17/09/2015 1:17 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Dear Nitish Kumar, There's No Such Thing As Bihari DNA

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - AUGUST 19: JDU leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during an interview at Hindustan Times House on August 19, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal will campaign against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the Bihar assembly polls. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Nirman Bhavan Post Office, which handles all the mail addressed to the Prime Minister's Office, has reported "a spike" in letters from Bihar. As the Economic Times finds, 117,000 parcels containing hair strands and nail clippings are now the PM's property.

This is part of a political campaign. In the heated backdrop of assembly elections in Bihar, the incumbent chief minister is hoping to turn a remark Modi made at a rally about Nitish Kumar's DNA into a campaign about how the Bihari DNA has been insulted. And it is his campaign team that is behind the inundation of the PMO with nail and hair clippings.

Whatever might be the merits of this political gambit, there is no scientific basis for arguing about the Bihari DNA. Because there is no such thing.

Every person's DNA is unique. But science doesn't have a database or a forensic sieve to distinguish between the the Bihari-ness of Nitish and the Gujarati-ness of Modi.

Modi's reference was to Nitish's departure from Janata Dal United's coalition with the BJP in Bihar. And he sought to turn the expulsion of Kumar's erstwhile associate Jitan Ram Manjhi, as chief minister. "I didn't say anything, but I was very hurt. But when Jitan Ram Manjhi was persecuted, then I became restless. He snatched the plate from the son of a poor tea seller. But when he took away everything from a mahadalit, then I thought something is wrong with his DNA," Modi had then said.

Nitish Kumar's political strategy team latched on to the DNA comment and framed it as Modi slurring the 'Bihari' identity and not merely Nitish Kumar at a personal level.

Translated those tweets read: 'Modiji says my DNA is fouled. I'm a son of Bihar and so my DNA is the DNA of the people of Bihar. I leave it to the people of Bihar to decide how best to respond to someone who's cast aspersions on their DNA,'

Upping the ante, Kumar then launched the "शब्दवापसी" campaign, which involves 50,000 people from Bihar sending their DNA samples to the prime minister in September. "Modi's DNA remark is an insult to Bihar and the people of Bihar. This issue will be decided in the people's court," he said.

When Modi and Kumar say DNA, they probably meant 'genotype' or the package of genes, which are in turn a unique sequence of chemical units, programmed to build proteins and bodies. Our parents each give us half their genes, but it is the order in which these genes are arranged that prevent us from being clones of our parents. Stands to reason that there are several genes in us that are exactly those in our grandparents, siblings and cousins.

Large, extended families that are endogamous and not very widely dispersed--by virtue of several shared genes-- can then be meaningfully said to 'have a common DNA,' and which is why gene-level studies that look at studying patterns of genetic diseases focus on families or small, isolated tribes.

"In India, castes may be fairly endogamous. It may be possible that there are gene sequences that are common within castes," said J Gowrishanker, who heads the Centre For DNA And Forensic Fingerprinting, Hyderabad, " but Bihar isn't endogamous. There is no pan-Bihar genetic identity."

In fact, even the caste differentiator can be fairly problematic. A study led by Harvard geneticist, Priya Moorjani, in 2013 found that people from different genetic populations in India began mixing about 4,200 years ago, but the mingling stopped around 1,900 years ago. The rigidity of caste, however, hasn't stopped people from migrating and adopting--at different points of time--varied regions as home, which only makes states as an implausibly coarse fence of homogenous groups.

All those 'DNA samples' that are now clogging Modi's mail room are then a mass of dead protein that might be of more use to Gowrishanker. The Parliament is to decide on a controversial bill that will sanction his lab to collect DNA samples from suspected criminals that can then be used to build a database to aid in preventing future crimes.

Also Read: Nitish Kumar Open To Shatrughan Sinha Joining JD(U): 'It Is His Call'

Also Read: 'Was PM Bidding For Bihar?' Asks Nitish Kumar After Prime Minister Modi Announces 1.25 Lakh Crore Package

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