Prof. Vasant Shinde: An Archaeologist vs A Mischievous Media Trial And Letter Politics
"We want to understand genetic and disease history of the Indian population", says Prof Vasant Shinde as he elaborates on his project that recently became a target of Congress MP Rahul Gandhi's tweets.
He adds, "this research does not aim to favour any particular ideological faction in the current day Indian politics or support any religious beliefs".
Let us assume the following incident happening in the West.
A newspaper reporter comes up with a story of a 'world domination plan of a particular community based on a forgery like 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion''.
The concerned community members, accused of plotting a world dominion, come out with a strongly-worded, factually correct rebuttal.
Then, a group of scientists and activists come up with a sentimental letter preaching the evils of world dominion and ask that the community issue a letter telling they not only had they not plotted world dominion in the present but would not do it in the future too.
What does it say of those scientists and activists?
Now let us see the parallel.
A project aims to study how the mutations and mixing of genes through millennia has shaped Indian populations. Such projects have been undertaken from time to time.
For example, scientists from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad and Harvard Medical School in Boston, US, had studied how the genetic composition of Indian population had evolved, in 2009 and 2013.
It was this 2009 study that came up with the terms ANI (Ancestral North India) and ASI (Ancestral South India) types. The understanding of how the mixing of different populations happened and when, actually helps us understand the genetic disposition to diseases and health.
Recently there has been a lot of research on the ancestral DNA and the evolution of early Indian population. The most famous one being the 2019 published paper based on genome collected from the skeletons of Rakhigarhi, one of the largest sites of Indus Valley Civilization (IVC).
Its lead author, Vasant Shinde, is an internationally respected archaeologist, definitely a pride of Indian science.
Today, he finds himself is at the centre of a manufactured controversy.
On 28 May, The New Indian Express wrote about 'a meeting that Ministry of Culture Secretary Govind Mohan held with well-known archaeologist Prof. Vasant S Shinde and senior scientists and scholars of the Lucknow based Birbal Sahani Institute of Paleosciences (BSIP) in Hyderabad.' The newspaper reported the following as what Shinde told their reporter over the phone:
We want to see how mutation and mixing of genes in the Indian population has happened in the last 10,000 years. Genetic mutation depends on the intensity of contact among populations and the time that this process takes. We will then have a clear cut idea of the genetic history. You may even say that this will be an effort to trace the purity of races in India.
One can note that even in the reported conversation, which was not even a definitive statement, what Prof Shinde is alleged to have said is not the purpose or intention of project.
Yet, when the report was published, this was the headline: 'Cultural Ministry to Study the Racial Purity of Indians'.
Even if what the report furthers as the statement of Shinde is taken into consideration, (which Prof. Shinde has categorically denied), this is a wrong headline. 'Purity of races' is not the same as 'racial purity'. The former does not in any way refer to a single race in India but talks about many races and their origins. Making that into 'racial purity of Indians' is mischievous or ignorant.
However, as if on cue, Rahul Gandhi took this story and tweeted it, condemning it by making a comparison to the pseudo-scientific concepts of Nazi racism. The The New Indian Express reporter who had written the story retweeted Gandhi.
Meanwhile, both the Ministry of Culture and Prof. Vasant Shinde tweeted their strong disapproval of the mischievous twisting of his statement.
So, what is the truth?
To understand this, Swarajya contacted Prof. Shinde and sent him questions on the issue. He was kind enough to send detailed answers to the queries.
Prof. Shinde categorically clarifies
So what actually is the project that he is working on?
The project he is working on right now is about 'the genetic history and diseases of the Indian population from the Harappan period onward.'
In the paper published in Cell, the findings indicate that 'a distinct South Asian ancestry emerged around 12000 years ago and that continued till the present through the Harappan and other cultural periods.' But right from the days of Harappans, Indians were not an isolated group. Shinde writes:
Our research also indicates that the Harappans had contact with a number of hinterland and overseas communities and there has been a mixing of genes right from then.
What is the aim of the project?
Our aim is very simple. We want to understand genetic and disease history of the Indian population and extend of contacts and mutations happened over a period of time. Results from the previous research provide a hint that most of the population in South Asia from Afghanistan to Bengal and from Sri-Lanka to Kashmir, irrespective of religious and linguistic diversity, carry signatures of strong Harappan DNA. This research has brought novel information on South Asian demography.
To the question if this research in any way aims to validate or invalidate some political stands or religious beliefs, the renowned archaeologist answered emphatically:
This research does not aim to favour any particular ideological faction in the current day Indian politics or support any religious beliefs. We scientists believe on the data and interpret our result based on that.
Yet the whole controversy centres around two words: 'racial purity'.
Did he use those words? To this also, his answer is categorical and pointed. Answering in the negative to the question he writes:
I was asked to explain the meaning of the ‘DNA Polymorphism’ by the reporter and I said ‘it deals with the research on understanding extents of mutation in human genes over a period of 10000 years. Further I said, no human group is pure on the earth due to mixing and migrations.
More importantly he tells how as a lifelong student of archaeological science, he views the scenarios that archaeology and ancient DNA studies unveil:
Archaeological Research carried out in different parts of India indicate that right from the beginning of the settled life around 9000 years ago, there has been emergence of different regional cultures having very cordial relations between them. During the urban phase of the Harappan culture we get perfect picture of Diversity in Unity, the very foundation of this great country. The research points towards religious and linguistic harmony in the country for past 5000 years at least. They all have worked together for the nation building and social harmony.
To attribute 'Nazi-like' intentions to such a professional is the worst insult one can conceive of for his work.
After such calumny, one would expect the scientific community to rally around Dr Shinde and condemn the journalist who wrote the report. Yet, a group of scientists, some of them seniors, have taken the journalist's word for truth despite the categorical clarification from both Dr Shinde and the ministry.
What does he think about these developments?
When it was clarified from the Ministry of Culture and from my side that neither the Ministry nor my group are considering this type of ‘Racial Purity’ project now or in future, this should not have been made into a storm in a cup. Yes, this an eye opener for the academicians/scientists that in future one has to be upmost careful in dealing with the media. I feel there should be symbiotic relations between them so that the Indian research should reach to the global level and the media has to play very constructive role in this direction.Prof. Shinde's reply
In India however there has been a gap between archaeological discoveries and the way they are integrated with historiography and finally, in history textbooks.
This reduces the public awareness of what happens in the field, which in turn gives rise to such mischievous reporting.
When asked about the future developments in this regard, he answered with optimism that of late 'Institutions like Archaeological Survey of India, all States Departments of Archaeology, research Intuitions, IITs and Universities' have increasingly started coming together in archaeological research. So he sees 'the future of archaeology' in India as being 'bright and safe in the hands of emerging scholarship.'
Further with the implementation of the 'New Education Policy 2020' the integration of archaeological discoveries into historiography will also get a boost, he says.
Clearly this is not only far removed from what the newspaper reported but it is very much antithetical to what the report says about 'racial purity' etc.
So now, the question is—why then did the group of 'eminent' scientists and activists engage letter politics?
The Fear mongering
The ruling party at the Centre adheres to Hindutva. Does Hindutva advocate any kind of racial purity? Does Hindutva get invalidated if it is proven that there had been an admixture of genetic material from outside India to Indian populations and vice-versa?
In reality, the Hindutvaites have strongly criticized the racial interpretation of Indian history. They have opposed the terms like 'Aryan invasion'. They have rejected the notion that the theoretical varna concept as well as the historical social hierarchies in India were race-based.
Nowhere have Hindutvaits claimed that the Indians were racially pure or that they were a single race.
For example, Swami Vivekananda ridiculed the British conception that all so-called Aryans were white-skinned and red-haired. Even if he were to accept the notion of the so-called white skinned Aryans, he famously pointed out that as an Indian if one owes to the 'white- skinned Aryan' then he or she owes '... more so to ... yellow- skinned Mongolian ancestors, and most of all to the black- skinned negroids'.
Veer Savarkar was even more explicit and blunt. In Essentials of Hindutva, he categorically rejected the concept of fixed races or pure races.
After all there is throughout this world so far as man is concerned but a single race— the human race kept alive by one common blood, the human blood. All other talk is at best provisional, a makeshift and only relatively true. Nature is constantly trying to overthrow the artificial barriers you raise between race and race. To try to prevent the commingling of blood is to build on sand. Sexual attraction has proved more powerful than all the commands of all the prophets put together. Even as it is, not even the aborigines of the Andamans are without some sprinkling of the so-called Aryan blood in their veins and vice versa. Truly speaking all that any one of us can claim, all that history entitles one to claim, is that one has the blood of all mankind in one's veins. The fundamental unity of man from pole to pole is true, all else only relatively soEssentials of Hindutva, 1923
For 1923, this was a remarkable passage on the humanity has but one common genetic heritage.
Cut to the present day, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India repeatedly has emphasised the very ancient nature of Tamil language. He had stated that it was older than Sanskrit. While Sanskrit and Tamil as classic languages emerged almost simultaneously, linguistic evidence suggests that the Proto-Dravidian branch of languages emerging earlier than Proto-Indo-European.
While there are Hindutvaites who contest this, just as there may be non-Hindutvaite who may contest it, there are those who accept the conclusion. Clearly, Narendra Modi accepts this claim of Proto-Dravidian preceding Proto-Indo-European.
The present classic forms of both Sanskrit and Tamil may contain loan words from both the PD and PIE. This is inconsequential to Hindutva worldview. Or if anything, such an organic synthesi, rather than notions of linguistic or ethnic purity, may well be even the foundational basis of Hindutva.
So to attribute ideological vested interests to any study of the genetic admixing and evolution of ancient Indian population has no meaning whatever in Indian context.
Lysenko to Lewontin: an Old Trick Played Again?
Interestingly, the letter sent by the eminent scientists and activists has repeatedly quoted the geneticist Richard Lewontin (1929-2021). In fact, one Indian magazine that highlighted his contributions to science—particularly in disproving the biological validity of race—has been Swarajya.
The magazine brought out a three-part series exploring the legacy of Lewontin. At the same time we have also shown how Lewontin, despite being a brilliant scientist, allowed his Marxist ideology to dangerously cloud his science, at least his public science writing.
Perhaps this is an old trick that is being played again. The leftist academic hooliganism against socio-biology and genetics, even in the post-Lysenko era, made high voltage claims that socio-biology was genetic determinism and even racism.
When Richard Lewontin, along with other leftist academicians like Steven Rose wrote polemics against socio-biology (Not in our Genes,1984) Richard Dawkins pointed out how their approach was reminiscent of the 'Mendelist-Morganist' terminology of the comrades of earlier times.
Leftist propaganda of the twentieth century is perhaps the single largest destructive tool against science. It was this that created the Lysenko-Stalinist inquisition against geneticists. It was this propaganda that jailed, tortured and killed Vavilov by denying food to him - one of the greatest humanistic scientists who fought against famine all his life. It was this propaganda that organised students against the lectures of Richard Dawkins. It was this propaganda that physically attacked scientist E.O. Wilson.
Now it is this propaganda again that is shamelessly using the fabricated term 'racial purity' to attack our research into our past. Perhaps it is time some of our scientists, including some super seniors, come out of their ideological cribs and look at evidence without their political blinkers.
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