[INDOLOGY] politics of ICHR

koenraad.elst at telenet.be koenraad.elst at telenet.be
Sat Jun 20 11:38:55 EDT 2015

Dear listfolk, 


One scholar says about the Homeland debate: "I myself am not walking into this swamp." Understandable, because in the past, the debate has often been characterized by bitter acrimony and laughable instances of being "under-informed but over-opinionated". But that ought not to be a reason ad aeternam to give up on the debate, the outcome of which is in every respect highly consequential for the history of Indian thought and institutions. 


Another scholar comments: ""Sadly this is the common response. While I understand that people have other projects they are busy with, this era in India is very crucial and there are still many unresolved issues even if one is not interested in the AMT/OIT debate per se. Unfortunately, there appears to be no place where these issues are discussed so we end up with two camps not communicating with each other. Thus all kinds of unsubstantiated claims remain unvetted by qualified scholars." 


Well, we might close up the debate for now and not communicate for another while,-- but withdraw into our studies to at least acquaint ourselves with the other side’s case, which is now easy to google. On the Indocentric side, that would imply a primary course of comparative-historical linguistics, not studied in India at all and held in contempt by NS Rajaram as "a pseudo-science". It is generally assumed by friend and foe that linguistics implies and has prove the Aryan Invasion Theory, whch is the reason why Hindu anti-invasionists think they have to reject linguistics as well. However, I am not convinced by the linguistic case for the AIT, and in my opinion, believers in the Indian homeland have nothing to fear from linguistics. 


In the AIT camp, by contrast, the need of the hour is first of all to get to know the Out-of-India case. In IE conferences in Europe, I have found that many scholars have not even heard of India's homeland candidacy. To them, the "homeland debate" means the choice between the Pontic and the Anatolian theory. Those who have heard of it, mostly have also heard of its knee-deep immersion in politics, viz. Hindu nationalism (though they are not troubled by the neck-deep immersion of the AIT in politics, including Dravidianism and Ambedkarism in India till today, and in the past also British colonialism and National-Socialism), and find this enough reason not to get involved in it. The few who are actively involved in the debate, mostly deal with the many amateurs whose outpourings you find on the internet, and understandably don’t think very high of them and of the theory they are defending. However, to win a debate not for the gallery and the ignorant public, but at the scholarly level, it woud be better to address the opposing theory not in its weakest but in its strongest expression. 


One relevant fact has been pointed out by another participant scholar here: "I just draw attention to a few bibliographical deficiencies that struck me. If I am not mistaken, that is because of the vast amount of literature posted"  

Yes, that must be the reason: too many other reading responsibilities. Understandable, but at any rate, the result is "bibliographical deficiencies". Among those Indian archaeologists at the Delhi conference end of March, I heard a few specialists enumerate the mistakes in David Anthony's work. Archaeology is not my field, but at least, I have the impression that we should not be over-awed by the assurance given here by a philologist that Anthony, together with Ringe, has given unassailable proof for the Pontic-Caspian homeland. As a matter of "bibliographical deficiency", I note the absence from the debate of works on the archaeologically attested solid continuity of Indian civilization before and after Harappa, such as by the Frenchman Michel Danino: The Lost River. On the Trail of the Saraswati. At the Delhi conference, he enumerated the mistakes in the archaeological case for the Aryan invasion, to the approval of his colleagues in the audience. At an IE conference in Louvain-la-Neuve in 2013, his book was mentioned by a famous French scholar during an award acceptance speech: "Of course I will not read the book itself, as it is all wrong anyway." This is typical for a general attitude of stonewalling, on both sides. Having a foot in both worlds, I am amazed to see how many scholars are just not curious about what is being said on the other side of the fence.  

Two books which you guys are well equipped to read, are the philological works of Shrikant Talageri, which are far better and vastly more original than his outsider status would let you assume. Status-conscious people may of course choose to ignore his work, but scholars pursuing knowledge are making a grave mistake if they want to form an opinion on the homeland question without acquainting themselves with his arguments. His book The Rigveda, a Historical Analysis, has only been reviewed by Michael Witzel, and Talageri has provided a detailed reply. His book The Rigveda and the Avesta, the Final Evidence, had been reviewed by Arnaud Fournet (and by myself), and again, Talageri has provided a detailed reply. Having just reread these books, I am convinced that they can keep AIT-minded scholars busy for some time, and risk changing their minds. For now, I will not comment on their contents. If you are not willing to spend any money on them, just google the videos in which he states his case orally: 

One last thing. Prof. BB Lal, the nonagenarian dean of Indian archaeology, and star of the Delhi conference, is usually lambasted as a “Hindu nationalist” and therefore not to be taken seriously. I’d be careful with this attitude. First of all, he is not a Hindu nationalist in the sense of: someone who owes his professional and/or ideological position to the Sangh Parivar or the BJP, presently in power. This movement is the object of all kinds of vague and uninformed assumptions among Western India-watchers, and here is a case in point. 

Secondly, Lal was also lambasted 25 years ago for providing archaeological evidence for the then-controversial Rama temple in Ayodhya. Meanwhile, excavations and the Court verdict have proven him right – and all his critics wrong. Massively lambasted, yet proven right. This may well happen with his anti-AIT stand. 

Lal made his name ca. 1960 by providing the long-sought-after archaeological proof of the Aryans moving into India: the Painted Grey Ware, supposedly typical of the invaders moving deeper into India’s interior. Till today, this “proof” in quoted as authority in pro-AIT history books (e.g. Pradhan SV: The Elusive Aryans, 2014). I myself was taught this as proof ca. 1980 by Prof. Pierre Eggermont in Leuven University. However, Lal has reexamined his own case and found that in explaining his data, he was conditioned by his pre-given belief in the AIT. Examining the data with an unbiased eye, he found nothing pointing to a foreign origin, and much that indicated a local genesis. At the conference, he summed up his long-standing anti-AIT case as follows: “Vedic culture and Harappan culture are two sides of the same coin.” 

Some will say, and have indeed said, that his “conversion” took place under BJP influence. Among politicos engaged in a barroom discussion, this would be a clinching argument; among scholars, who keep in mind the difference between the motive for and the contents of someone’s conviction, this would be perfectly inconsequential, even if it were true. Anyway, at that time, Lal was already fin-de-carrière and could speak freely without expecting anything from politicians. Moreover, the BJP was very much in the opposition and the object of an enormous hate campaign in the public sphere worldwide. A public intellectual associating in any way with the BJP had nothing to expect except ostracism and calumny,-- and these indeed are still being directed against Lal till today, though less so since the BJP is in power. If a scholar was knowingly prepared to risk this treatment, it was because he was convinced of his case. 

This way, the prominent Out-of-India scholars are typically “converts” from the AIT: this also counts e.g. for the Greek Sanskritist Nicholas Kazanas (do read his 2015 book on Indo-European), who used to teach the AIT himself. It also counts for myself: I know how it feels to start doubting the seemingly well-established certainties of the AIT. 

Of course, the anecdotal fact of someone’s “conversion” is no proof for the rightness of either his present or his past conviction. But heuristically, it might serve as an occasion for scholars to conceive the project of studying the issue more closely. In this case, it would be welcome if scholars understood at last that there is here a real debate here, with genuine arguments on both sides. Not a querulous controversy that was won hands down by own’s own camp years ago and doesn’t need any treatment at all except snickering. 

Kind regards, 


Koenraad Elst
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