Saturday, October 24, 2009

History, Race and Politics

A couple of years back, one of my friends wrote a post on logic, science and nature. I commented on that post and in the ensuing discussion, my friend mentioned that the Rig Veda could be 6000 years old! You can read the whole exchange here.
To support this he mentioned a few authors.
I also used to participate in debates in the forum at Most discussions veered into history automatically. I noticed that people had lots of historical theories of themselves. One guy posted an image of a Babylonian bronze statue and said it looked like Thiruvalluvar and therefore Dravidians were Babylonians or some such weird theory. Many of the forums devolved into wild theories about Aryans and Dravidians. (Many of these threads are still active in Karuthu - for three years!).
I have always wondered about a couple of things:
1. Why do people have a need to invent dates more and more ancient for their cultures? I read a Tamil language history book long back which basically said Tamils were some of the earliest descendants from apes, and they were the first civilization. It also linked with the debunked "Lemuria" continent and so on. And this is a history book. Of course, Hindu fundamentalists keep tracing their history to Harappa, even though that civilization shows no traces of ancient Hinduism. Tamil fanatics trace to Harappa too.
2. Why do people think a thousand years is a short time? The Rig Veda's earliest parts are dated to around 1200 BC. Isn't that ancient enough? Why dump another 5000 years on top of it?

History is a Science
I believe one of the reasons we see this kind of extensions to timelines is this: people think anyone can reason out history. That is, the perception is that History is not as exact a science as, say, Physics. I don't think a non-physicist would go in and say one day, "Oh, special relativity is really wrong.". They don't dare to because in their minds Physics needs rigour and mathematics.
On the other hand, the way we are taught History, historians seem like a bunch of imaginative people who can just sit around cooking up theories. We do not see any rigour in History, even though historians go through as much peer review as other scientists.
(If you want to explore rigour in history, just take a look at the books dealing with Microlithic era(Later Stone Age). The level of detail and scholarship is amazing).
If we are asked about specific heat capacity or photoelectric effect, we do not volunteer our own theories. We refer to text books.
The text books say that the Rig Veda is 3000 years old. Why don't we just accept that?

History and Identity Politics
There is of course, another reason, the primary motivator: amateur intellectuals in India are not really happy about our present condition. We tend to glorify our past so that the recent humiliation of colonialism goes away. We blame our present condition on obscure historical roots and try to trace history to a "Garden of Eden" long back.
I noticed that RSS and VHP supporters think we were enslaved a thousand years back - that is, even before the British, they say, the Muslims were "occupying" our country. Thus their freedom struggle started in 1000 AD, not after 1857.
Believing this is a stretch - because these people are corrupting the definition of colonialism. The British were colonialists, who (because of reasons related to economics), kept the relationship suited for exploitation. The Muslim invaders, on the other hand, were basically migrants. Their system of exploitation was no different from, say, the Mauryans or the Guptas. India had endured such waves of migration - the north-west border was porous.
To call Prithviraj Chauhan's fight against Ghazni as a freedom struggle and equate it with our fights with the British is just not accurate.
Yet this myth has a very profound impact for Hindu nationalists. It fueled crazy acts such as the Babri Masjid demolition.

The Tamil Political Tool
One of the worst uses of history as a political tool was the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) propaganda in Tamil Nadu.
when I was in college, I asked one of my friends what he wanted most to clean up the country. He said he wanted to clean up the Aryan people from Tamil Nadu.
I was surprised by this, because I had no idea what he meant by Aryan people. Then one of my father's colleagues visited home and ranted for a long time about how Aryans worshipped Vishnu, while Shiva is a Dravidian god. A brahmin friend of mine said he wanted to learn German because that is where Aryans were from!
Now, if you took any standard reference book (such as Romila Thapar's Early History of India), you would understand that Aryan is a language grouping. For example, Hebrew is an Aryan language. NOBODY would call Jews an Aryan people. In fact six million Jews were killed during WWII because they were considered NOT Aryan.
Both the term Dravidian and Aryan are used as language groupings. Yet nobody can deny that they have been used as racial terms - without any basis.
I have read several books on Tamil History. Anna, a former CM of Tamil Nadu wrote an entire book on the "Aryan Maya". Almost none of these people were historians! That is, these people were doing the same thing that Hindu fanatics were doing - using History as a political tool, and basically revising history to suit their needs.

Race as a Social Construct
Modern historians consider Race as a social construct. Romila Thapar calls Race as an European concept.
Let us think about that for some time.
When people talk about race, they usually mean biological distinctions - when we call white people or black people as a "race" we mean they are identifiable by looks. Or atleast we imply a genetic distinction.
When Karunanidhi talks about the Tamil "race" he is not talking about Tamil speaking people. When the DK leader Veeramani or Periyaar talk about the Dravidian "race" what they mean is a biologically distinct set of people. If they just meant Dravidian language speaking people, there is no reason to exclude Brahmins from it.
Yet, NO such biological distinction exists in nature.
The whole idea of a biological race - whites or blacks or mongoloid or semitic or Aryan is a concept created by European society in the 17th and 18th centuries to deal with differences. It has no independent "scientific" meaning.
The only meaning race has is as a social idea. Because we all believe in race, it has an effect on society. It has no independent biological role.
Mind you, I am not saying that the caste system is good (people tend to make such jumps in reasoning) or that the Brahmin caste is an innocent bystander. By all means, let us condemn the caste system; let us undo this brahmanical order. But let us look for sociological reasons for such differences (if at all we are concerned about the origins). Caste has an independent social meaning - it is not necessarily identical as race. If you picked up a standard sociology text book, you will see that caste system is given a separate section. That is because it is a unique oppressive system.
The idea that "race" exists is very deep in our psychology. The first time I read about race being just a social construct, I had difficulty assimilating what that means. I had been trained to see the world as composed of different races, some of which "achieved" while others were also-rans. It took me some time to get my brain around the fact that this whole view is a myth.


Sailesh Ganesh said...

That was written four years ago. Reading it again today, I don't really agree with all that I wrote back then.

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