Tracing the fissures in India’s society

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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.

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4 thoughts on “Tracing the fissures in India’s society

  1. Pingback: Tracing the fissures in India’s society— Editor’s Pick «

  2. >>>Despite our country’s much-vaunted pluralism, Indians harbour a keen sense of difference,

    with out this ‘difference’ how does pluralism exist in the first place ?

    >>>”The modern Indian state outlaws caste-based discrimination,…
    >>>…while requiring “positive discrimination” for members of marginalised groups.

    self contradictory. the so-called ‘positive’ discrimination is also caste based!

    >>>“Caste is a difficult and thorny category, its origins and evolution still murky.

    Agree, am always at a loss as to how come every fundamental text of bharata happens to be written by the so-called outcastes!
    Ramayana by a jungle robber Sudhakara later called Maharshi Valmiki. Mahabharata and Gita by son of a fisherwoman named Vyasa. Vedas, Upanishads, Aranyakas, Brahamanas compiled by the same son of fisherwoman.

    And these are the basic texts of bharatiya samskriti !

    Am at a loss as to how come the ‘evil brahmins’ came to accept these texts of low caste origin.

    Every brahmana through all ages accepted these texts as profound.

    Kalidasa, again of low origins, is also considered some great guy.

    Only reason seems to be that enlightened educated people such as we have today were not present then to explain ‘caste’ system and ‘manusmriti’ to bharatiyas.

    Thankfully, we live in ‘modern’ times.

    >>>‘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.

    Absolutely!
    Shiva, the dark coloured god of hindu pantheon was heard complaining that he does not get any devotees nowadays.
    Sri Krishna the other day complained similarly. He asked some lyricist- ‘radha kyon gori, mein kyon kala‘ – why is Radha of lighter shade while I am black ?
    Sri Rama similarly expressed unhappiness about his dark colour.
    Kali ma was also angry on this point.

    Last heard, these dark skinned gods were forming an association to petition GoI for some reservation for them among devotees.

    The lighter skinned god Brahma, was not available for comment. He could not be found in any temples also, since there are hardly any temples that has Brahma as murti. Whats the point in being the creator and all, even with white skin!

    >>>“Yet despite this slow erosion of caste as an insidious force, India remains a divided society

    The Brits have something to be thankful for in these times of having been turned into chamcha of a has been superpower- US. Their legacy of ‘divide et empera’ is being religiously followed through by ‘educated’ indians.

    >>>‘Anyone visiting India today would be struck by its chasms of difference.
    Absolutely. It is proven that anyone who puts on eurocentric lenses will view things in its characteristic tinge.

    >>>“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.

    Absolutely! The white man’s burden, you know ?
    It just got transferred to his brown skinned brother who uses ‘fair and lovely’ and is english educated.

  3. Pingback: Tracing fissures « Incognito Comments

  4. Do you in some ways think this caste and creed is related to our spiritual heritage? After all our destitute and poor believe in godmen, religion and lottery tickets!

    Somewhere in all this, the poor hopes for an escape. Caste will stay as long as our elected leaders keep talking about it.

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