Caste is not in our gene

Genetics studies have undermined historical narrations that thrive on deep-rooted notions and myths about social formations all over the world. They questioned the explanations and theses hitherto accepted uncritically. Along the line of such provocative studies, an IPS officer in Kerala has attempted to reinterpret Kerala history from a refreshingly new perspective. 

Malayaliyude Janithakam, by K Sethuraman, who is currently the deputy inspector general of police (Kannur range), is an effort to re-read Kerala’s history, which is significantly different from the positions of acclaimed historians such as M G S Narayanan.

A theory that has almost become common sense is the notion that caste is equal to race and different castes belong to different racial groups. Sethuraman disproves racial supremacy claimed by certain castes and argues that all caste groups have originated from a common source.

“Genetic studies indicate that all caste groups and most tribal groups in Kerala have evolved from a recent common population. Historical evidence of an existence of a casteless society is also there in Sangam literature such as Chilappathikaram and Pathitrupathu,” he said. “Caste nomenclatures of modern caste groups are of recent origin. Stone inscriptions of kings and chieftains throughout Kerala reveal little about modern caste names such as Nairs or Namboothiris or Ambalavasis. The labelling and community consciousness crystalized only in the last century. It is more political than genetic,” he said.

“Genetically the Nambiars and Thiyyas in North Malabar are likely to be more genetically related to each other than Ezhavas and Pillais in South Travancore. But in the last century, Ezhavas and Thiyyas have become a single caste. So are the Nambiars and Pillais who are clubbed under the broad Nair label,” Sethuraman said.

“Caste-broadening happens in every community. Before a century, goldsmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, stone masons and bronze smiths would have been considered distinct communities. Now, they are under the umbrella caste name, Viswakarma. So are the Ambalavasis,” Sethuraman said.

“Dalits are also a collection of different caste groups that are more related locally. There is hardly any genetic or cultural affinity between a Pulaya from Thiruvananthapuram and a Pulaya from Kannur. The Pulayars from Kuttanad or Palakkad are genetically and culturally closer to Ezhavas or Nairs of the respective regions than to Pulayars of other places,” argues Sethuraman.

Historians have argued that Sanskrit-speaking Aryans from North India migrated to south and conquered the ruling class that existed in the areas. But Sethuraman believes that there are no historical evidence to Aryan invasion of Kerala.

Genetic studies point out that Aryan genetic elements are found in almost all people irrespective of caste and tribe. Indian society is one of admixture of original hunter gatherers from Africa and later day farmers and pastoralists. Cultural diffusion is the primary factor that brought Aryan cultural ethos to Kerala.

As per existing narrations, the genetic nature of Namboothiris in Kerala should be similar to that of North Indian Aryans but it shows the strains of the Dravidian genetic structure.

“If the Namboothiri Brahmins had migrated to Kerala from Aryavarta under persuasion from Lord Parasurama, they should have followed the dressing and culinary tradition of North Indian Brahmins,” he said. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the Namboodiris in Kerala are also an admixture community.

Many historians hold the position that Ezhavas are successors of those who migrated from Sri Lanka. They cite the similarity in the terms Ezham and Ezhava, the former being the old Tamil name of Sri Lanka.

“Ezham is a word that has a history of more than one thousand years and has been differently interpreted at various historical stages,” Sethuraman says. Mere resemblance between Ezham and Ezhava without any substantial evidence is not enough to prove that Ezhavas came from Lanka. He says, Ezhavas along with Nairs and others, are the descents of ancient people who established Chera kingdom of Sangam era.

Sethurman finds the theory of equating Ezhavas to toddy-tapping far-fetched. “Only one in ten among the Ezhavas were related to coconut cultivation. Majority among them were farmers, scholars, Ayurveda physicians and warriors,” he said.

Sethuraman also tries to demolish the theory that Brahmins in Kerala tried to impose the caste system on lower castes with the help of rulers. “A ruling system that can strictly implement the Smruti system never existed in Kerala. A well-developed ruling system emerged in Kerala under the patronage of the colonial system,” Sethuraman writes in the book.

Avarnas and religious minorities lived in totally decentralised communities disjoint from Savarna ruling class, he said.

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