Over a 100 leading biologists, historians, anthropologists and intellectuals have written a joint letter to the Ministry of Culture protesting its purported plans to fund a project to study “genetic similarities and differences in the DNA (genetic) profiles of Indian population groups.”
Last month media reports surfaced of a plan involving the Anthropological Survey of India, some scientists at the Lucknow-based Birbal Sahani Institute of Paleo sciences (BSIP), and prominent archaeologist, Vasant Shinde former director of the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute.
The plan, the report, said was to procure the latest DNA sequencing equipment to “establish the genetic history and trace the purity of races in India”.
The report quoted Mr. Shinde as saying the project aimed to study the “process of genetic mutation and mixing in Indian population over the last 10,000 years.”
Mr. Shinde, now an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and who led archaeological expeditions to trace the history of late-Harappan-era skeletons at Rakhigarhi, Haryana, following an uproar over the news report, said that his statement was “twisted and fabricated.”
The Ministry of Culture too tweeted that the reports were incorrect and that the project wasn’t related to establishing the “genetic history of races.”
In their letter, the academics said that while it was “welcome” the government had disassociated itself from such a project it was necessary to have “public disavowals” of any present or future project related to race, especially involving studying racial purity.
The concept of biological races was discarded long ago, the letter notes. The term “race” was invented as part of the effort to classify humans into distinct groups based on physical features such as bone structure and skin colour, and social characteristics such as faith and religion. It was assumed that the groups were somehow “natural”, or that they had a meaningful biological basis.
However, in terms of the genes that make up individual biological inheritance, all human beings, irrespective of where they come from, share the same “gene pool.” Most gene-based distinctions occur within so-called races, not between races and subsequent studies have only reinforced the strength of that conclusion, their letter notes.
The notion of “purity,” in addition to being meaningless, carries with it the sense of some groups being “less pure or more pure” than others. Human history is replete with examples of horrible injustice – denial of benefits or even persecution – meted out to “less pure” groups by “more pure” groups. Racial stereotyping of humans has been discarded, and there should be no attempt to revive the concept in India, they note.
For several decades human population geneticists and anthropologists working in various Indian institutions, including the Anthropological Survey of India under the Ministry of Culture, have undertaken detailed DNA analyses of individuals collected from various communities of India, including tribal communities, and have shown that nearly every community today is an admixed community of several ancestral communities whose identities can at best be guessed, but not with great certainty. “What else is expected to result from the project under consideration of the Ministry of Culture, we do not know. But if it touches on questions of “racial purity,” one guaranteed outcome will be the exacerbation of disharmony among Indians,” the writers opine.
Prominent signatories include Partha Majumdar, of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics,
Vidyanand Nanjundiah, Centre for Human Genetics, Bangalore, L.S. Shashidhara, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana, Ramachandra Guha, Historian and Writer, Raghavendra Gadagkar. Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Rama Govindarajan, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bangalore.