Our past is not their charity
by B S Harishankar on 08 Oct 2018 13 Comments

Vindicating the Outlook cover story, ‘We are all Harappans’, Harvard philologist Michael Witzel observed that India has seen a number of migrations, including the Aryans - and the Veda was no continuation of Harappan religion (After Meluhha, The Melange, Outlook, August 2, 2018). The Outlook story claimed that the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in Haryana has roots in the Fertile Crescent of West Asia and exhibits more affinity with Ancestral South Indian Tribal Population.


Rakhigarhi sparked a global controversy in early 2014 when eminent South Asian archaeologists criticised the intervention of foreign lobbies on this crucial archaeological site and funding by an opulent NGO, Global Heritage Fund. Its founder, Jeff Morgan, is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Many eminent Indian archaeologists were taken aback at the NGO intervention and funding at Rakhigarhi.


The Archaeological Survey of India has no dearth of funds and this foreign NGO funding was the first in the history of an Indian archaeological site. Veteran archaeologist, Prof. Dilip Chakrabarti, in Nation First: Essays in the Politics of Ancient Indian Studies (2014), cautioned that, “from now on, there will be increasingly successful attempts to take over Indian archaeology from the Indians, by miscellaneous groups of racially arrogant people masquerading as archaeologists under the umbrella of various foreign NGOs.”


Michael Witzel is jubilant that his Aryan Migration Theory got contextualized at Rakhigarhi under Global Heritage Fund. He claims that the arrival of Indo Aryan speakers in Greater Punjab is heralded by many loanwords derived from the substrate language of this area, the Northern Indus language, which is designated by him as “Para-Munda” (Outlook, August 2, 2018).


In his 1999 paper, Early Sources for South Asian Substrate Languages, Witzel contended that the language of the pre-Rigvedic Indus civilisation, at least in the Punjab, was of a (Para-) Austro-Asiatic nature which shows that Haryana and Uttar Pradesh once had a Para-Munda population acculturated by the Indo-Aryans. Witzel stressed that Vedic, Dravidian and Munda belong to three different language families, Indo-European, Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic. He claims the presence of Dravidian, Mua, and apparently also of Tibeto-Burmese speakers in northern India, up to the borders of Bengal, at the time of the infiltration and spread of Indo-Aryan speakers. Witzel explores Para-Munda loan words in the Rg Veda, Para-Munda and the Indus language of the Punjab, and Munda and Para-Munda names in his assignments for establishing the routes of Aryan migration into India.


Witzel earlier argued vigorously that in Indology, the imperialistic enemy is the “colonial-missionary creation known as the Aryan invasion model” (Frontline, Vol. 17, Issue 20, Sept. 30-Oct. 13, 2000). In 2009, he and his team contended that Hindutva groups propagate  that Aryans were the original or indigenous inhabitants of India. It needs to be examined whether the consanguinity between colonial missionaries and Aryan Invasion has been the creation of nationalist historians as alleged by Witzel. This is important as Witzel currently contextualizes Aryan Migration Theory with the Munda population in India. This anthropological survey was launched by the colonial regime in India.


Edwin G. Smith of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain wrote in 1924 that anthropology should be recognized as an essential discipline in the training of missionaries. “Good missionaries have always been good anthropologists,” is the opening line of Eugene Nida’s classic, Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions (1954). Lewis Henry Morgan sent his kinship questionnaire all over the world to missionaries, asking them to fill in the data and send it back to him.


Prof. Peter Pels of Leiden University has discussed the controversial link of missionaries with colonial anthropology. Prof. Thomas R. Trautmann highlights the role of missionaries in fitting India into the tree of nations of the Bible, which he terms mosaic ethnology of the Book of Genesis. Frits Staal argues that there is no evidence for “free Aryans and subjugated indigenous people”. He criticizes the linguists for the ‘unfortunate but continuous’ use of the term Aryan.


Dilip Chakrabarti, one of the foremost authorities in South Asian Archaeology, observes in Nation First that apart from a historical and racial issue, the Aryan invasion has been given socio-political dimensions primarily by Christian missionaries. The role of missionaries in propagating Aryan theory has also been discussed by Prof. Rosalind O’ Hanlon.


The central Indian region extending eastwards up to Bengal and Assam was settled by hunting-gathering and agricultural  communities. Mundas, inhabiting a broad belt in central and eastern India, are largely agricultural and hunting-gathering communities. The widest spectrum of Aryan Invasion Theory and the largest collection of anthropological data by the colonial regime began in Central India. The colonial regime entrusted local administration of the region to faithful zamindars after the 1857 rebellion.


The Central Indian region was seen as fertile land by missionaries for helping the colonial regime suppress anti-imperial agitations and for gathering linguistic and ethnological data for conversions. Stephen Hislop, Missionary of the Free Church of Scotland at Nagpur, assisted R.V. Russell in his preparation of castes and tribes of central India. Russel made use of ethnological accounts by Bishop Westcott, Rev. T.P. Hugh, Rev. E.M. Gordon, and Rev. P. Dehon; and juxtaposed Aryan Invasion and the Old Testament.


American Baptist missionary Jeremiah Philips made linguistic studies of the region. Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud also worked on the linguistics of the region. John Baptist Hoffman, a German Jesuit missionary who worked in Chotanagpur from 1893 to 1915, collected extensive linguistic and ethnological material on the Mundas. He also prepared the Munda Grammar and later the Encyclopaedia Mundarica


Fr. Peter Tete S.J who did research in 1993 on J.B. Hoffmann for his dissertation at the Gregorian University in Rome, states that before the arrival of the Aryans, there were traces of Munda dialect in the Gangetic plains. Hence it is not surprising that currently Michael Witzel has chosen the same track of research on Mundas, contextualizing them with Aryan migration. In 2016, another  missionary Paul B. Steffen, quotes Hoffman that, Mundas are the remains of the original inhabitants of India, who were once driven  out by the Aryans into the mountains and had defended themselves for thousands of years from the invaders they hated so much.


More studies were conducted on Mundas by colonial missionaries. Rev. F.A. Grignard S.J. wrote ‘The Oraons and the Mundas - From Time of their Settlement in India’ (1909). Fr. Augustus Stockman did surveys in 1868 from Midnapur to Chaibasa. He discovered that, side by side with the Munda people, there were Oraons who differed considerably from their Munda neighbours in terms of language and character. Anthropologist S.C. Roy, who was considerably influenced by the missionary Verrier Elvin, has written about migrations of the Mundas into the jungles of Chotanagpur, from the attacks of invading Aryans.


‘Dharti Abba’ (Earth Father), the legendary Birsa Munda, stressed the need for Vanvasis to study their own tradition and not forget their cultural roots. He started the faith of ‘Birsait’    which was a threat to Christian missionaries who were converting the tribals (India Today, June 9, 2016). The Anglican Mission at Murhu and the Roman Catholic Mission at Sarwada were the main targets of Munda agitation against colonialism. Michael Witzel currently works on the Mundas, where the colonialists and missionaries conducted an abrupt job.


In the erstwhile Chotanagpur and Central Provinces, Rev. O. Flex (1874), Rev. F. Batseh (1886), Rev. F. Hahn (1898), Rev. A. Grignard (1924) and Rev. C. Bleses (1956) focussed on linguistic and ethnological surveys and studies. Since 1885, survey of Chotanagpur region was also carried out by Jesuit missionaries. Father Van der Schuerin presented a paper (Oct. 1928) on the work of Belgian Jesuit missionaries among the aboriginal tribes of Chotanagpur. Bishop J.W. Picket and Rev. G.H. Singh conducted ethnological studies in Central India and concluded that they were suppressed by Aryans. J.T. Taylor of the Canadian Presbyterian Mission did studies on aborigines in Central India and propagated the Aryan invasion.


In 1883, Richard Temple, once Chief Commissioner of Central Provinces, delivered a speech to the Baptist Missionary Society, London, wherein he exhorted that the tribals (in India) ought to be made the special focus of the exertions of missionaries. In his work ‘Men and events of my time in India’ (1882), Temple mentions missionaries and Bishops in India who were an inspiration to him - Alexander Duff, William Smith, Stephen Hislop, John A Wilson, Bishop Sargent, Bishop Cotton, Daniel Wilson, and Charles Benjamin Leupolt.


Edgar Thurston in Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909) invites our attention to Sir Alfred Lyall who refers to the gradual brahminisation of the aboriginal non-Aryan or casteless tribes. Data for Thurston was provided by Bishop Whitehead, Rev. A.C. Clayton, Rev. Metz and Bishop Robert Caldwell.  


The report to the Foreign Missions Committee of the Free Church of Scotland (1888-89) was made by Rev. Prof. Lindsay, D.D and Rev, J. Fairley Daly B.D. It divides the population of India into Hindus, aboriginal tribes, Muslims, and various miscellaneous sects.


Sir Herbert H. Risley was Director of Ethnography and Census Commissioner. Risley was thrice President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. The anthropometric classification of the Indian people was first attempted in 1901 by Risley in Census of India. It was due to Risley’s initiative that Rev. P. Dehon S.J. compiled his ethnological work on Oraons in Central India. Prof. Sayce, whom Risley cites as having authorized him to address the invaders from northwest India as ‘Aryans’, is Rev. Archibald Henry Sayce, a scholar in Assyriology and Biblical studies.


As biologists V. Tripathy, A. Nirmala, and B.M. Reddy pointed out in 2008, many genetic studies betray “a lack of anthropological insights into Indian population structure as many of the papers have been written by people of non-Anthropology (especially Indian Anthropology) background.”


Eminent physical anthropologists Kenneth A.R. Kennedy, John Lukacs and Brian Hemphill have observed that there is no evidence of “demographic disruption” in North-West India between 4500 and 800 BCE. American biological anthropologist Todd R. Disotell found that migrations into India “did occur, but rarely from western Eurasian populations”. Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild, with fourteen co-authors from various nationalities, opted for a very remote separation of the two branches, rather than a population movement towards India.


Indian scientists led by Susanta Roychoudhury studied 644 samples of mtDNA and identified  a fundamental unity of mtDNA lineages in India, in spite of the extensive cultural and linguistic diversity. Studies by Indian biologist Sanghamitra Sengupta revealed a minor genetic influence of central Asian pastoralists in India. This study also indirectly rejected a Dravidian authorship of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, since it observed that the data are more consistent with a peninsular origin of Dravidian speakers than a source with proximity to the Indus-Sarasvati Valleys. Prof. Lalji Singh, molecular biologist and former chief of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, said studies effectively denounce the argument that Dravidians were driven to the peninsula by Aryans who invaded North India.


Witzel neither discusses nor acknowledges any of these genetic or physical anthropological studies, which exhibits a great dichotomy between his Aryan Migration propaganda and historical realities. It clearly exhibits the contempt of western scholars towards versatile Indian scholarship and prestigious institutions. Joan Gero observed (1999) that knowledge about the most splendid sites situated in the poorest countries of the world is controlled by the agendas, funding agencies and cultural institutions of hegemonic regions such as United States and Western Europe. Claire Smith and H. Martin Wobst (2005) highlighted that colonial archaeology is an endeavour which perpetrates values of western cultures and is hence solidly grounded in western ways of knowing the world. Patricia Uberoi and others (2010) caution that Euro-American studies colonize the non-western mind through western categories of thought.


Let’s look at another instance. The archaeological site of Lahurdewa near Gorakhpur in the Ganga Valley provided evidence of domesticated rice belonging to sixth millennia BC. Two American archaeobotanists, S. Weber and D. Duller, questioned its status of domestication in 2006 at a conference in Uttar Pradesh. Their opinion was cited in a website associated Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer. They even cast doubt on the integrity of radiocarbon dating conducted at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow.


Witzel argues that not one clear example of horse bones exists in the Harappan sites and elsewhere in North India before c. 1800 BCE and such ‘horse’ skeletons have not been properly reported from distinct and secure archaeological layers (The Hindu, Mar 05, 2002). Witzel’s central claim was that the horse was unknown in early India prior to the coming of the Aryans and any data that suggested otherwise must be a fabrication. He refuses to analyse the observations on horse remains from major Indus Sarasvati sites by veteran Indian archaeologists such as Professors B.B. Lal, A. Ghosh, S.R. Rao, V.N. Misra, Dilip Chakrabarti, R.S. Bisht and also Sandor Bokonyi from Budapest, and denounces them outright. He claims that these renowned archaeologists are not trained zoologists and palaeontologists to comment on horse bones. But Witzel, who is only a philologist, claims exclusive scholarship to be accepted as the ‘last word’ on archaeology, anthropology, archaeozoology, and all interdisciplinary studies on India.

The controversy on Indus script deserves attention. In the foreword to Bryan K. Wells’ Epigraphic Approaches to Indus Writing, C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky comments how Bryan’s doctoral dissertation was blocked by lobbying in Harvard University. The dissertation committee consisted of Lamberg-Karlovsky, Michael Witzel and Richard Meadow. Witzel, influenced by Steve Farmer, a comparative historian, contended that the Indus script was neither writing nor representative of language. Bryan Wells asserted that Indus script represents writing and its decipherment will help understanding its texts and language. Along with Meadow, Witzel rejected the final draft of Bryan’s dissertation.


Kamala Visweswaran, Michael Witzel,  and others accused Hindutva lobbies of propagating the theory that “Aryans” were the original or indigenous inhabitants of India, and that the core essence of Hinduism can be found in the Vedic religion of the Aryans (2009: The Hindutva View of History: Rewriting Textbooks in India and the United States). Yvette Rosser, a scholar who has studied representations of India in American textbooks, called Witzel anti-Hindu. Rosser said the caste system is often one of the main aspects of Hinduism taught in American schools, which distorts true values (The Caravan, April 12, 2016).


At a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Denver (November 17, 2001), Edwin Bryant of Columbia University warned against scholars in American Universities who play identity politics with early Indian history. He cautioned  against “falling into a kind of uncritical Indological McCarthyism towards those open to  reconsidering  the established contours of ancient Indian history, irrespective of their motives and backgrounds, and of lumping all challenges into a simplistic, convenient and easily demonized ‘Hindu Nationalist’ category”.


Witzel claims the Dravidians supplanted the Harappan people in Sindh just as Aryans supplanted them in Punjab. He claims the Dravidians migrated south, while the Aryans went east. He proposes a later Dravidian settlement in that area and Maharashtra, before Indo-Aryan speakers introduced the ancestor of modern Sindhi. But Witzel remains unclear as to when the Dravidians moved into the Indus area. Analogous to Witzel, Robert Eric Frykenberg, scholar in south Asian evangelical studies, in Christianity in India - From Beginnings to the Present (2008, Oxford) depicts the migration of Indo Aryans from Central Asia into India. Frykenberg contends that Dravidians who refused to get suppressed by Aryans migrated southwards. Despite difference in areas of study, Witzel and Frykenberg nourish similar methodology and objectives.


In his paper, Early Indian history: Linguistic and textual parameters, Witzel argues that Vedic texts are almost exclusively ritual, like the Psalms of David, accompanied by a priestly explanation of the great Easter sacrifice at the temple of Jerusalem, and by a ritual manual for its priests. This shows Witzel’s lack of understanding of Vedic literature and how he attempts to align it with Abrahamic texts, to trace the routes of Aryan migrations into India. Prof. Stefan Arvidsson has recently discussed various ideological interests that shaped ‘Aryan’, such as the Indo European perceived “creative center” of the Judaeo-Christian dominant strain of Western culture and the Hebrew claim to stand at the “origins of history,” as described in the Bible.


Michael Witzel’s Aryan Migration is deep rooted in Biblical studies. Migration is an intrinsic part of the Abrahamic faith. The migration story is key to Biblical ancestry: the history of the movements of the uprooted ‘People of God’ seeking safety, sanctuary and refuge. It narrates the migration of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the movement of Abraham out of the Ur of the Chaldeans and continuation to other places, the exile of the Jews to Babylon, the movement of Elimelech and Naomi to Moab. Peter and Paul wrote letters to churches of migrants. Witzel currently endeavours to draft and weave this West Asian migration history into the foundation of ancient Indian studies contextualizing the Aryans. 

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