The main shortcoming of the book is that it takes the old ideological convenience of selective amnesia.


New Delhi: The question of origin has always intrigued us. Who are we, after all? On an inter-planetary sphere, we wonder if we are alone in this universe. But the question also haunts us at a personal, societal and cultural level. This explains the relevance of the book, Which of Us Are Aryans?, written by historians Romila Thapar and Michael Witzel, among others.

By now, both strands of the ideological divide not just concede that the term “Arya”, far from having any racial connotation, “was a status and used for a variety of respectable persons”, as put forward by Thapar in the Introduction, but also agree that no such thing as Aryan invasion ever took place in India. Even those who earlier believed in the aggressive onslaught of the nomadic tribes from Central Asia have long diluted their stand and shifted to the migration theory. But as the proof of mass migration into India too remains elusive and couldn’t be corroborated from both archaeological and literary records, the hypothesis of migration in small groups is now put into the currency. “There may have been small-scale migrations motivated by pastoralism and incipient trade, both of which were well-established activities from earlier times,” writes Thapar.

The authors, especially the two eminent historians, put their best foot forward by taking the linguistic route to hypothesise the Indo-Aryan migration path from Central Asia to the land of seven rivers in western India. “The names of deities and some Indo-Aryan words in the Mitanni-Hittite treaty of 1380 BCE in Anatolia have linguistic forms that are thought be more archaic than the Rig Veda,” Thapar informs. To this, Witzel adds, “The Indo-Aryan loanwords in Mitanni confirm the date of the Rig Veda for c.1200-1000 BCE.”

Incidentally, the limitations of the philological argument have been conceded by Witzel himself. In his own unpublished paper at Harvard University, “The Aryan Problem: Textual and Linguistic Evidence from the Rig Veda and the Avesta”, he contends that “a scenario of IE (Indo-European) emigration from Punjab is, of course, possible—the direction and spread of innovations cannot easily be determined unless we have written materials (preferably inscriptions).”

Thapar quotes people as diverse as Max Mueller and Bal Gangadhar Tilak to M.S. Golwalkar and Jyotiba Phule to put forward the Aryan migration theory. She, in fact, recalls Phule extensively to validate her claims, and in the name of the Dalit perspective on Indian history. “Phule argued that the original inhabitants of India were the Adivasis, among whom he included the Shudras, Ati Shudras and Dalits,” she writes.

Thapar takes the pain to look at the Marathi writings of Phule—written on the second half of the 19th century—for getting the Dalit perspective on the issue, but keeps a studied silence over what Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote on the issue. Now that’s not what one calls intellectual honesty. For, Ambedkar didn’t just come up with an off-the-cuff remark or article but wrote a well-researched book, Who Were the Shudras? He not only dismissed the racial connotation associated with the term Arya, but also took the path where even the hard-core nationalists like Tilak and Nehru feared to tread: He said that the Aryans were original inhabitants of India.

“The theory of invasion is an invention. This invention is necessary because of a gratuitous assumption which underlies the Western theory. The assumption is that the Indo-Germanic people are the purest of the modern representatives of the original Aryan race. Its home is assumed to have been somewhere in Europe. These assumptions raise a question: How could the Aryan speech have come to India? This question can be answered only by the supposition that the Aryans must have come from outside. Hence, the necessity of inventing the theory of invasion,” writes Ambedkar, who could have politically made the most of the so-called Aryan-Dravidian divide. Instead, he decided to swim against the conventional wisdom and even refused to believe that the Shudras were non-Aryans.

The main shortcomings of the book, however, aren’t just subjective quotations and selective amnesia but the authors perceived temptation to go for an upside-down trajectory of research: First the goal was set, and then the research process was put into practice to get the desired result. Anything coming in the way of the set objective was either ignored or denied. This explains why there’s no mention of the Saraswati in the book, even though there are plenty of evidences suggesting the river indeed once flowed, and that it dried around 1900 BCE.

The Rig Veda praises the river profusely calling it “the greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers, greatest of goddesses”. Ironically, the Aryans entered this country almost 500 years after it seemed to have dried up! Even more ironical was the fact that the Rig Veda addresses the Indian rivers as “my Ganges, my Yamuna, my Saraswati”, and so on. No foreigner would bother to address a river so endearingly, and definitely not the one that had disappeared some 500 years ago! Incidentally, there is a verse in the Mahabharata that mentions the Saraswati river slowly vanishing in the desert and, thus, unable to reach the sea.

Journalist Kai Friese’s article is a classic case of selective amnesia and ideological convenience that seems to be the hallmark of the book. The piece was the cover story of the India Today magazine late last year, based on the DNA findings of just one person, Citizen I4411, a male who lived in the Indus Valley city of Rakhigarhi, in modern-day Haryana, approximately 4,500 years ago. The results showed the complete absence of the genetic marker R1a1, often loosely and somewhat misleadingly called the “Aryan gene”, in his DNA. This, according to the author, proved Harappa was a pre-Aryan society.

But is it rational to make such a grandiose claim based on the findings of just one skull, especially belonging to an urban civilisation that traded with places far and wide and where people of diverse origins might have traversed? This explains why Thapar and Nayanjot Lahiri, another ancient Indian historian, refused to give much credence to the Rakhigarhi findings, understanding fully well the shaky foundation on which the entire argument was set up. Yet, the article finds a space in the book edited by Thapar!

The book is a sharp reminder that despite some strong philological arguments put forward by Witzel and Thapar, the Aryan migration theory continues to stand on a slippery archaeological and literary wicket. It makes no attempt to confront the big questions, and instead takes to the old ideological convenience of selective amnesia. Which of Us Are Aryans? is old wine in a new, glossy bottle.