At the heart of the controversy are the “Indo-Europeans”, mobile, warlike pastoralists who are believed to have expanded from the Eurasian steppe in the early Bronze Age, propelled by the domesticated horse and bronze weapons.
They spoke Proto-Indo-European, a reconstructed tongue from which half the world’s modern languages, from English to Hindi, Icelandic to Iranian, are thought to be descended.
It is not just a linguistic theory — the Indo-European steppe nomads have deeply coloured political thinking in our age.
Under the name “Aryans”, Nazi scientists exalted them as the original master race. They have been pilloried by modern feminists as patriarchal bully-boys who destroyed the peaceful, matrifocal societies of Neolithic Europe.
And they have grabbed headlines in Narendra Modi’s India, where they are central to the efforts of Hindu nationalists to rewrite Indian history.
Historical revisionism in India may seem an obscure topic. But it is vitally important because of what it says about the rising tide of nationalism across the world, and how it undermines hard-won scientific understanding.
A recent instance was this year’s devastating Covid outbreak, for which Modi’s government was caught unprepared.
Two centuries of linguistic, archaeological and, recently, genetic research support the idea that the southbound Indo-European wanderers, who called themselves arya (Sanskrit for “noble”), crossed the Iranian plateau and first entered north-west India in about 1500 BCE.
Ancient Iranian (Avestan) and Sanskrit, the medium of Hinduism’s holiest scriptures, the Vedas, are closely related Indo-European tongues.
Initially, the horse-riding intruders were thought to have poured into the Punjab in a tidal wave, destroying the remarkable Indus Valley Civilisation and its great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.
The updated conception is that the newcomers infiltrated in small tribal bands, though some Indologists still believe they contributed to the downfall of the Indus Valley cities.
The Aryans — a term associated with the Nazis which survives in India — laid the foundations for Brahmanical culture and religion and were the distant forebears of today’s Hindus.
Across the world, scholars accept that the Aryans/steppe nomads were intruders in India. But from the 1990s, shadowing the rise of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a bizarre new narrative started to rear its head among Indian historians.
This claimed that the Aryans were indigenous, with an immemorial, unbroken attachment to India; that there was no foreign “invasion”; and that they built, rather than destroyed, the Indus Valley cities.
In the extreme “Out of India” theory, India was presented as the Indo-European Urheimat (original homeland), from which languages radiated outwards to the rest of the world.
Such thinking was presented as a “paradigm shift”. In reality, it was an expression of “Hindutva”, right-wing Hindu chauvinism, which casts Hindus as the children of the soil and non-Hindus — Christians, Buddhists and especially Muslims — as alien interlopers.
In Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? its early apostle, Vinayak Savarkar, deployed two classic nationalist tropes: the nation’s glorious past and its cultural autarky.
“All Hindus claim to have in their veins the blood of the mighty race … descended from their Vedic fathers”, he wrote. “Hindu culture is … self-sufficient … not needing any input from other cultures.”
Nationalist writers such as Shrikant Talageri and Subhash Kak see themselves as unshackling Indian historiography from the British Raj — despite the fact that the pioneers of the “Aryan invasion theory” were Danish and German.
The orthodox view is portrayed as “Marxist” or “Nehruvian”, a slighting reference to India’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, a secular humanist.
Most non-Indian scholars ignore the indigenists as an eccentric fringe.
An exception is Harvard University philologist Michael Witzel, who in two devastating polemics — Autochthonous Aryans and Westward Ho! — attacks what he called the “cottage industry” of the “Voice of India” authors, nationalists who often write together and recycle one another’s ideas.
His main target is Talageri, an Out of India hardliner he accuses of painting a pseudo-scientific veneer on what is essentially a politico-religious tract.
Witzel argues that Talageri’s first book, The Aryan Invasion: a Reappraisal, treated the four Vedas and Puranas, mainly religious texts, as trustworthy historical sources for the extreme antiquity of Aryan roots in India
This, he said, did involve a “paradigm shift” — backwards, to a pre-Enlightenment belief in the authority of scripture, just as early 19th-century European scholars regarded the Bible as history.
“This is not scholarship in the post-Enlightenment sense, but … ultimately a religious undertaking,” Witzel writes.
The hallmark of religious faith — and the nationalism often entwined with it — is that it is highly resistant to rational argument.
Witzel holds that the linguistic case for the movement of Indo-European nomads into, rather than out of, India is overwhelming: Sanskrit borrowings from pre-Aryan Indian tongues, for example, are not found in the languages of Europe.
But instead of confronting the argument, the “Voice of India” writers — mostly amateur historians with no linguistics background — dismiss linguistic analysis as “a petty conjectural pseudo-science” and “hair-splitting”.
It is only to India that the objection is applied, prompting Witzel’s complaint of special pleading.
The claim that the Indus Valley Civilisation was Aryan seems similarly untenable. The oldest Vedic text, the Rig Veda, makes it clear that the Aryans rode horses, used horse-drawn chariots and ate barley; the staple of the Indus civilisation was wheat, while the first reliable evidence of horses in India surfaces after the Indus cities collapsed.
The famous Indus seals depict bulls, water buffalo, goats, ibex, sheep, elephants … but no horses.
Similarly, there are no convincing relics of Aryan religious practice in the Indus cities, such as steppe-style graves or the cult of soma, a mind-altering sacred herb. And the Indus script, still undeciphered, shows no continuity with Vedic Sanskrit.
Nothing daunted, Talageri continues to insist that the indigenist case is so strong that “the academic world will ultimately be compelled … to accept … that the Indo-European family of languages originated in India”.
Twenty-eight years after he first went to print, there is no sign of this happening. Indeed, in 2019 his ideas suffered a near-fatal setback.
At issue was the first ancient DNA study of an Indus Valley individual, a 4,500-year-old woman from a grave at Rakhigarhi, north-west of Delhi. World-renowned American geneticist David Reich and Indian archaeologist Vasant Shinde led the scientific team.
The results were mysteriously delayed, and Reich later hinted that his Indian colleagues balked at releasing them.
When they were finally made public, they dealt a stunning blow to the nationalist narrative: the Rakhigarhi bones entirely lacked the Aryan/steppe genetic signature.
DNA studies also showed that Aryan/steppe ancestry is common in present-day India, increasing as one moves northwards and among high-caste Indians such as Brahmins.
So where did these genes come from, if the Rakhigarhi individual had no trace of them? The logical inference is that Aryan intruders imported them at a later date, and that the Indus Valley settlements were pre-Aryan.
India’s nationalist media either obscured or misreported the devastating implications of the findings. The two million-circulation paper Amar Ujala, for example, loudly proclaimed that “the Aryan invasion theory proved completely false; India is the guru of South Asia”.
The rewriting of India’s ancient history is not an isolated trend: it is part of a broader push in Modi’s India to reshape historical knowledge and education to puff up national pride.
School textbooks in certain BJP-governed states, for example, have been revised to exalt Hindu rulers and nationalists and diminish non-Hindus, especially Muslims, and secularists such as Nehru.
Between 2014 and 2018, reports The Indian Express, 1,334 changes were made to 182 textbooks put out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training.
Hindutva has also infected Indian universities, where, according to Witzel, one can do degree courses in such subjects as “scientific astrology”. Far from subjecting Talageri to critical scrutiny, the Indus University of Ahmedabad awarded him an honorary doctorate.
It is not an exclusively Indian disease. In the US, Christian fundamentalists have tried to force “intelligent design” into the school curriculum as a counterweight to evolutionary theory. Textbooks in Egypt have been scrubbed clean of references to the Arab Spring.
Hindutva nationalists have been particularly active in the US. In 2005 they tried to force amendments to school textbooks in California, but were headed off at the pass by academics that centrally included Witzel.
Nine years later The Hindus: An Alternative History by the University of Chicago’s Wendy Doniger, an eminent Indologist, was pulled from circulation in India after the publisher was sued for defaming Hinduism.
It is a criminal offence under Indian law for a publication to cause offence to any Hindu.
Nationalism — especially of the religious type — is the world’s most powerful collective force, igniting fierce and irrational emotions. An Indian MP, Subramanian Swamy, sent out a disgraceful tweet referring to “lies, damned lies and David ‘Third Reich’s’ statistics”. Reich is Jewish.
Vilified as a “Hindu-hater”, Witzel responds: “I am not. I hate people who misrepresent history.”
That is the vital distinction: between research that strives to understand history and reflect it in an impartial, evidence-based way — and historical study misused as an ideological weapon.
Witzel, a German American, points to the dire consequences of “blood and soil” propaganda in Germany’s recent past.
He closes with a warning: “It remains … to hope that the recent spate of revisionist, autochthonous and chauvinistic writings [in India] will not lead to similar, real-life consequences as those that we witnessed during the 20th century.” DM/MC