For some it takes an Ivy League university’s research to accept a position; for others the stamp of approval from a prestigious think tank is necessary. But there are some people who dare to rely less on the authority of western institutions and more on their own “indigenous” common sense. When my wife wrote an article challenging the myth of the Aryan-Dravidian divide several years ago, I was less than impressed. I actually accused her of letting politics and nationalist pride taint her analysis. It is therefore my obligation to stand corrected, now that Harvard University has used DNA analysis to discredit the popularly accepted Aryan-Dravidian divide and thus validate an argument she has been making since I first met her in graduate school more than 20 years ago. Here is an article Pramilla Srivastava wrote in December 2004:
It is said that history is the narrative of the winner. For the losers it becomes a puzzle, which can only be solved by questioning everything. One important historical theory to question is the notion that there indeed were a Eurasian people known as Aryans who conquered Northern India.
This theory was first established then promulgated by early German and French Indologist. European conquests beginning in the 1400’s were justified under the guise of the civilizing mission. Much like today wherein the U.S. justifies its invasion of Iraq as a noble cause to provide freedom and democracy, as they loot that nations oil resources. The Europeans 500 years ago justified their invasions throughout the world as a mission to provide civilization to “barbaric” peoples; all while they extracted incalculable resources and wealth from their subjects.
Europe’s claim as the sole purveyor of civilization rested on its assertion as the only evolved written culture with a long intellectual history in art, science, literature and most important philosophy. Their encounter with India, however, challenged that claim and became a threat to the very notion of colonialism itself. In India they found all of that and more with a much longer history. Perplexed by this apparent paradox they reconciled their tenuous position by constructing a two-part historical premise; first that all of India’s intellectual accomplishments emanated from its Vedic period, and second that India’s Vedic culture must have come from Europe, which it still maintained, was more evolved than the East.
European linguists, who began to discover similar sound/meaning relations in Indian and European languages, reinforced the theory. Though those commonalities remained scattered and arbitrary, it was enough to construct and then empower a “scientifically” based history of India, which is taught to this very day. It was part arrogance and part political cunning which held that Europe must have been the primary origin of any commonality. It also served an important political purpose. By linking ancient India to ancient Europe, their invasion and occupation of India was masked as a noble campaign to uplift and protect their ancient “distant cousins”. This is also the source of many myths perpetuated by colonial historiography, which represented all Mogul rulers as brutal conquerors and all Hindus as oppressed victims of Muslim rule.
The British could claim to be in India, not to loot and pillage, which would be so un-enlightened and uncivilized, but rather to help “liberate” the indigenous Hindus from “foreign” Muslim occupation. It is this same project, which created the Babri Masjid controversy in the mid 1800’s that still plagues us to this day. (It was, even in those days, nothing new. The Spanish invaded South America claiming to “liberate” the people from oppressive Aztec rule. Then the Americans took over South and Latin America claiming to “liberate” them from the oppressive Spaniards.)
There is, in fact, no physical, archaeological, or material evidence of a large invasion from the North during pre-Vedic or Vedic India. Moreover, any modern day linguist knows that language travels much faster and farther than travelers do. People all over the world today use an array of words, which are rooted in African-American culture. Does it mean an army of African-Americans conquered them?
India has always been a part of the world sought eagerly by travelers and traders for its highly developed society and abundance of goods. It is a region with many long and yet untold histories. One thing is clear; people have been traveling to and settling in India from throughout the world for thousands of years. Idiomatic similarities cultural as well as linguistic can be found between India and many other parts of the world, including North Africa, The Middle East, South Africa, and South America. It is, however, not surprising that the similarities would be greatest with those cultures with which India shared a contiguous land mass. If linguistic conveyance were unidirectional (which it is not), then the origin would most likely be within the older civilization. In other words language would have most likely traveled from India to Europe, not the other way around.
While the theory of Aryanism has had venous consequences for communal harmony and tolerance in South Asia, what is most disturbing is the racial component. It pits not only Hindu against Muslim, but also, North against South, Light against Dark, long nosed against wide nosed; as absurd as it is dangerous. The irony is that South Indian languages have more Sanskrit roots than North Indian languages. The actual Vedic references that the term Arya is based upon indicate that it did not at all refer to a particular ethnic, racial, or linguistic group, but rather was a type of prefix meant to describe something auspicious or ennobled.
Unfortunately today the term Aryan means something different. It means race, racism, and fascism. From 1940’s Nazi Germany, to current White Supremacist groups in the U.S. and Europe, and our own Hindu Fundamentalists, the term Aryan in its modern use aggrandizes the poor, illiterate, loveless souls who become mercenaries for political thugs. It is a fascist’s favorite weapon, because it feeds its army on ignorance.
History is like a chameleon. It can take any shape or color it wants to. (Hitler certainly knew this when he built his entire culture of aggression and genocide based on a fabricated and fantastical history without even a nano-ounce of truth.) The modern body politic is entrapped by this phenomenon. All political movements today seem to need historical currency. Looking at history is important but requires a delicate balance. History can challenge essentialist characterizations of peoples and places, but it can also confine and confuse them. For example a re-writing of history shows that it was in fact the British who systematically engineered Hindu and Muslim conflicts and that is helpful. It enables us to transcend the notion that perpetual conflict is intrinsic to our cultures and therefore insurmountable.
But if we empower history over conscience, we, especially in the non-western world become instantly snagged in a colonial trap. While I can provide documentation to prove that a sinister British administrator in the mid-1800’s crafted the Babri Masjid controversy, should it really be necessary? Does it change the reality we face today, that the campaign to destroy the Mosque and build a temple has led to death, destruction, and moral degradation? Isn’t that really what should matter? Isn’t that all that should matter, to know that it is simply wrong?
This is the conundrum facing all social and political activists throughout the entire non-western world. Can we only become what we have been in the past? If Muslims did oppress Hindus in the past, should Hindus now oppress Muslims? If Brahmins oppressed Dalits, should Dalits now oppress Brahmins? Should every ethnic group that ever existed in our historic memory (real or imagined) be revived from the annals of the past to claim a political identity complete with peculiar rituals, colorful dresses, and a folk song sung in an archaic language yet familiar Michael Jackson melody; a national anthem of the voiceless to sing as they trade one oppressor for another.
How, please tell me, has changing the name of Bombay to Mumbai helped the poor people of that city. Has that name made the water cleaner? Does the same roti now fill the stomach longer? Does it now rain less or the sun scorch less for the many shelter less? Has it cured the many suffering from disease?
If we follow this path of political articulation, we will only be able to engage discourses derived from the colonial west. Moreover, we will become caricatures of the images constructed by colonial historiography and never be able to imagine, or shape ourselves into something new.
I for one will not play this European game, a game that is only meant, by the way, for the non-western world (Eastern Europe included). Our future does not necessarily have to be defined by our past. It doesn’t matter if you did or didn’t believe in the two-nation theory. At the time of partition our leaders were essentially selected and decisions were made for us. There was no one polling public opinion, no referendum. If you believed in the two nation theory that Muslim’s and Hindu’s are essentially different, modern DNA tests will probably reveal another story. If you believed that partition was a mistake, the reality today is that there are two nations. This discussion not only gets us nowhere, it digs us into a deeper hole.
If we look at our current economic and political reality India and Pakistan and indeed the entire non-western world (global South) have a lot in common and much to gain by mutual cooperation. We are all under the gun of western corporate globalization and militarization. We are all faced with increasingly harsh structural adjustment policies leaving our subsistence farmers starving, our children illiterate, and our population’s sick and impoverished. Our soil is eroding our environment is dieing, our resources are disappearing, our people are suffering.
Our progressive leaders and thinkers are either assassinated or bought out. Our political and social institutions, the few that provide any type of relief, are under constant attack. Our morale is terrorized. Our hearts and minds are targets of psych-ops. And our possibilities are hidden from our sight by illusionary obstacles. This is the crisis and chaos facing all of us today.
Americans can live merrily side by side celebrating their cultural diversity as their military (filled with immigrants from virtually every corner of the globe) builds a new base somewhere in the world almost every other month, simply because they have no history. To truly combat empire we must shed the burden of history. We’ve spent too much time looking backward and not enough time looking forward. As Winnie the Poo says, “It’s time to put our thinking caps on”, and think of something new.
The anthropogenic catastrophe we face today can only be overcome by human ingenuity and the realization that we are intimately connected to each other and our environment. This is the true historical heritage and consciousness that we must reclaim. It is a consciousness that was supplanted by the false western doctrine of “survival of the fittest”, and the very Christian notion that the natural resources of the world (extended to human resources of the world) exist merely for our use.
I can assure you that somewhere in the depths of the ocean exists a species of fish who we’ve never seen before. It is not the fish, which exists for us but we who exist for the fish. As we, in the global South, keep fighting amongst ourselves over which ethnic group came first, or who had been oppressed by whom first, or who will have the right to exploit this land or that waterway; that species of fish is becoming extinct. It will probably disappear before we discover its existence. Though we will never be aware of the loss of that fish, if we become aware of the fact that we are in the midst of monumental and continuous loss; loss of things we know and loss of things we don’t know, we may be able to realign our priorities and finally challenge a world order that promises nothing but total and complete loss.