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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Studies on the genetic lineage of Indians could serve dubious ends
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Studies on the genetic lineage of Indians could serve dubious ends

An academic interest in our genealogy should not end up as a political prop for false distinctions

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Trying to find out where we came from can be a fun parlour game. As multi-generational families become less of a norm, and children and grandchildren live in far-off places, curiosity of the past can be healthy. But as the American author and academic Maya Jasanoff wrote recently in the New Yorker, such curiosity taken to its logical end could evoke a sense of cultural superiority that can turn into ethnic pride, which, taken to an extreme, may stir up notions of racial purity, whose consequences can be catastrophic, as history has shown. Most Americans who sign up for web-based services that provide access to genealogical information do so to learn more about who their long-lost cousins are. On the banks of the Ganga, Hindu geneologists promise to trace your ancestry up to several generations. It can be entertaining and can yield a few surprises. And then? To what end?

Ancient mass migratory patterns is a fascinating topic, and learning more about groups which do not inter-marry may have anthropological significance and offer some scientific value, but what is the real driver of such an agenda? According to a news report last week, India’s ministry of culture was acquiring kits that could profile DNA to establish Indian genetic lineages and “trace the purity of races in India"; this objective was flatly denied by the ministry on Twitter. But, as reported, the exercise will include scientists, archaeologist Vasant Shinde and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences. Shinde, who has researched the Harappan people earlier, was cited by the New Indian Express as saying the researchers want to see how gene mutation and mixing have taken place in India over millennia; by understanding this, the experts hope to “trace the purity of races in India."

Stripped of scientific jargon, this suggests a troubling political intent—to mark out who India’s original inhabitants were, possibly, which could be used to support the argument that those who came from elsewhere and their descendants are ‘outsiders’. This label has been used in political rhetoric for Indians who follow faiths that did not originate in India, even if their roots can be traced back over a millennium to what constitutes the country today. Placed alongside the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposal of a National Registry of Citizens, a gene study would seem to fit in with a pattern of identity politics.

In an identity-fixated paradigm, there are Indians, not-quite-Indians and non-Indians. Nazi Germany had a word for an obsessive desire to trace Aryan roots: rassenreinheit. As Isabel Wilkerson showed in her 2020 book, Caste: The Origin of our Discontent, America’s race supremacist ideology and its ideas of inclusion, exclusion, hierarchy and discrimination are comparable with the Nazi worldview, and she draws parallels with the codification and stratification of Hinduism’s caste system.

The problem lies with the words, ‘purity’, a subjective term, and ‘race’, which is an artificial construct.

What would be the purpose of such an exercise? Is it to identify Indian vulnerability to certain diseases that are passed on genetically? Is it to understand health implications? Or is there a more sinister agenda, in line with a dangerous desire to ‘reclaim’ history, with spurious lists being distributed online of hundreds of mosques that allegedly sit on sites which once had temples? As the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgement in the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi case conveyed, even if the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya was an illegal act, faith-driven destruction can be a fait accompli that Indians must accept and move on from.

And if it can be done once, why not again?

As technology is supposed to be value-neutral, what we do with it is up to us. Similarly, a database contains only raw information; we decide what to do with the data, based on how we interpret it. How the interpretation is done is often determined by preconceptions, presuppositions, and, indeed, prejudice. Any search for ‘purity’ can polarize debates even further, making Indian politics even more charged. As Jasanoff notes in the American context, the American Descendants of Slavery movement wants reparations for those African-Americans who can trace their ancestry to those who were enslaved. Digging so deep cannot end well, as it does not take into account the sustained racism that America still grapples with. If reparative justice is shaped by genealogical arguments, Jasanoff writes, there is a “risk of recapitulating deep-seated lineal distinctions between the deserving and undeserving, the pure and the polluted".

In India’s context, the hierarchical and hereditary nature of caste could get further entrenched if the findings of ‘science’ are merged with politically-motivated goals. As Jasanoff writes, geneology “as a historical paradigm has tended to serve those in power."

Synthesis has been the basis of Indian civilization. As Jawaharlal Nehru once noted, India “was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously." Those layers enriched India, did not diminish it. Purity, in contrast, is insipid.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 01 Jun 2022, 10:39 PM IST
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