Anthropology And Culture

The Sam Pitroda Controversy

Abhijit Guha

The recent controversy, which was sparked off by a video interview of Sam Pitroda, the overseas chairman of the Congress party by The Statesman should have attracted the attention of the anthropologists in India and other countries. The anthropological interest stemmed from the fact that anthropologists have been studying human population differences, which they called ‘variation’ for more than the last one hundred and fifty years. Anthropologists have been struggling over the physical and cultural differences of humans at the group level and they have tried to classify human groups based on various physical and biological characteristics. In the early days of anthropology, the practitioners classified the populations of the world into various ‘Races’ and cautioned from the very beginning that all human beings originated from a single stock and the physical differences among them arose mainly due to geographical and environmental factors. Taking their lead from the evolutionary theory of the English biologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), anthropologists had recognized human biological differences and the need to classify human groups as non-watertight compartments being products of a long and gradual evolutionary process named natural selection.

It was the anthropologists who scientifically challenged the Biblical origin of human beings with fossils and other kinds of evidence. According to anthropologists, biological variation within and between human groups is a natural law and has to be recognized as a basic fact, which deserves scientific inquiry. Along with this, the anthropologists pointed out that the word ‘Race’ is a biological concept and should not be confused with the term ‘racism’. Nowadays anthropologists no more use the term ‘Race’; they now use the term ‘population’. The same species of animals also have distinct biological varieties, as one finds among elephants or tigers but people do not get emotionally charged when they refer to ‘white tigers’ or ‘African elephants’!

Viewed from the above angle, Sam Pitroda’s statement as revealed in the press just echoed a natural fact, which had been the grist to the mill of the anthropologists in India–the country being the ‘ethnological paradise’ according to a famous British anthropologist—Sir Arthur Keith. Let me reiterate Pitroda’s statement: ‘We could hold a country together as diverse as India, where people on the east look like Chinese, people on the West look like Arab, people on the North look like white and maybe people on the South look like Africans… doesn’t matter. We are all brothers and sisters (The Statesman, 9 May 2024, p.1). The last sentence is significant even from a biological standpoint. Brothers and sisters are born from the same parents, so are all Indians, although looking different originated from the same stock. Pure anthropology! This writer being an anthropologist could not find any ‘racist’ element in this statement.

There is another element of truth in Pitroda’s statement. Although, he highlighted the physical variation among Indians in the east, west, north and south he did not state or even imply that people of one region of India is biologically ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ to the people of another region. Everybody knows that the claim of superiority for a particular ‘Race’ was one of the fundamental characteristics of ‘Racism’ which was not found in the above statement of Sam Pitroda.

Here one can recount a little bit of history. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi scientists not only classified inter alia the sharp-nosed and white group of the ‘Nordic’ race but they also propagated that the Nordics were the most superior kind of human beings in Germany. So, racism is not only the classification of human groups into races but also involved a kind of ethnocentrism that is a belief in the superiority of one group over the others, in the case of Germany the other inferior group of race according to the Nazis was the Jews.

It is not without reason that in all the Indian universities the undergraduate syllabus in anthropology contains courses on the concept of race and racial classification. The University Grants Commission too in its last Curriculum Development Report published in 2001 in Anthropology specifically included a course on the ‘Concept of Race, Genetic Basis of Race, UNESCO Statement on Race–Ethnic Group-Population and Racial Classification of human populations’ (UGC, CDC Report 2001, p.31).

Suffice it to say that looking different and belonging to the same country or nation is not the same thing. People of different countries may look similar in physical features while people of the same country or nation may look different. European countries are good examples. Do the Punjabis and a South Indian tribe named Cholanayakan look similar? Do the Jarwas of Andaman and the Nagas of North East have similar physical features? But undoubtedly, all of them are Indians. These are facts and not fiction. Ironically the BJP leaders have been trying to confuse these two things by trying to mess up biology with culture. For example, while rebutting the remarks made by Sam Pitroda, Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that ‘she is from South India and she looks Indian’ (The Statesman, 9 May 2024). Do the South Indians and the Kashmiri Brahmins have similar physical features? India is a country of ‘Unity in diversity’. The BJP leaders have forgotten this basic fact. Long ago, the great poet Rabindranath Tagore recognized this diversity of India in his immortalized national anthem.

It is high time that anthropologists and other related scientists in India who search for the reasons behind the physical variation of human beings should open their mouths and reveal the scientific truth before the public.

[Abhijit Guha, Former Professor in Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Email:]

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Vol 56, No. 49, Jun 2 - 8, 2024