great loss to the astronomical community.” “


“This is one of the saddest days in the history of IUCAA, Pune and the Indian scientific community today. Professor Thanu Padmanabhan Padma Shri passed away this morning as a result of a cardiac arrest. Padmanabhan known as Paddy to us all, leaves behind his wife and daughter, innumerable friends, admirers, colleagues, teachers and his monumental legacy of research and textbooks.” said IUCAA director Prof Somak Raychaudhury.

Why the Aryan debate matters and why it should NOT

One of the earliest depictions of Rigvedic deities – Indra and Surya from Bhaja Caves near Lonavla.

A year after my blog post on the topic of the Aryan invasion, I am revisiting the topic on Brownpundits, not as a query into the historical question but as a question of identity and politics.

The Aryan debate touches a variety of political faultlines in India and hence is not going to be settled anytime soon I presume, yet intellectually I think it is a non-sequitur for most of the alleged issues around which the issue is discussed. Those issues being (not necessarily in order of importance)

  • Western colonialism and racism and its converse in India. (Identity)
  • The Jati-Varna system and its legacy in India
  • Dravidian nationalism
  • Islam and Christianity in Modern India.
  • Love for native antiquity and religious dogma.

My primary issue with the politics around this issue is that it clearly prevents intelligent and passionate people interested in the topic from pursuing it clear-headedly (Not that researchers don’t get illogically attached to their theories in face of overwhelming evidence). Perhaps the example of Colin Renfrew (Anatolian farmer hypothesis) accepting the Kurgan hypothesis (Marija Gimbutas) after the ancient DNA work came out is an outlier but it is still good to know such examples.

As far as the politics go, it’s fair to state that it’s the Hindutvadis who are at the vanguard of pushback against AIT/AMT (however it’s important to note that there are notable exceptions, and not all Hindutvavadis are invested in this debate). Also some non-Hindutvavadi (especially traditional Hindus and Indians with nativist anti-colonial mindset) are also invested in this debate.

Identity: Western colonialism and racism and its converse in India.

The genesis of the Aryan invasion theory was in the racist notions of white and European superiority – “White horse warriors who spoke a form a proto Sanskrit arrived in the subcontinent and subjugated the dark, stubby-nosed natives of India” (in process civilizing them). The extrapolation of this being – what the British colonizers were doing was just the latest upgrade of civilization being uploaded in the lands of relapsed natives. But then the stunning finds of the IVC began poking holes in this simplistic racist take. Though initially Indra was accused of the destruction of the IVC, later developments in the field acquitted him. However, it is important to note that as migrations became unpopular in global academia for the spread of cultures (post the Nazi Aryan theories), the Aryan migration theory remained mainstream in Indian academia (though the initial racist and simplistic narratives were rejected even by eminent Secular/Marxist historians).

Rejection of the AMT based on the circumstances of its genesis still remains a major reason for the rejection of AMT by Indians. The sentiment behind it being “No white men from outside civilized us”. However, it needs no pointing that in the academic chronology of Indian history, the Pre-Aryan IVC is the major Copper-Bronze age civilization known to us. As we discover more about pre Iron age peninsular India, we find the Stone-Chalcolithic age in the geographic region of India went far beyond the IVC and north Copper hoard sites. At this point, it is fair to assert that Rice cultivation developed somewhat independently in the region East of Punjab. Even basic ancient Indian books like Ancient India by Upinder Singh and India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma have good length devoted to non-IVC pre-Iron age India.

No white men from outside civilized us” seems settled but its converse is commonplace in nativist Indian circles these days. The term Indus valley “civilization” is only used for the 2600bce to 1900bce Urban period, yet the web is replete with articles that push back the dates of “civilization” in IVC sites (as back as 8000 BCE), particularly Rakhigarhi which incidentally falls in modern India. This need for everything good happened in Ancient India first manifests itself in badly researched and tenous articles like this one – My response to it – here.

I see this need to find Ancient Indian examples for political or scientific advances without robust data to be the mirror to the Racist colonial theories.

Varna divisions and Dravidian faultlines:

Some critiques of the AIT/AMT take umbrage to the instrumental use of AIT/AMT by Brahmins/Kshatriyas to justify the Varna system and also by Dalit/Bahujan activists to “Smash” Brahmanism and thus by proxy Hinduism. The annual Durga-Mahishasur controversy and the Vaman-Bali Onam flamewars keep the controversy in the news.

The Eurasian-like ancestry (ANI ancestry) in India (Both Steppe pastoralist and IVC-like) is mostly correlated with the Varna status. The somewhat ethnic nature of the Varna hierarchy is unpalatable for modern Hindus to digest. However, it is important to note that such ethnic divisions in classes are commonplace around the world. While it is fair to assume in pre-modern times the interactions which led to the great mixing of the Indian subcontinent (2000BCE to 0AD) had violence and exploitation cooked into them, the reasons also could be explained without the worst subjugation imaginable.

Anyways it’s a fool’s errand to indulge in finding conclusive evidence in pre-literate history, I would argue that the question of Aryan Migration is irrelevant to this oppressor-oppressed narratives. From outsiders’ accounts, native sources as well as genetics, I think it is fair to conclude that after initial intermixing, a group of people who happened to have a higher proportion of certain ancestry (genetic/ cultural) dominated another set of people – either organically or systemically. Razib Khan makes this point very succinctly in his substack.

However, to this uncomfortable conclusion, it does not matter whether the ancient Arya expanded from the Kazakh steppes or the Punjab region or even Anatolia for that matter. The boundaries of Aryavarta in the subcontinent were themselves always expanding into their margins, and only after the complete expansion does the notion of Sacred geography become important; not before. Politically this point will be made either honestly or dishonestly by westerners and political opponents of Hinduism (not just Hindutva) – but there is space for a nuanced counter without indulging in ad-hoc denial which logically may be irrelevant. Even the most dogmatic adherents of sacred geography have to reflect that there was a time the geography wasn’t sacred.

Dravidian nationalism:

While most of the points made in the above passage are relevant to the question of Dravidian nationalism, its (Dravidian nationalism) basis is shakier than the Varna ethnic division. This point is made wonderfully by Razib khan here. Most probably IVC exodus had begun before the arrival of Steppe pastoralists (Arya in my opinion), so at best the pre-history can fit a model of subjugation of peninsular natives (AASI adjacent) by the farmers and pastoralists who left the collapsing IVC southwards. As mentioned before, it is a mug’s game to impose oppression Olympics on pre-history, but if it has to be done then the one mentioned in the previous line makes more sense than the Aryan-Dravidian dichotomy. The model that two elite cultures were interacting, integrating, subjugating, and co-opting natives – one in the north and one in the south while interacting with each other along the periphery seems to be the parsimonious explanation. In the mood of speculation, I would add that there was another elite culture in the mix – which Michael Witzel now calls – Kubhā-Vipāś substrate (which he earlier called Para-Munda) – corresponding to the remnants of the IVC in the North. 

Islam and Christianity:

Arguably this remains the biggest reason Hindutva remains politically opposed to AMT. The initial framing of Hindutva by Savarkar and Golwalkar made use of the insider-outsider analogy. While Savarkar saw no dissonance between his framing of Hindutva and Aryan migration, it was the religiously dogmatic and un-intellectual-ish Golwalkar whose framing of Hindutva rested on Hindus being native to the subcontinent since the beginning of time. Armed with the AIT/AMT the opponents of Hindutva have attacked this particular point scornfully in Golwalkar’s framing as a slam-dunk. Examples of this being this particularly transparent framing by Shoaib Daniyal. (given that he knows linguistics and must know that Rigvedic Sanskrit was most probably spoken in India around the same time).

However, this point shouldn’t matter for the intellectual foundation of native Indian thought (Hindutva ++) because.

  • One of the most common points made by AMT skeptics is that the Rigveda doesn’t clearly remember some older homeland. This point alone is enough to deny the Hinduism is foreign to the subcontinent argument. Firstly what we understand as Hinduism today is far different from the religion of the Rigvedic Aryans. Hinduism cannot at the same time be a British invention as well as imposed 3 thousand years ago by invading Aryans.
  • On the contrary viz. Turkic invaders who became rulers of the North and Central subcontinent were evidently aware of their foreign stock. Before most of the north Indian dynasties could go native, they were replaced by newer invaders for centuries. The Portuguese who violently brought Christianity to the coasts of India were equally sure of who they were and who they were not. As with the Parsis, Cochim Jews and British.
  • As I have argued before, current Hindu-Muslim faultlines have less to do with what the medieval invaders did and more what the Pakistan movement achieved and how Muslim intransigence and Hindutva consolidation have progressed since independence. This is a contested opinion and I plan to handle it sometime later in a separate post.
  • While Aryas and Medieval invasions remain contested and debated hotly, the dozen or so invaders who invaded post the Vedic period (barring Alexander) are not even footnotes in the discourse of the day. This brings me to the more important differentiation – data becomes sparse we go back and wrt to the Aryan migration we are truly holding at straws for building our narratives.                    Ex – the alleged anti-idolatry sentiment in the Rigvedic Aryans (wrt to some smashed Proto-linga from old Indus sites) is so flimsy and incomparable to the medieval invaders (more importantly the iconoclasm of the later kind remains as relevant today as it did in the medieval time)

Ideally in a modern democracy, all citizens have equal rights no matter whose ancestors came into the geographical entity when, but some framings of Hindu Rashtra (not all) make Muslims and Christians lesser citizens. While this yardstick continues to be used, arguments and rebuttals on this dubious point will continue (but it need not be).

Issues with academic chronology:

Unlike most states who have founding myths in historic times (barring China, Egypt, and Iran I guess), the foundations of the Indian civilizational state go back well into the Bronze-Iron age. The historic timeline of Agriculture (till IVC) 3500BCE -> IVC (2000BCE) -> Vedic period (1500-700 BCE) -> MahaJanapada period (700-300 BCE) are at odds with most chronologies popular among Hindus (even Jains for that matter). While the absolutely ludicrous timelines presented by Nilesh Oak have widespread support, it is far beyond my ability to address them. However, the academic dating of Indian history makes the Rigveda a 3500-year-old text at most, the events of Mahabharata (if they really occurred) as a 3000-3500 -year-old event. I guess Hindu traditionists (not necessarily Hindutvavadis) cannot digest the inconsistencies of traditions with academic history. While this appears to be an insoluble issue, I think like scientific oriented Christians and Jews who no longer hold the Book of Genesis as a historical text, Hindus can also look at their traditions from a rational lens (though currently where the truly scientific lens differentiates from the colonial lens is contested). However, this is easier said than done as the parallels between Creationism and Indian traditions (especially Itihasa) are unfair (as especially young-earth Creationism is way easier to dismiss).


In most of the above points, the Aryan debate remains irrelevant to the political narratives if one faces them with intellectual honesty, maybe except in the case of timelines. Ex: Brits whose self-conception goes back to the Magna Carta at most, don’t care whether Romans invaded and occupied Celtic Britain. Neither do they care about the Viking invasions or Norman conquests (as much). Unfortunately, Indian self-conception as a civilizational state goes back further than the Muslim invasions. Hence to counter the inconvenient history, the pre-historic events attested in one of the earliest texts of human history remain contested. Also the “we are a 5000-year-old civilization” drum cannot be beaten endlessly if Rigveda is dated to 3500 years ago – the date is irrelevant – the idea of the antiquity of ancient texts is not. It is the notion of eternal or Sanathan Dharma that trumps considerations, whose genesis is lost in the mist of time.

Postscript:

This essay is not an attempt to convince the ideologically dogmatic about the intellectual irrelevance of the debate but to convince those who try to be intellectually honest on both sides to rethink the linkages of politics to this debate.

Also, the AIT/AMT debate is not politically used against Jainism and Buddhism – whose texts also had the Arya-Mleccha distinction. Indra continues to be a Buddhist/Jain deity even outside the subcontinent.