Passing the civilizational purity test: India's 3000-year caste straitjacket
Exploring varna, jati and endogamy in Indian genomes
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar shaped 20th-century India. Gandhi is famous worldwide today for his espousal of nonviolent protest that served as a model for Martin Luther King Jr. among others, but Ambedkar remains a colossal figure in his home country, where the oppressed Dalit communities valorize him as a latter-day Moses who led his people out of bondage.
The two mens’ lives share similarities. Both hailed from India’s western coastal region of India, Gandhi from Gujarat, and Ambedkar from Mumbai in Maharashtra. Both were Western-educated, Gandhi studying law at University College, London, Ambedkar obtaining advanced degrees from the University of London and Columbia University and taking courses at the London School of Economics. While Gandhi’s activism for Indian independence is known worldwide, Ambedkar’s role as chairman of the committee to draft a nascent India’s constitution might be just as influential in his countrymen’s lives.
But despite their similarities, a chasm yawned between these two men unique to the Indian social landscape: caste. For outsiders to Indian society, Gandhi and Ambedkar seem to have much in common; two men of brown complexion who navigated the path between Western modernity and their indigenous cultural traditions and still shaped the lives of billions. As a young Indian lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi was no more or less a colored second-class citizen than Ambedkar the Indian economist would have been in the same time and place. In the subcontinental context though, they were as different as can be, one was born on top and the other at the bottom (their divergences eventually led to sharp policy disagreements, Ambedkar ultimately disdained Gandhi for his accommodationist stance regarding caste).
Gandhi was a Modh-Bania, from a Gujarati merchant community to which the richest family in India still belongs. Ambedkar was a Mahar, a member of a Dalit community subject to “untouchability” within Maharashtra’s caste system. These categories are ancient and deeply woven into the Indian social fabric. In recognition of the compounding advantages many upper-caste people are born with, from intergenerational wealth to a past familial legacy of educational accomplishment, India’s government today provides affirmation action to Dalits and other oppressed communities. Over the last twenty years of genomic breakthroughs, it has become increasingly clear that caste rank positions are surprisingly tightly correlated with genetic relationships across the subcontinent. Populations higher on the varna ladder tend to have more Indo-European Aryan steppe-derived ancestry, even millennia after these ancient migrations descended on India from the northwest. And the relationship of caste to a status pecking order is not a recent social construction: the hierarchy is shockingly ancient, extending back to the genesis of Indian civilization. The source of Gandhi's and Ambedkar’s unbridgeable chasm in social capital are primal and pervasive and have governed Indian society for over 3,000 years.