Suddenly, the private bus with our small, motley group touring southern India stopped in the middle of nowhere. Our tour leader urged us to follow him into the roadside jungle. In a small clearing, a crude, ghee- and wax-spattered stone figure, some five feet tall, stared at us through wide-open eyes. A primitive altar was surrounded by rows of pottery horses with riders. We were puzzled.
Our knowledgeable tour leader launched into a well-rehearsed speech:
This is southern India’s real religion. Yes, I am a Catholic of partial dalit [untouchable] descent. But I want you to know that here we are in the presence of our true, traditional religion. It is not Hindu. It is a much older folk belief in protectors represented by such statues. It is visited and venerated by the local villagers. Every year they gather here, and each family places these horses and riders in front of the altar, brings gifts and asks to be blessed and protected.
This scene evoked vivid memories of what I had read over the years about the ancient Dravidians and the Aryan immigrants. The literature is more fascinating than clear-cut. In recent years, this multi-millennial history has again become important, because it has a strong bearing on the divisive and intolerant Hindutva ideology propagated by Narendra Modi’s Bharata Janata Party (BJP) government.
This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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Let me therefore begin with a little primer on Indian history and religion, for in this ancient land everything derives from millennia of history, and nothing can be understood without reference to religion.
In a nutshell, the near-unanimous scientific conclusion, based on linguistic, literary and genetic evidence, is as follows. Possibly soon after Homo sapiens left Africa, humans followed ancient shorelines eastward, some eventually drifting or sailing even to Australia. On the Subcontinent, dark-skinned people spread inland. Eventually, they created the Neolithic Indus Valley civilisation that flourished from 3000 to 1300 BC and left large brick-built cities, elaborate irrigation systems and a mysterious script for modern archaeologists to puzzle over. With climate change and more arid conditions, that civilisation was declining, when, around 1800 BC, groups of Aryans began to trickle in from the north-west.
In their Urheimat, the steppes north of the Black and the Caspian seas, the Aryans had developed pastoralism, domesticated the horse, and acquired wheels and chariots, which gave them high mobility. They also had superior metal weapons. Genetic evidence points to small, male-dominated immigrant groups, whose language and religious views became influential, spreading across the Gangetic plain eastwards. Local elites adopted the ideas and the language of the more technically advanced immigrants, as has been so often the case in history. Intermarriage created the ancient North Indians, who became agriculturalists. The oldest Sanskrit literature, the Rigveda epic, speaks of warfare and nomadic pastoralism, but most other evidence points to a more peaceful, gradual process (Parpola, 2015).
While the Aryans brought their grammar and vocabulary to the Subcontinent, the very different phonetics and manners of speech of the incumbent Dravidians gradually transformed the Aryan languages, which eventually became Hindi and the other modern languages of northern India. The incomers also brought with them new ways of life and religious belief, such as the concept of a divine trinity (trimurti): Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer of evil. Many aspects of the ur-Vedic system are vaguely reminiscent of the gods of the Greeks, Romans and Germanic people. However, there is a special #MeToo aspect to the Hindu pantheon: each male deity has a female consort (Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Parvati respectively). Beyond that, the Brahmin priests multiplied the number of gods, each with more and more incarnations and avatars, to 330 million on last count.
During the original Aryan-Vedic era, northern Indians produced great Sanskrit epics such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita (1500 to 500 BC). Between 500 BC and 500 AD, these contributed to the evolution of beliefs about the now and eternity, the here and the transcendental, which became the polytheistic, complex, highly flexible system that is now known as Hinduism and which is shared by more than a billion people. According to the Supreme Court of India:
unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more. (quoted after Klostermaier, 1994, p. 1).
The ancient Dravidians were confronted with this expansive herder society. In the south of the Subcontinent, Dravidian communities remained fairly untouched and retained their old languages. But some Dravidian language islands in northern India are testimony to a gradual retreat of Dravidian culture. The basic posture of the northern Indo-Aryans has been to aggressively fend off intruders and competitors for fodder and water by drawing clear lines between insiders and outsiders. The Dravidians’ agriculture, by contrast, was based in many parts on irrigation, often to produce rice. Indeed, the classical Greek word oryza and our word rice are among the few linguistic splinters that we have inherited from the Dravidians. Communal irrigation agriculture always favours compromise, conciliation and co-operation. Dravidian folk have always struck me as gentler than the pushy people in the north.
At the beginning of the first millennium AD, social controls were developed by Aryan elites to constrain social and cultural mixing, in particular with the darker-skinned Dravidians and lower classes. It was the beginning of an apartheid system, which has been more or less in place for the past 2000 years. The concepts of rebirth and dharma gave the caste system extraordinary effectiveness and durability. Dharma stipulates the meek acceptance of life’s circumstances and adversities. The rewards for good dharma cannot be expected in this life, they can only be reaped in your next incarnation. You may then be born into a higher caste or even reach the ultimate goal, salvation by extinction and integration into highest godlike non-essence, the Nirvana. A woman cannot reach Nirvana. But if she is meekly compliant with her fate, she can hope to be reincarnated as a man, and therefore put on a tenure track towards Nirvana. These religious concepts did much to avert challenges to caste discrimination. They kept people from learning how to better their lives in the here and now. The consequence of the caste system has thus been a rigid ethnic, economic and educational stratification of society, anchored in the Hindu religion, as well as deep-rooted fatalism.
Today, some 70 per cent of Indian nationals speak an Indo-Aryan language as their mother tongue, and some 20 per cent speak Dravidian languages (the remainder communicate in diverse minority languages). Many southerners will tell you that they do not feel at home among the Aryan northerners. When one travels in a long-distance train from the north to the south, one cannot help but notice the palpable feeling of relaxation and relief among the dark-skinned Dravidian passengers when the train crosses into home territory and they can order familiar food. Many will speak of now being in a different country and reveal an aversion to those brash, assertive northerners. The visitor to India soon discovers that a Tamil Hindu villager feels he has a lot in common with a Tamil Christian. But Bengalis or Punjabis are aliens. What also plays a role in this is that, throughout most of history, the vast Subcontinent was most of the time divided into many different jurisdictions. Seventy years ago the nation-state of India was created, but it seems that they are still trying hard to create Indians. Expatriate Indian diplomat and essayist Shashi Tharoor put it well when he wrote: “If America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls” (Tharoor, 2011, ch. 2, “Hinduism and Hindutva Creed and Credo”). Obviously, the cultural integration of immigrants—always a slow process—requires a bit more time to run its full course …
Upper castes, especially the Brahmins, have retained a bigger share of Aryan blood stock, and the lower castes and the untouchables are still visibly darker-skinned (Metsupalu, 2011; Reich et al., 2009). The congruence of race, religion and culture is, however, anything but clear-cut. For example, the Sinhalese majority of Sri Lanka are ethnic Dravidians, whose language is Indo-Aryan and who practise the Buddhist religion, a belief system once widespread throughout India, but one that Hindu influence squeezed out of most of the country or absorbed into the broad church of Hinduism.
In the southern third of the country, where people carry few Aryan genes and subscribe less to the culture of the northern Indians, caste has been imported, but often superficially. To a foreign observer’s eyes, Hinduism appears at first as the all-India common denominator. But for the lower castes and the untouchables it is evidently often a rather thin veneer, as I learnt when standing in front of the statue mentioned at the beginning. Hinduism, being a flexible religion, accepts any belief and any deity as part of the transcendental system. It is therefore easy for many Hindus to consider Buddhism, Christianity or Marxism as just other cults in the wide, vague Hindu framework. Problems only arise when the practitioners of other religions—most notably proselytising Muslims—insist that they are not part of the Hindu universe.
Why should Australians be interested in these complex, confusing matters? As we seek to diversify from our uncomfortable, challenging economic partnership with China, we are told that India is the answer. However, if 2000-year-old divisions spell trouble for India, then we had better take note.
The racist-religious identity politics of the Hindutva movement spells trouble. Without a shred of scientific evidence, Hindutva apostles assert that the above account of history is wrong: it all originated on domestic soil. The Hindutva movement arose almost a hundred years ago as an assertion of Hindu identity and partially as a late reaction to Muslim Mughal dominance and British efforts to propagate Western concepts (for example Savarkar, 1989 [originally 1923]). Zealot writers now extol certain long-standing divisions and provide fuel for social tensions.
Before I went back to India in March, I was of course aware of the recent riots in many cities over proposed legislation to exclude certain groups of Muslim immigrants from recognition as citizens. It seemed to me that a restriction on Muslim immigration was not unreasonable. But once in India, I promptly learnt why the Modi government’s proposed legislation created such anger not only in the Muslim community, but throughout the entire society, and why the matter quickly flared into deadly riots. Over forty people were killed in Delhi alone; numerous houses of poor people were destroyed, their inhabitants forced to flee, while the police noted nothing unusual.
The real cause for the violence between anti-government protesters of all creeds and pro-government mobs was something much deeper. Nehru’s new India was shaped as a secular state, understandably so after the emotions and the enormous bloodshed of Partition, when West and East Pakistan were excised from British India. Indian secularism has meant “a profusion of religions, none of which is privileged by the state and all of which are open to participation by everybody”. (Tharoor, op. cit). But as of late the ruling BJP has been steadily moving from a secular blindness to race and religion to favouring a specific kind of religiosity, which tries to halt or turn back the erosion of traditional caste and regional distinctions. The moderately wealthy, but still poorly educated classes in northern India seem to welcome a step back from secularisation and the positive discrimination that has appeared to them to favour their inferiors (Nussbaum, 2005). They constitute the core of the BJP’s electoral support base.
In many respects, the intolerant and divisive neo-Hindu movement reminds me of the identity politics of the German Nazis: prophetic cranks propagate theories that allow politicians to play identity games and find enemies. (Juergensmeyer, 1996; Desai, 2004, 2014; Tharoor, op. cit). Of course, the führers do not order violence—the Kristallnacht was supposedly triggered by spontaneous popular ire; the Gujarat inter-communal violence in 2002, producing some 2000 deaths, broke out on the watch of the then-Gujarat minister Narendra Modi, who had of course nothing to do with it. The likes of Himmler and Goebbels and stormtroopers take care of such deniable actions. The list of violent riots in India has been growing longer (google Wikipedia <riots in india>). And that frightens me. The führers are highly visible, have great appeal to the masses, make populist promises (“millions of toilets for India”), which go unfulfilled, and extort financial support from big industry, the Krupps there, the Adanis and Tatas here. These businesses have to comply if they want to continue doing business. Democracy gets perverted by subtle electoral changes and legal shenanigans. Before my recent visit to India, I did not believe in reincarnation. Now, I have my doubts because I see Nazi ideology and practice re-emerge in Indian garb.
A second complex of trouble has much more recent roots, but is also connected with the millennial time bomb. After Independence in 1948, the Gandhi-inspired and Nehru-led national government tried hard to do away with the caste system and social, religious and regional diversity. Modern India was to be more equal and equitable. Although Nehru’s pro-Soviet central planning, state capitalism and protectionism were wrong-headed and harmful, the positive discrimination in favour of untouchables and other backward groups had some merits, I thought when I began to research India in the 1960s. Official secularism meant that no one religious group was favoured by the state; all were equally recognised and left alone. The large Muslim minority, the northern Aryans and the southern Dravidians were officially all equal in the new nation. However, “backward groups” received official preferences, for example through quotas in education and public-sector employment. Given existing massive socio-religious barriers to social mobility, I once considered such visible-hand discrimination as a justifiable circuit-breakers.
Alas, no good political deed can ever go unpunished. Now, one or two generations later, many dalits are educated and hold well-paid urban jobs. Upper-caste privileges, though in private practice still defended, have been eroding. Rates of intermarriage between different castes are rising, as young people mix in urban work environments and learn more about the outside world. In certain circles, this produces family dramas and great insecurity. The Nehru and Congress Party era of Indian politics now has the after-effect that populist leaders who re-emphasise Hindu traditions, such as Modi’s BJP, gain electoral support. In the presence of such visceral unease about the social revolution, populist-reactionary appeals can mobilise votes. However, history teaches us that reactionary identity politics ends in tears. This the second time bomb I hear ticking. Yet, most foreign journalists and diplomats don’t.
As of 2020, there is a third issue which may well ignite the other two time bombs. Over several recent decades, India has shaken off some of the interventionist, statist economic policies of the Nehru era. The reforms were successful. If one, for example, now travels through the rice belt of coastal Kerala and sees how much rice and vegetables the country exports to feed the populations in the Gulf, one wonders why, a generation ago, some observers expected imminent famine in India. (The “Club of Rome” made headlines in the 1980s with mathematical models that purportedly proved that starvation was inevitable and imminent. None of this happened; nutrition has improved markedly. Did that teach the Jeremiahs a lesson? Of course not! The Club of Rome recently had its greatest political triumph in launching the school-strike movement of Greta Thunberg.)
The first economic reformers belonged to the Congress Party, which had originally established the stifling “regulation raj” after Independence. In particular, India’s thirteenth Prime Minister, Cambridge-educated Manmohan Singh (Finance Minister from 1991 to 2004, Prime Minister from 2004 to 2014), lowered tariffs, encouraged private enterprise, streamlined India’s mind-boggling interventionism and controlled budget deficits. The success gave budget stabilisation and microeconomic reform a good name in the erstwhile pro-socialist country. This made it attractive for Narendra Modi to run his election campaign in 2014 with the promise of further liberalisation and promises of great infrastructure spending.
The BJP rule began indeed with some further liberalisation and initiated numerous infrastructure projects. If you travel through India now, you will, however, see numerous unfinished bridges, bypass roads that stop in the middle of nowhere, and the rusting steel frames of unfinished flyovers in traffic-clogged cities. The liberal spirit has evaporated. This became also evident when India repeatedly vetoed global free-trade-and-investment agreements, most notably India’s last-minute withdrawal in 2019 from the Asia-wide Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement. Long mollycoddled Indian industries, who have good reason to fear Chinese competition, can always lobby and appeal to a deeply entrenched mercantilist spirit in the bureaucracy. The BJP’s Hindu nationalism has also helped to maintain India as the “tariff king of the world”, as President Trump recently tweeted.
Growth rates that once matched China’s are flagging. Schools turn out a million moderately educated young people every month, few of whom find jobs. And employers in the formal sector sack staff. The transport-equipment industry, for example, just dismissed 100,000 workers because of falling demand. Inflation is accelerating past the 7 per cent mark. National and state budgets are under strain, and citizens are facing several new taxes.
Now, add to this the Covid-19 shock. The virus arrived in India with some delay, because there is relatively little contact with its unloved rival China and international travel does not play a major role. But the virus is now spreading. International news services have just breathlessly reported that “the authorities have placed 1.3 billion Indians under complete lockdown”. Having travelled recently through the countryside and towns, I feel inclined to be sceptical. The Delhi authorities may well be able to stop trains, inter-city busses and aircraft and close state borders. But how will they stop people who have to buy their daily necessities in crowded markets? Many households have no fridges. How can you lock down the rabbit warren of a Mumbai slum? How will checkpoints be administered by rural police, who have hitherto specialised in little more than collecting bribes? How can Delhi bureaucrats stop distressed people from congregating in temples? How can they stop frightened villagers from assembling in front of their protector statue in a roadside jungle in Tamil Nadu? A drastic lockdown may be possible in a developed-country setting such as Wuhan. To my mind, it is unthinkable for most of India. The pandemic overtaxes the country’s inadequate health-care system. The Covid-19 calamity thus adds to the evolving economic slowdown.
Thus, we have a short-term bomb that adds to the millennial and the century-old causes of trouble. It may ignite the entire unholy trinity of troubles, which the national government and under-resourced state and local service providers will find near-impossible to handle.
Australians who dream of relief from the uncomfortable China connection by closer ties with the “world’s biggest democracy”, of profitable access to a market of 1.3 billion consumers and of a free-market partner in world trade, had better re-assess their expectations.
Wolfgang Kasper, an economist, has contributed to Quadrant since 1988. He recently returned from India, his sixth visit in the past fifty years
- Desai (2004), Slouching Towards Ayodhya: From Congress to Hindutva in Indian Politics(2nd ed.), New Delhi: Three Essays).
- Desai (2014). “A Latter Day Fascism”, Economic and Political Weekly, Sameeksha Trust (India), vol. 49, no. 35 (30 August), pp. 48–58.
- Juergensmeyer (1996). “The Debate over Hindutva”. Religion, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 129–135.
- Klostermaier (1994), A Survey of Hinduism, 2nd ed. (State University of New York Press)
- Metspalu et al. (2011), “Shared and Unique Components of Human Population Structure and Genome-Wide Signals of Positive Selection in South Asia”, The American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 89, no. 6, pp. 731–744.
- C. Nussbaum (2007),The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
- Reich et al. (2009), “Reconstructing Indian Population History”, Nature, vol. 46, no. (7263), pp. 489–494.
- Parpola (2015),The Roots of Hinduism. The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilization (Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press).
- D. Savarkar (1989 , Hindutva (Delhi: Bharati Sahitya Sadan).
- Tharoor (2011), The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone (New York: Arcade Publishing).