Suppose Modi took a DNA test

Published May 21, 2024
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

LEAVE alone Prime Minister Modi’s mindless rant for a moment — and the needlessly craven apology by the Congress party spokesman — over Sam Pitroda’s scientific-spirited but lazily presented comment that Indians comprised a range of races. Mr Modi feigned outrage at an election rally when the US-based Pitroda, scientific adviser to Rajiv Gandhi and a known Gandhi family loyalist, said one could find African, Arab and Chinese elements in the racial mix of India. It was an innocent remark, for which Pitroda was forced to resign as head of the Congress party’s overseas cell.

Compare that to Modi, who is remembered for his notorious profiling of Muslims, who, he said, could be identified by their clothes. Now, for want of an issue to hammer the opposition with on a given day, Modi latched on to Pitroda’s casual assertion. “They want to insult us for the colour of our skin,” Modi thundered, gnashing his teeth for effect. It was, of course, one more cue to TV anchors to kick up a storm over a non-issue, thereby avoiding discussion on electoral bonds scam or rampant unemployment. As for the Congress’s reaction, it was typically supine. The party accused Pitroda of uttering offensive ideas and asked him to withdraw them. The timidity had to do with the need to keep the head down.

‘Racism’ is not a word that Indian politicians readily identify with their countrymen. There is a history of some other words being shunned without a devious intent. Indira Gandhi inserted ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ as ideals into the preamble of India’s constitution. Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi won’t use the words even though both are excellent speakers who could send Modi cartwheeling in a one-on-one debate. They would say everything that would align with the ideals of secularism and socialism. Except that it was not politically expedient to spell them out.

Similarly, mention the word ‘Muslim’ and they would look wary. Modi said the Congress would steal mangalsutras and give them to Muslims. Ditto with buffaloes. Priyanka poked fun at the idea, as she should have, except that the mangalsutra in her version would be given to “kisi aur ko”, someone else. I believe skirting the word ‘Muslim’ could be a political strategy without necessarily derogative implications for anyone. Muslims are routinely identified in refined conversations as members of a particular community, or less directly as belonging to the minority community. Are Blacks a particular community?

South Asia, we are given to understand, is home to one of the most diverse assemblages of people in the world.

There are cultural variants of the problem. At one level, it’s not very different from Maharashtrian middle classes introducing their spouses as ‘mazha mishter’ or ‘mazhi misses’. The same way ‘husband and wife’ is a more acceptable synonym for ‘pati and patni’, partly because in the old days, there was no occasion for a husband or a wife to introduce their spouses to anyone. The elephant in the room, where embarrassing words are concerned, is ‘shudra’, an ancient reference for the lowest rung in the caste system. The people answering the call have been merged with the conveniently anglicised category OBCs, or Other Backward Classes. On the other hand, when Gandhiji tried to call the Dalits by what he thought was a politer name — ‘harijan’ — the Dalits rejected it outright. In this vein, pervasive colourism and the implicit racism that accompanies it is treated with diffidence and even denial. This was not always so.

Listen to two lines among several from compositions that are popular with Hindi-speaking Hindus. In a bhajan sung by Lata Mangeshkar, little Krishna prods his mother to explain why he was dark-skinned and Radha, his childhood friend, fair.

Not sure if Mr Modi or the avoidably cautious Congress spokesman, for entirely different reasons, would attempt to dilate on Krishna’s serious query with possible latter-day genetic implications. But my favourite citation on the acceptance of racial mix among Indians is a 16th-century verse from Tulsidas. It was popularised as a bhajan by classical singer D.V. Paluskar. Tulsidas observes Sita travelling with Ram and Laxman through unknown villages on their foot journey to the Dandakaranya forests. The village belles accost Sita and quiz her about the two men with her: “Kaun so preetam, kaun so devarava?” Who are the two men with her? “Siya muskai, bolati mridubani”. Sita smiles and says: “Savaro’n so preetam, gaur so devarava.” (The darker one is my beloved. The fair fellow his younger brother, my devar.) Using mythology to explain a pervasive reality here is not the purpose. The point is that there has been an unstated, unobtrusive acceptance of varied colours of skin that eludes the present.

South Asia, we are given to understand, is home to one of the most diverse assemblages of people in the world. According to one such study, most Indians are primarily a mixture of three ancestral populations: hunter-gatherers who lived on the land for tens of thousands of years, farmers with Iranian ancestry who arrived sometime between 4,700 and 3,000 BCE, and herders from the central Eurasian steppe region who swept into the region sometime after 3,000 BCE, perhaps between 1,900 and 1,500 BCE.

In the new study, University of California, Berkeley, population geneticist Priya Moorjani — who also co-led the previous work — and her colleagues confirm the identities of those ancestral groups. By estimating how much genetic mutation occurs between generations and calculating how long it would have taken India’s modern population to reach its current state of variation, Moorjani and her colleagues argue that the settlers who gave rise to contemporary Indians were part of a single migration out of Africa about 50,000 years ago.

As for Mr Modi, he might consider following the lead of Gopal Pillai, a former home secretary. Pillai recently revealed, in the context of Hindu-Muslim biases among others, that his DNA test showed him as 80 per cent Central Asian. And he belongs to a Hindu community of Kerala.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2024

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