On January 3, Gujarat assembly speaker Rajendra Trivedi, speaking at a ‘Brahmin Business Summit’ in Ahmedabad, asserted that Brahmins are genetically superior to people of other castes and religions. If it’s a good idea to not spend more time interrogating a claim than the time taken to come up with it, we’re either looking at 10 seconds or a lifetime.
Genetic determinism has always been a darling of the political right, used to nullify cultural and sociological effects to exaggerate the influence of the genotype, and build support for exclusionary policies that create and reinforce socio-political hegemony.
The most brutal example history offers us is Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror in Europe. The most insidious contemporary example of genetic determinism is the discrimination against women, members of minority groups, the LGBTQ+ community and others. And now, attempts are being made to mask caste prejudice and discrimination in pseudoscientific veneer.
As a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose attitude towards science is well known, Trivedi likely deserves no benefit of the doubt. His claims about the superiority of Brahmins are completely false.
India’s Brahmins have enforced a stranglehold on the country’s knowledge production for over a millennium, and since the industrial era have expanded their influence to secure influential positions within the ruling class, and top jobs in the government, universities and research institutions, and in business, industry and trade.
Drawing from a mix of scriptural precepts and social frameworks they erected to maintain their power, Brahmins have perpetrated their violence in the form of subjugating members of other castes, kept them from being educated, holding well-paying jobs or entering places of worship, and in general starving them of any opportunities for economic mobility and empowerment.
This is precisely what Trivedi and his ideological peers around the world are blind to when they stake their claim to racial, ethnic or genetic claims to purity and superiority. If Brahmins have won nine Nobel prizes, as Trivedi claims, and setting aside the embarrassingly illiterate reduction of so many scholars’ efforts to their winning a genetic lottery, it is only because the Brahmin community stands atop the shoulders of the people it has pushed down.
As Angela Saini wrote of biologist Rama Shankar Singh’s work in her book Superior (2019), “Studying the biological differences between castes, Singh started to understand it as a system defined not by evolved differences that made people better at different things, but as a set of barriers maintained by society for so long that it felt as if they were in the blood.”
In fact, the rigid structure of the caste system and the arbitrarily stringent penalties meted out against attempts to subvert it affected the genes of its people. In 2016, researchers from the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics, Kalyani, reported that they could pinpoint the sealing of the caste system to 1,500 years ago by examining changes in the DNA of 367 people due to ancestral endogamy.
The case with gender-based and racial discrimination is the same. The bodies of men and women are different because they dispense some functions differently, but gender disparities arise due to extra-biological impulses that the genes don’t have much control over. Similarly, the genetic makeups of Asians, Africans and Europeans are bound to be different because the respective peoples evolved under the influence of different natural stimuli. However, race and racial disparities are socio-cultural constructs rooted in the foundation, beliefs and aspirations of our societies, and which map only weakly onto genetic differences.
Even in instances where the mapping is stronger, the answers lie more in the realm of history than biology. For example, some, if not most, of the purported (but in truth constructed) dissimilarities between Brahmins and Dalits can be traced to the migration of a population from the Caspian grasslands to Bactria, and then to India around 1,500 BC, according to two major studies published in 2019.
Here, the migrants may have found the local “cultural landscape [to be] conducive for caste-based social hierarchy, allowing the socially resourceful newcomers to dominate and for the earlier settlers” – the people of the then-declining Harappan civilisation – “to have become marginalised,” to quote C.P. Rajendran, a professor of geodynamics of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.
The Tamil Nadu archaeological department’s discoveries in Keeladi subsequently (but not entirely) support the hypothesis that the displaced Harappans could have moved further east and south in search for new lands to settle.
Taken together, this picture both explains and complicates the story of the origins of Indians. The newcomers, who were originally from a population living in the Eurasian Steppe 14,000 years ago, are thought to have penned the Vedas and occupied the upper echelons of the caste system. The Harappans mixed with the newcomers as well as native populations to give rise to the ancestral north and south Indian populations, members of which were presumably fit into the hierarchy’s middle and lower rungs.
Another study, published in 2001, conducted genetic studies and came to conclusions “consistent with either the hypothesis that proportionately more West Eurasians became members of the upper castes at the inception of the caste hierarchy or that social stratification preceded the West Eurasian incursion, and that West Eurasians tended to insert themselves into higher-ranking positions.”
One way or another, the caste system did not simply arise in India nor was it imposed on an already cleanly divided population. So the two 2019 studies, as well as others, effectively drove another nail in the coffin of the ‘Out of India’ theory, which Hindutva ideologues have vouched for because it allowed them to assert that the Indian population has always been indigenous, Hindu and organised within the caste system.