Monday, 13 July 2015

The Plagiarism Charge Against Rajiv Malhotra Proves He Hit A Raw Nerve - A Short History

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when the Empire struck back. Rajiv Malhotra, the newly discovered intellectual maven of the Hindu Right, has been accused of plagiarism. If anything, I believe Malhotra is guilty of sloppy attribution, not of plagiarism. His critics are probably trying to get him on a technicality, and I expect the controversy will blow over fairly soon. The more important issues with Malhotra's work relate to its content, and the sooner the world begins to focus on that, the better.

For years now, Malhotra has been attacking the Western academic establishment, indeed the whole of Western civilisation, for its insidious and centuries-long suppression of native cultures. Claiming to speak on behalf of the Indic civilisation, Malhotra has written many books and articles, in the process spawning a movement that is part revolutionary, part native pride, part revisionist and part self-help. There is no doubt his contributions have inspired many educated Indians, especially Hindus.

I have great admiration for Malhotra as a thought leader, although I do not agree with everything he says. He has drawn attention to some fascinating aspects of cultural interaction that I had been unconscious of, but he also strikes me as going overboard with some of his conspiracy theories.

As an example, he makes the brilliant point that mutual respect is preferable to the patronising concept of "tolerance". In the process, he exposes the arrogance inherent in the Abrahamic religions, which makes it impossible for a true adherent of those religions to genuinely respect an adherent of a different faith. The Huffington Post article where he argues this point will remain a classic.

As a second example, he has drawn attention to how contributions of one culture are appropriated by another, a process he calls "digestion". When a tiger eats a deer, it is not a benign meeting of cultures that influence each other. Nothing of the deer remains, except what the tiger rejects. What is eaten then strengthens the tiger. This is what happens to native cultures when conquered by a stronger foreign one. The foreign culture imbibes whatever it finds useful, and the rest goes into a museum.

A well-known social phenomenon is the "Pizza effect", where native people accept elements of their own culture only when they come back to them as something foreign, or from a "superior" culture. Pizzas were originally only eaten by poor people in Italy, but when American pizza companies opened outlets in Italy, affluent Italians began to find it socially acceptable to eat pizza. The same happens to many Indians who only accept aspects of Indian culture when they come back to them with Western packaging.

As a third example of cultural interaction, Malhotra talks about a "U-Turn Theory", which is related to both "digestion" and the "Pizza effect". Here, native people receive what they think are aspects of a foreign culture, but these are nothing but their own artifacts that have been stripped of all traces of their origin and packaged in the trappings of the foreign culture. It is a tragedy when civilisations disown important elements of their own culture, only to accept them in an unrecognisable alien form. "Cultural genocide" is perhaps too strong a term for it, but it is nevertheless worthy of condemnation.

Particular examples of how Western culture has appropriated Eastern science come from the world of psychology, and Malhotra provides the following examples:

  1. Howard Gardner took Sri Aurobindo's "Planes and Parts of Being" along with the Rasas of NatyaShastra and turned them into "Multiple Intelligences"
  2. Herbert Benson took Maharshi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation and turned it into "Relaxation Response"
  3. Jon Kabat-Zinn took Buddhist Vipassana and turned it into "Mindfulness Meditation"
  4. Steven LaBerge took Yoga Nidra and turned it into "Lucid Dreaming"

In spite of his spirited defence of Indic culture, Malhotra is not a cringe-inducing fruitcake like Dinanath Batra, whose idea of Indian history involves flying vimanas and nuclear weapons used in the Mahabharata war. I particularly like Malhotra's no-nonsense approach when he talks about the greatness of the Indic civilisation. He is disdainful of the claims that there were aircraft and nuclear weapons in ancient India. "Show me a runway or a crash site", he says, "show me radioactivity." His Infinity Foundation has produced many books detailing historically factual Indian innovations in various technical fields. Similarly, he is derisive of vacuous claims that Hinduism is "a way of life", which he likens to an equally meaningless claim that a car is a collection of atoms. 

Where Malhotra gets into controversial territory is when he discusses Western conspiracies to "break India". I will discuss this in greater detail shortly, but I believe it is his conflation of the very different ideas of "India" and of "Hinduism" that are responsible for his peculiar viewpoint. I am particularly sensitive to this distinction, since I am simultaneously a social liberal and a hawk on Indian foreign policy. I agree with him that India needs a geopolitical "grand narrative" to give it a sense of identity and direction. I further agree with him that this grand narrative has to have a civilisational basis, i.e., in the Indic civilisation. Where I have trouble agreeing with him is when this Indic civilisational identity is conflated with a Hindu religious/philosophical identity. Such a conflation would needlessly alienate millions of patriotic Indians on the basis of a perceived philosophical divide. It would weaken, not strengthen, the Indian nation-state. I have a competing model of the Indic civilisation that I believe is more inclusive and positive.

Needless to say, Malhotra's conflation of Hindu-ness and Indian-ness appeals greatly to the Hindu right, who have made this their foundational ideological plank. Hence, although Malhotra is too erudite and sophisticated to be associated with the jingoistic saffron movement (he has often referred to himself as a "non-Hindutva Hindu"), he has been co-opted by the more literate section of the movement which has been hungering for a respectable ideological basis for its collective insecurities.

Apart from the danger of his brand of civilisational identity alienating religious minorities, Rajiv Malhotra's major intellectual failing is, ironically, the very same difference anxiety that he accuses others of. He correctly demolishes the notion of universalism as nothing but "Western universalism", under which genuine cultural difference is downplayed. When recounting a discussion with former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully, Malhotra says Tully asked him why he was so focused on difference and why he could not instead talk about the ways in which people were the same. Malhotra's riposte made a very important point. He asked Tully, "By 'the same', do you mean that you will become the same as me, or that I should become the same as you?"

That telling question is the petard by which Malhotra himself should be hoisted.

Rajiv Malhotra is guilty of "Hindu universalism" just as surely as many liberal, secular people are guilty of Western universalism. In "Being Different", he claims to have isolated the core characteristics that unite the various sampradayas (schools of philosophical thought) of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism (the "Dharmic" religions), and that simultaneously distinguish them from non-Dharmic philosophies. In doing so, he claims to speak for all the adherents of the "Dharmic" religions, but he emphatically does not.

As just one example, his thesis in the Chapter on "Inherent Unity" in "Being Different", expanded into an entire book in "Indra's Net" describes just one branch of Hindu philosophy - Advaita Vedanta or Monism. This view is absolutely irreconcilable with Dvaita Vedanta or Dualism. Malhotra does not, indeed cannot, speak for both Advaita and Dvaita at the same time because the differences between them are so fundamental. There is no overarching "Dharmic" philosophy that reconciles these two viewpoints. Indeed, it could be argued that in a theological sense, Dvaita Vedanta has more in common with Abrahamic religions than with Advaita Vedanta (because of their views on the relationship between God and Man, or between Creator and Creation), even if Dvaita and Advaita have both evolved cheek-by-jowl in the Indian spiritual milieu. This is a point no one from the neo-Hindu movement will acknowledge. That's why I use the term "Hindu universalism". Malhotra imposes an Advaita Vedanta view on all the philosophies that he calls "Dharmic", whether or not it fits.

Why does he do this in spite of asserting that the Dharmic philosophy has an "Open Architecture" that accommodates diversity? I believe it's because he suffers from the all too common human failing of "privilege-blindness". In his case, that privilege-blindness comes from being an upper-caste, North Indian Hindu male. He simply cannot see some differences where they exist, and it is up to the minority viewpoints to speak up and make themselves heard when they are incorrectly represented.

I also suspect it is this privilege-blindness that causes him to deny an ethnic or cultural basis for the differences within Hindu society.

He is a strong opponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, whereas recent genetic evidence reveals that Indians do have a mixture of two distinct racial groups. While it is not possible to call North Indians "Aryan" and South Indians "Dravidian", it is a genetic fact that North Indians have more "Aryan" genes than "Dravidian" ones, and South Indians have the ratio reversed. There is thus a genetic basis for South Indians to be considered distinct from North Indians, but Malhotra (just like many others of the Hindutva movement) absolutely denies the distinction. As a South Indian, I am tempted to ask Malhotra, "By 'the same', do you mean that you will become the same as me, or that I should become the same as you?" (With the emphasis that many in the neo-Hindu movement place on the Hindi language, I believe I can guess the answer to that question.)

This difference anxiety also causes him to deny, against all evidence, that the caste system in Hinduism was oppressive and permitted no mobility. His attitude sits well with the Hindutva ideology, since that movement is also made up of privilege-blind, upper-caste North Indian Hindu males.

For example, when Indologist Wendy Doniger analyses Hinduism from a feminist and subaltern perspective, she filters out the brahmin male narrative and looks at what remains. It's not a pretty sight, and the fact that an outsider has dared to do this has outraged the privilege-blind, Malhotra included. This is why he has launched an all-out war against Doniger and other Western scholars whom he deems to be insufficiently reverent towards Hindu traditions. His RISA-leela article on and the book "Invading the Sacred" that he sponsored, are powerful volleys against unflattering Western studies of Hinduism. Some of his points are well made, but his outrage seems to be more about the fact that the dominant narrative of a privileged group within the Hindu fold has been challenged by "outsiders". He believes that control of the narrative on Hinduism should remain with cultural insiders rather than with outsiders.

I don't believe in privileging either "insiders" or "outsiders". Anyone should be able to contribute a perspective without being denigrated, and while believing Hindus should be able to rebut views of their religion that they disagree with (without resorting to threats), critics should also be allowed to present their views (no matter how offensive they may be to believers).

There is a branch of academia called Islamic Studies in Muslim countries, and it is only believing Muslims who are permitted to engage in this research. Needless to say, they may not challenge core tenets or beliefs of the faith, which leads one to question the credibility of the whole exercise. In much the same way, the Hindu right (of which Malhotra is one regardless of his protestations) howls whenever Hinduism is analysed with anything less than reverence, which prompts one to ask if Hinduism is also to be considered above criticism.

Wendy Doniger has written a response arguing why non-Hindus should be allowed to discuss Hinduism, and I agree with her. The last thing Hinduism Studies needs is an echo chamber, but the Hindu Right, led by its intellectual stalwarts like Rajiv Malhotra, are attempting to muzzle all irreverent views. This is a slippery slope, because its victims are not just Western scholars but Indian ones like AK Ramanujan, whose scholarly and fact-based work "300 Ramayanas", was withdrawn from study by Delhi University. The reason? Some of the lesser-known (yet authentically Indian) versions of the Ramayana contradicted the more orthodox versions, which then rendered them heretical and even blasphemous. The general strain of intolerance of critical viewpoints that Malhotra seems to approve of is paradoxically turning Hinduism into an Abrahamic religion with a single approved body of scripture, and hostility towards "heretics" and "blasphemy". Once again, there is the echo of Malhotra's famous question, "Should Abrahamic religions become the same as the Dharmic ones, or should the Dharmic religions become the same as the Abrahamic?" 

The anxiety to deny caste discrimination in Hinduism also leads Malhotra down the path of least resistance, as he points towards external forces attempting to break India (the Chinese supporting the Maoists, the Pakistanis and Saudis supporting the Islamists, and Christian missionaries/NGOs converting Hindus to Christianity). In his book, "Breaking India", he deals exclusively with the last of these threats. He is absolutely right that Christian missionary organisations have been operating on a war footing in South and East India, converting poor and disadvantaged Hindus to Christianity with a mix of deception, bribery and intimidation. While it is necessary to condemn and stop these activities, it is even more important to address the core reasons why Hindus may want to convert to other religions - the shocking caste-based discrimination that exists to this day. Indeed, the subtitle of "Breaking India" acknowledges the root of the problem - "Western Intervention in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines". It is the existence of faultlines in Hindu society that permits external forces to exploit them, yet eradicating caste is not the focus of either Malhotra or anyone else of the Hindu right. They will deny the fact of oppression and discrimination, and argue for the preservation of the status quo, all the while claiming to fight the evil missionaries trying to divide Hindu society and thus "break India".

In fact, Malhotra goes so far as to blame the British (especially Lord Risley, who conducted the 1901 census) for creating a caste-consciousness among Indian Hindus that did not exist earlier. On the contrary, genetic evidence tells us that strict endogamy (the cessation of interbreeding between castes) occurred 1900 years ago, long before Lord Risley and the British. Why does Malhotra point a finger at external parties when his focus should be where it belongs? I believe it is his privilege blindness that causes him to ignore the real rifts within Hindu society that can only be healed through an ideological overhaul. That's a far harder task than pointing the finger at external enemies, and Malhotra takes the easy way out. That's why I think he has disappointed as an intellectual thought leader. He has chosen expediency over truth.

It is perhaps in this context that we should see the latest charges of plagiarism that have been made against Malhotra. Malhotra's attacks against Western agencies have obviously not gone unnoticed.

Plagiarism is a very serious charge in academic circles and if proven, is sufficient to kill an author's career and reputation.

But how true is the charge? Malhotra's critics accuse him of lifting whole paragraphs from other authors without quotes and without specific attribution of each such quote. Malhotra replies that he has acknowledged the sources at the end of each chapter saying "This section draws heavily on author XYZ". To my mind, Malhotra's transgression, if any, is of the nature of a technicality and not the more serious intent to deceive or to pass off another's work as one's own. He may deserve a slap on the wrist to ensure that he is more meticulous in pointing out each instance when he quotes another author, but the charge of plagiarism seems overblown to me.

Malhotra has many critics, especially in the West. Rather than address his many theses point by point, in which exercise they will have to concede some points even as they score others, they seem to have chosen the nuclear option of destroying his credibility wholesale with the charge of plagiarism. It's a risky gambit, because if they can control the levers of power in the academic and publishing worlds, they may succeed in inflicting a lot of damage. Personally, I think they have overreached and this episode will only make him stronger.

I have mixed feelings about Malhotra's work. He has tackled the powerfully emotive area of cultural identity with some groundbreaking books and articles. There are areas where he absolutely hits the nail on the head, and yet others where he seems to overstate his case. His work is so vast and encompasses so many aspects that it is hard to do justice to it all. Nevertheless, the correct way to critique him is to engage with him point by point. Where he is right, the rest of the world will have to change. Indeed, the world is changing to accommodate minority viewpoints at a faster rate than ever before in history, so this is not an unreasonable demand.

Having said that, Malhotra's more outlandish conspiracy theories need to be called out and ridiculed. His one-size-fits-all "Hindu Universalism" that stems from his own privilege blindness is in need of overhaul. And his call for an Indian "grand narrative" should be heeded, although formulated in a more socially inclusive way than he himself has done.

Friday, 10 July 2015

An Indian Contribution To Philosophy

Internet maven Kanishka Sinha has written up a whirlwind summary of all major Western philosophical thought, and has also tried to explain with a diagram how some representative schools of Eastern thought relate to this body of work. I think he has done a remarkable job of explaining the various ideas expounded by Western philosophers, and while I cannot claim to understand the Chinese philosophers with any authority, there are a couple of points I would like to make about Indian philosophy and some points of congruence and contrast with Western philosophy.

There are two irreconcilable viewpoints in Hindu religious thought, and they are Monism (Advaita) and Dualism (Dvaita). They deal with the relationship between a hypothetical Creator or Supreme Intelligence on the one side, and all of Creation, including human beings, on the other.

The Dualist or Dvaita philosophy maintains that the two are independent entities that can never be the same. The Creator can bring Creation into existence and will it out of existence, but Creation never becomes one with the Creator. The implication of this on religious belief is that the Bhakta (devotee) is forever distinct from Bhagwan (God). The Dvaita concept of moksha (liberation) is that the soul of the bhakta is no longer required to be reincarnated again and again but gets to remain in the company of Bhagwan, deriving bliss from being able to see and worship Bhagwan for all time. (As an atheist, I cannot think of a better description of hell, but hey, to each their own.)

The Monist or Advaita concept is the very opposite. Advaita avers that the distinction between Creator and Creation is illusory. All Creation is but a manifestation of a Supreme Intelligence (the Brahman). Indeed, it makes no sense to call this intelligence a "creator" if there is nothing that is created. Even the Hindu Trinity of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer are just less abstract personifications of the ineffable Brahman. Liberation or moksha in the Advaita philosophy comes about when an individual's soul realises its true nature as just a manifestation of the Brahman, and instantaneously becomes one with it. All of Creation vanishes, so to speak, since it is recognised to be entirely illusory.

Comparing and contrasting the Dvaita and Advaita schools of thought with Western philosophy, we can readily see the parallels between Dvaita and the Abrahamic religions. A Christian, for example, believes that when they go to heaven, they will be with Jesus Christ and God, but will not themselves become one with Jesus or God. This is the dualist vision of heaven, where they will enjoy the blissful privilege of being able to praise God forever.

The lucky ones get to enjoy the unending company of the two gents at the top, including the bad-tempered one (seated) who expects to be constantly praised. Settle in for an eternity of boredom, because the landscape looks pretty bleak.

We can readily see the parallels with Dvaita.

The lucky ones get to perch precariously on the snake and forever sing the praises of the reclining gent. The clothes are more colourful, but even they can get boring  pretty quickly when we're talking eternity. 

Advaita though, has no parallel in Western philosophy. The notion that everything that we can observe is not real but in fact illusory is quite an original idea! Postulating that a Supreme Intelligence has created this illusion for itself on a whim (leela) is another original idea.

That's the bit I think Kanishka should add to his philosophical roundup. Advaita is a unique philosophical idea that does not seem to exist anywhere in Western philosophy.

Friday, 26 June 2015

What Is It About Germans And Feelings?

Something that has always intrigued me is that we often have to use German words to describe certain emotions, such as Schadenfreude (SHA-den-FROI-duh, pleasure at someone else's misfortune), Wanderlust (VAAN-duhr-LOOST, a restless urge to travel), Heimweh (HYME-vey, homesickness), Weltschmerz (VELT-shmeyrts, world-weariness) and Weltanschauung (VELT-an-shaoo-oong, worldview or outlook on life).

Recently, I came across this "Dictionary of obscure sorrows", and was once again struck by how many of them were German words.

Click to expand.

I learned German for a few years, and although I'm not very fluent, I can understand the composition of these words. Let me analyse them for the benefit of non-German readers.

1. Sonder (ZONN-duhr): "Special", hence the recognition that everyone is special, not just you.

2. Mauerbauertraurigkeit (MOW-uhr-BOW-uhr-TROW-riH-kyte):
Mauer means "wall". It's related to the French mur, and the English "mural" for wall painting.
Bauer means "builder".
Traurigkeit means "sorrow", with the "-keit" ending corresponding to the English "-ness".
Hence, "Wall builder sorrow", or the desire to keep out even people we like.

3. Rückkehrunruhe (RÜCK-keyr-OON-roo-uh):
Rück means "rear", where the "ü" is pronounced by placing the lips in the position to say "u" and saying "ee" instead, just like the French "u".
Kehr means "traffic".
Rückkehr means "return".
Ruhe means peace, and Unruhe means disquiet or disturbance.
Hence, "Return disquiet" refers to the dismay at forgetting one's travels after returning home.

4. Altschmerz (ALT-shmeyrts):
Alt means "old".
Schmerz means "pain".
Hence, "Old pain" means weariness of suffering through the same old issues you've always had.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Literary RDX - The Explosive Debut of Subcontinental Spy Fiction

The Cold War and the threat of nuclear armageddon inspired most of post-World War II spy fiction. English language readers generally heard the Western side of the story with British and American heroes, and I'm sure there were equally gripping novels available on the other side of the Iron Curtain featuring heroes with names ending in -sky or -vitch, as PG Wodehouse would have said.

Considering that the threat of nuclear war today arises mainly from the Indian subcontinent, it's surprising that we haven't so far seen much spy fiction set in this region.

That long drought may soon be coming to an end. Two recent debut novels by Indian authors, featuring heroes from the Indian spy agency RAW and their escapades in neighbouring Pakistan, provide some welcome analysis, however fictional, of the issues that bedevil the South Asian region.

Shatrujeet Nath's "The Karachi Deception" of 2013 was soon followed by Bilal Siddiqi's "The Bard of Blood" in early 2015

[I reviewed Shatrujeet Nath's second novel on this blog in January. This book is a work of mythological fiction - "The Guardians of the Halahala".]

Without giving away the details of either story, let me just say they deal with topics that should be very familiar to Indian and Pakistani readers.

The name Dawood Ibrahim is notorious throughout India. Ibrahim was a Mumbai-based don who fled the country when the heat on him began to increase. He is believed to have been responsible for the Mumbai blasts of 1993. He has been sighted in the UAE on occasion but is now believed to be hiding out in Pakistan.

In The Karachi Deception, Irshad Dilawar is the thinly-disguised equivalent of Dawood Ibrahim, and the story is of a group of RAW agents who are sent into Pakistan to eliminate him. Of course, nothing is ever straightforward in a good spy novel, and there are twists and turns galore.

The separatist movement in Pakistan's province of Balochistan is likewise well-known in the subcontinent. Pakistan has long accused India of providing support to Baloch separatists, a charge that India denies. However, given Pakistan's own barely secret support for separatism in the Indian state of Kashmir (and its equally stout denial), Indian citizens would not be surprised at (and may in fact welcome) their government's tit-for-tat involvement in Balochistan.

The Bard of Blood is largely woven around the Baloch separatist movement, although it involves characters from the larger AfPak region, such as Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban. Again, the story focuses on a group of RAW agents on a mission to Balochistan, and there is betrayal and intrigue here too. There is a scene featuring a meeting between the fictional Indian prime minister Shailendra Patel and Chinese president Zhou Bocheng in Ahmedabad, a sly reference to the actual meeting of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in the same city.

Both books weave historical and contemporary facts with fiction to create an engaging story. Needless to say, the villains in both novels are members of Pakistan's spy agency ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence).

It is important to note that Bilal Siddiqi, the author of The Bard of Blood, is just twenty years old! This novel is a terrific accomplishment for one so young.

Having said that, Shatrujeet Nath's is by far the more polished work. The sophistication of the plot, the quality of the language and the richness of the atmosphere evoked by The Karachi Deception are first rate. This is not to say that The Bard of Blood is amateurish. It is also a very readable novel, but there are definitely better books in the author's future. Siddiqi is a good twelve years younger than Nath was when he wrote his first book, so he can certainly look forward to producing more sophisticated writing as he matures.

One thing I must say, though. I am a strong believer in quality as evidenced by the little details. Sloppiness in English grammar and composition detracts greatly from the overall impression of a book's quality, and Bilal Siddiqi should definitely get himself a more conscientious editor. There were at least three glaring errors of language in his book (apart from the constant and erroneous reference to the Baloch people as "Balochis").

1. The description of Mullah Baradar on page 76 alternates between the past tense and the present tense. It should have been in the past tense throughout.

2. On page 130 appears the line "Sadiq and him never got along well." That should have read "Sadiq and he never got along well."

3. On page 151, there is a reference to the "draft itinerary" of an important meeting. That should of course have been "draft agenda".

I'm pedantic about English, so these kinds of mistakes can ruin a book for me. I hope Siddiqi fixes these errors in the next edition of the book, and ensures that such mistakes don't mar his future writing. Shatrujeet Nath's novel has a couple of typos in it, but fortunately nothing more egregious.

I did enjoy both books, and would recommend them to other fans of the spy genre as well as to those interested in South Asian politics. Here's looking forward to more subcontinental spy fiction from these and other authors. It would be good to see Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal and China included in the ambit of future stories, since they no doubt play a role in real-life covert operations in the region.

Friday, 22 May 2015

India Has No Excuse

I was shocked to read recently that China's GDP is 5 times that of India's. Five times! Not 20% more, not 50% more. Five times more!

How? How did a country with roughly equal population, and that was at roughly the same level as recently as the 1980s, end up doing not just slightly better, but so much better?

Why couldn't India achieve something comparable? If India's GDP could have been just three times what it is, can you imagine how many hundreds of millions of people could have been lifted out of poverty and into the middle classes? When you look at it that way, you have to conclude that a crime of incalculable proportions has been perpetrated on the Indian people.

I often hear Indians claim that India is poor because it was looted by its British colonialists for two hundred years. But the example of China shows that up as a mere excuse. The British left India two generations ago. Since then, if we compare India and China as two independent countries in charge of their own destinies, the British are nowhere in the picture. If China could progress so much in the same time, what's India's excuse?

Besides, being looted is hardly an excuse when one looks at countries like Japan and Germany, which were both utterly devastated and left in ruins after the Second World War ended in 1945, with a significant portion of their able-bodied men killed or turned into invalids. Yet in less than twenty years, both countries had not just restored their industrial strength but had also established themselves as manufacturers of quality. Being knocked down is no excuse for staying down.

There are those who will blame Nehru (who died way back in 1963) or the socialist policies of the Congress party. These excuses might be valid in a dictatorship. In a democracy, where people have a right to judge the performance of their government and to regularly reward and punish political parties based on their assessment, where does the buck stop?

I can only conclude that Indians' expectations have been too low for too long, and that they have suddenly woken up and realised that the rest of the world has passed them by. The one comparable country in terms of civilisational past, size of population and parity two generations ago, is now five times their country's size.

The blame lies with the expectations, attitudes and will to action on the part of Indian citizens.

Friday, 24 April 2015

When Worlds Collude - 8 (What Is It About The Germans And Kal Ho Na Ho?)

What do the Germans see in the title song of the Bollywood movie Kal Ho Na Ho? The movie is a love triangle in which one of the vertices is played by Shah Rukh Khan, who, unknown to the other two, is dying of a heart condition. Before he dies, he brings the other two together.

A bit maudlin and overdone in true Bollywood style, but surprisingly, Germans seem to like this movie so much that I have seen not one but two re-picturisations of the title song with German actors. In the second, India's former foreign minister Salman Khurshid, German ambassador to India Michael Steiner, Steiner's wife Eliese and well-known Indian writer Madhu Kishwar play the lead roles.

This is the original.
Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Saif Ali Khan in the three main roles

This is the first fan remake that I saw. The guy playing the Shah Rukh Khan character also manages to get his trademark arms-spread-wide gesture down pat.

A fan remake by three regular German folk

And this is the latest from the German Embassy in New Delhi starring ambassadors and former foreign ministers.

The German Embassy remake "Lebe Jetzt" ("Live Now") with a relatively well-known cast


Two Assertions About The Indic Civilisation Face A Genetic Lie Detector

The Neo-Hindu resurgence is in full swing, and one of its accompaniments is a new civilisational narrative that is meant to restore pride among Indians in the glory of their ancient past. It is a narrative that has been taken up with enthusiasm and propagated by some of the most educated Indians. Obviously, a story of "Who we are as a people and how we came to be" is capable of being quite popular, especially if it glorifies the society concerned and blames its negatives on external players and forces. As with all narratives that have a political imperative, a scrupulous adherence to the truth is not an essential concern for those who want to believe it. But to those of us to whom the truth matters, evidence counts for more than feel-good stories.

I want to focus on two particular assertions that are increasingly heard as part of this Neo-Hindu narrative, because we have recent genetic evidence to challenge them.

Assertion 1: The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) has been debunked

What this assertion implies is that there was only ever one race that inhabited the land that is India, and all its traditions (especially what are known as its Vedic traditions) originated within this land. There was no external Aryan race that brought Vedic civilisation to its original Dravidian inhabitants. Indians are, and have always been, a single race. The entire theory of two races is a European colonial fantasy to divide, demoralise and enslave Indians, and this fantasy has now been exposed as such, thanks to a wealth of evidence.

Assertion 2: The rigid caste system observed in present-day India is similarly a European colonial creation

This assertion implies that the original Indic civilisation (which was a "Vedic" one, of course) only had four broad categories called "varnas" that represented a sensible division of labour. Within the varna matrix were hundreds of localised subcategories called "jatis", which represented job roles that were not rigid and oppressive, but afforded social mobility. The word "caste" is a European one derived from the Portuguese "casta". The British ethnographer Lord Risley exploited jati labels in the 1901 census of India and classified Indians by their "caste". Over time, the British emphasis on these caste labels created a society that was rigidly stratified in a way that the original system was never meant to be.

Neo-Hindu intellectuals like Rajiv Malhotra have been in the vanguard of the "dharmic" identity resurgence, and have expended much ink in making these assertions. Like the lady that doth protest too much, Malhotra's book "Breaking India" tries very hard to discredit both the Aryan Invasion Theory and the notion of a rigid caste system that evolved independently of mischievous external parties.

As it turns out in the light of recent genetic evidence, both these assertions are at best half-truths. At worst, they are outright lies.

As the T-shirt says...

In 2013, Priya Moorjani et al published a paper called "Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India" (the download link is on the top right of that page), which studied a sample of 571 people of the subcontinent belonging to 73 distinct ethno-linguistic groups (71 Indian and 2 Pakistani). It's important to note that classification of individuals into these groups was based on the conventional categories of Indo-European (Aryan) and Dravidian, in addition to their jati (caste) labels. The genetic analysis of these groups is detailed in their paper and requires a sophisticated understanding of statistics to follow. However, the conclusions are clearly explained.

1. Virtually all groups in India, including those considered to be isolated, have experienced an admixture of two distinct racial groups in the past. There are no "pure" groups today.

2. This admixture took place over a period of time, between 4200 years ago and 1900 years ago.

3. The paper calls these two original racial groups ANI and ASI (Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian). The ANI group has links to Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe, although the paper takes care to explain that it has no immediate links to Eurasians and hence may have separated from the Eurasian group 12,500 years ago. The ASI group does not have links to any group outside of India, with the closest group being in the Andamans. Hence the ASI group is probably indigenous to India.

4. Present-day Indo-European groups in India (i.e., North Indians) have a higher proportion of ANI genes than ASI. Present-day Dravidian groups (i.e., South Indians) have a higher proportion of ASI genes than ANI.

So far, the data seems consistent with the Aryan Invasion Theory in that the ASI group indigenous to India seems to correspond to the Dravidians, and the ANI group with links to Central Asia seems to correspond to the Aryans. However, it isn't that straightforward.

5. The dates of admixture are more recent among Indo-European groups than among Dravidian groups. A plausible theory is that Indo-European groups received a second infusion of ANI, making the effective date of the admixture appear more recent. This is backed up by the fact that many North Indian genomes have long stretches of ANI interspersed with stretches that are a mosaic of ANI and ASI, pointing to a more recent admixture on top of an earlier one.

6. "Upper" and "middle" caste people's genomes show multiple waves of admixture compared to "lower" caste genomes. The paper does not offer an explanation for this, but my theory is that lower caste people were less mobile and had fewer opportunities to interact with outside groups, perhaps as a result of social restrictions.

On a matter that can be seen to have a major bearing on our understanding of caste, the paper makes a further surprising claim based on the genetic evidence.

7. An abrupt shift to endogamy (the opposite of cross-breeding) occurred around 1900 years ago. Some groups stopped receiving gene flows from neighbouring groups 3,000 years ago.

Why do I say the two assertions of the Neo-Hindu narrative are at best half-truths?

Consider the evidence from the Moorjani paper.

The Aryan Invasion Theory

The genetic evidence neither supports nor debunks the theory of a violent invasion. However, it very clearly points to an admixture of two distinct racial groups. To the extent that "Aryan" refers to a link to Central Asia and "Dravidian" refers to being indigenous to India, the theory that two races (whether or not we choose to call them Aryans and Dravidians) intermixed to produce today's Indians remains valid. Also, while present-day North Indians and South Indians are not themselves purely Aryan or purely Dravidian, they contain both genes in different proportions. North Indians are more Aryan than Dravidian, and South Indians are more Dravidian than Aryan. It's not a clear racial divide, but a difference in degree. Hence this fact can be used to argue both for sameness and for difference, depending on one's starting position.

Genetic evidence is of course useless in determining whether a violent invasion occurred, or which group was first associated with "Vedic" civilisation. Hence these questions remain unanswered. However, it is wrong to make the blanket claim that the Aryan Invasion Theory has been debunked, with the implication that Indians were always a single race with a completely indigenous civilisation and culture.

The Rigidity of Hinduism's Caste System

The genetic evidence is emphatic that all intermixing between caste groups (indeed, the samples were classified by jati) stopped abruptly 1900 years ago. In other words, the caste system became rigid, affording no mobility, long before Europeans (or even Muslim invaders, for that matter) set foot in India! The Portuguese word "casta" therefore only described an existing system, and Lord Risley only documented its rigid segregation. Neither he nor the British Raj was responsible for that rigidity. Whatever else may or may not be purely indigenous, the evil of caste-based segregation originated entirely within this land.


Personally, I identify with the Indic civilisation and recognise it to be a great and unique one, neither superior nor inferior to other civilisations, just different. I also believe the Indic civilisation has had a distinguished past and has great potential to make continuing contributions to the world. However, I am open to the possibility that not everything that is considered Indian may have originated within this country, and that some unique social evils could have originated here. We should be willing to give credit where credit is due, to accept negatives in our society, and seek to progress by accepting good ideas from any source and rejecting bad ones, however deeply steeped in tradition.

I particularly reject dishonest and non-evidence-based narratives. They bring no glory at all, and I expect educated and intellectually honest Indians to forge their civilisational identity based on verifiable truths instead.