The worlds of variation discovered within the Indian genome only emphasise the difference that divides our nation (Read this piece in the Guardian)
Despite our country’s much-vaunted pluralism, Indians harbour a keen sense of difference, be it of language, religion or complexion. We also often have exaggerated visions of history, or at least of myth, history’s livelier twin. For instance, many Chitpavan Brahmins, a caste group in the Indian state of Maharashtra, have been known to attest their relatively fair skin to a boatload of Vikings (apparently very, very lost) who washed up centuries ago on the western coast. So it comes as little surprise to Indians that scientific research increasingly traces the roots of our diverse society to the distant past.
The latest study of the genetic history of India (detailed by Adam Rutherford) unearths worlds of variation within the Indian genome. Indians could read this new DNA evidence in a reassuring light, as confirmation of that oft-repeated cliche of India’s “continental” diversity: not only do its billion-plus citizens belong to an astonishing array of linguistic and religious groups, but also India is four times more genetically diverse than Europe.
But beneath this cultural hubbub lies the persisting, uncomfortable reality of a stratified society. The study suggests that the traces of centuries of caste-based separation are visible in Indian DNA. Such is the historical tenacity of “endogamy” (marriage within a social group) that Indians of different groups are often more genetically distinct from each other than “a Scot from a German”. Admittedly, separating your McKenzies from your Metzgers can be tough, but such abiding differences, within the frame of neighbouring Indian villages, point to a deeply fissured history of social relations.
Caste is a difficult and thorny category, its origins and evolution still murky. Though tied to “indigenous” Hindu systems of belief, caste in practice cuts across all religions in India and is often inseparable from class. It is also easy to overstate caste’s current relevance. Many Indians of all backgrounds, notably the heroic BR Ambedkar, worked tirelessly in the last century to excise caste prejudice from Indian society. The modern Indian state outlaws caste-based discrimination, while requiring “positive discrimination” for members of marginalised groups. In India’s teeming cities and swelling provincial towns, the structures and limits of caste affiliation have begun to dissolve or have disappeared altogether.
Yet despite this slow erosion of caste as an insidious force, India remains a divided society, struggling with the legacy of a social system that did little to produce truly civic public spaces. People on separate rungs of society rarely mix, and if they do it is often only in the process of reaffirming the servility of those lower. Anyone visiting India today would be struck by its chasms of difference. At best, these divisions stem from inequalities of material means; the proliferation of wealth has stoked the proliferation of disparity, the widening of the gap between the air-conditioned middle class and the great “un-air-conditioned”. At worst, they smack of ancient caste bigotry, like the unhealthy valourisation of fair skin (as epitomised by embarrassing ads for lightening products) in a country of shining brown-skinned toilers.
I’ve always been suspicious of genetic history, of the excavation of human DNA to trace the continuity of distinct groups of people over the course of centuries and millennia. It seemed to me an upgraded version of 19th century racial “science”, a politer, more polished mode of measuring skulls. Yet modern 21st century research has begun to reveal hard, undeniable genetic differences between peoples. Such findings do suggest more about behaviour in the past than trends in the present. But in India, the revelations of this latest study are stark reminders of how much division underlies the fabric of the nation, and of how much work remains in perfecting our democratic society.