Invaders in the mind: A model of the colonial psyche

Invaders in the mind: A model of the  colonial psyche

The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) is the lynchpin of ancient Indian historiography. It dictates that India is divided into two dominant races of the Aryans in the north and the Dravidians in the south. The Aryans are projected as foreign invaders from Central Asia who invaded India around 1500 BC and enslaved the indigenous population, pushing the Dravidians to the south.

This focus of this essay is not on the details of the politics of the Aryan Invasion Theory. Besides, many great scholars like N S Rajaram have written extensively on the topic. But it will suffice here to say that this theory was created by the British colonial masters of India in the heydays of colonial racism. It was a convenient tool to divide Indian population, pitting them against each other. It was also an excuse for the British Raj, as the British projected them just as the latest wave in the long series of foreign invaders and rulers in India.

The British were massively successful in their efforts at this grand project of historical distortion and the theory took root in Indian historiography, to the extent that even nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak espoused it in various degrees. Hitler’s rise and Nazism’s influence ensured increasing popularity of such racist and colonial ideas in the first half of the twentieth century. However, Germany’s defeat in Second World War and the weakening of colonial powers globally meant that the days of such racist theories were numbered. New developments in science also led to the discarding of the very idea of race.

Surprisingly, even after Independence, AIT continued to be taught in Indian schools, sometimes with increased vigour, with no discussion of the latest discoveries in related fields. The Nehruvians-in-charge made absolutely no effort to dislodge the AIT from Indian academia, a theory which had absolutely no factual foundations and which was a colonial and racist creation. They even protected and patronized the proponents of AIT. Gradually Indian politicians came to realize that they could use AIT to divide Indian electorate and carve out their own regional fiefdoms. This fraudulent Theory has resulted in many divisions and fractions in Indian society, the greatest exemplification of which is in Tamil Nadu.

The AIT, however, was not an isolated theory invented by some racist and colonial crackpot. It was just one among many Invasion Theories, invented to divide the colonial subjects of the European powers.  There are other theories in the world with striking parallels with the AIT. Most of these theories were first proposed by the British colonialists. The two other prominent theories taken under consideration here were both proposed for African colonies.

Tutsi Invasion Theory

The first case is that of the small central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi. Their recent history is marred with ethnic violence, civil war, genocide and military juntas. Though author Jared Diamond thinks that the genocide in Africa was more a case of Malthusian readjustment of populations,[i] there are other, more powerful reasons which led to the mindless, mass violence in these two countries.

Rwanda and Burundi are inhabited by two different ‘ethnic groups’ – the Hutu and the Tutsi. Hutus constitute around 85 per cent and Tutsis around 15 per cent of the populations of these countries.

Among these, the minority Tutsis are believed to be the Hamitic people. In the heyday of ‘scientific’ racism of the 19th century, the term, ‘Hamitic race’ was applied to a sub-group of the Caucasian race, alongside the Semitic race. The group included peoples native to North Africa, the Horn of Africa and South Arabia, including the Ancient Arabians.

The colonial proponents of scientific racism proposed that the Hamitic race was superior to or more advanced than the Negroid populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Some of its enthusiasts like C G Seligman claimed that all significant advancements in science and technology since ancient times were made by these lighter skinned Hamitic people; that all of black Africa was given whatever it possesses by these lighter skinned civilized people who invaded and settled in central Africa, coming from the north.

The Tutsis were considered invaders in Rwanda and Burundi, the invaders from the north. The majority of Hutus are believed to be Bantu, the original African race which spilled out from the Western Africa.[ii] They are considered to have inhabited the region before the Tutsis but even they are not the original inhabitants of the region. That distinction goes to the Pygmies, who comprise 1 per cent  of the population of the region.

In striking parallels with Aryan Invasion Theory in India, the Hutus are the darker-skinned Dravidians. The Tutsis are the lighter skinned invaders from the north, just like the Aryans in India and the Pygmies are like the Adivasis (the aboriginals).

The colonial ethnographers claimed that Tutsis were racially superior, constituting the reigning elite and aristocracy of Rwanda-Burundi. They also claimed that the Tutsis enslaved and subjugated the Hutus for centuries, forcing them to do agriculture in inferior lands.

Hutus and Tutsis, according to this theory, are two different races, with the darker-skinned Hutus as the oppressed majority and the fairer Tutsis as the oppressing minority and the foreign invaders. This is the Rwandan version of the Aryan Invasion Theory.

In reality, the Hutus and the Tutsis were never ethnically distinct; and they were never at war with each other. The history of ethnic violence in the region dates to the start of colonialism in Africa.

It was the Belgian masters of Rwanda-Burundi who invented the Tutsi Invasion Theory, created the Hutu-Tutsi divide and created the racial conflict out of thin air.

The concept of race was so deeply embedded in the 19th century European psyche that they imagined such differences everywhere. In Rwanda-Burundi, they started spreading the notion that the Tutsis are light-skinned, tall and thin, while the Hutus are short, black and square.

tutsi 1Scholars point out that it is often impossible to tell the difference between the two communities. They share language, history and many cultural characteristics. Intermarriage is common. The differences between the two communities are occupational rather than ethnic. Speaking historically, while the Hutus are mainly agriculturalists, the Tutsis are cattle-herders.

The Hutu-Tutsi “otherness” difference was entirely a creation of the Europeans. This concocted theory became entrenched in the Rwandan society in 1933, when the Belgian government made a law which needed every citizen to carry an identity card indicating their tribal ethnicity. Since then, the fluid identities of Hutu or Tutsi became fixed. Everyone became either Hutu or Tutsi.[iii] The petty disputes between the two communities eventually erupted in a mass-scale warfare after the racist interpretation became popular. In the past 50 years, both Rwanda and Burundi have exploded in ethnic violence again and again, further exacerbating their differences. In these orgies of ethnic cleansing and genocide, around 2.5 million Tutsis and Hutus have been killed so far.

Rwanda and Burundi got independence from Belgium in 1962. The immature introduction of democracy encouraged opportunist politicians to perpetrate vote-bank politics. Catering to particular communities, they further exacerbated the hatred between the two groups.

tutsiDuring the Rwandan genocide of 1994, approximately one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The Hutu leaders described the Tutsis as cockroaches. They telecast these views on national radio and television. This resulted in waves of Hutus baying for the Tutsi blood. Gangs of Hutus, wielding machetes roamed the country for about three months and hacked the Tutsis down. They ascertained that their victim was Tutsi by checking their identity card which clearly mentioned the ethnic identity. Around 70 per cent of Tutsis in the country were massacred in just over three months.[iv] The story does not end here. Another such theory was proposed about Africa.

The Mysterious Creators of Great Zimbabwe

In the 19th century, European explorers stumbled upon the magnificent ruins of the late Iron Age in Zimbabwe. The civilization later came to called Great Zimbabwe. The ruins are in an area of more than seven square km – containing great royal palaces, markets, community halls etc. At its height it is supposed that the city contained at least 18,000 people.

When these ruins were excavated in 1871, the white supremacist government of Rhodesia forced the archaeologists and scientists to deny that these ruins were the work of native Africans. Instead, they decreed that it should be called a work of a forgotten branch of Europeans which migrated, colonized and settled these parts of Africa.[v]

Though these European racists had their way in the 19th century, the truth eventually surfaced and now it is firmly established that the civilization of Great Zimbabwe is the work of the native people.

Many similar theories were proposed all over the world. Some were proposed as invasions, some as migrations. The common theme was the dispersal of a branch of people from one place to many other places in the world. In China, one branch of academia believes that the semi-mythical Zhou invaded China from the north and populated many of its regions.

Invading North – Invaded South Syndrome

The psyche behind such theories also dictates that the invaders almost always come from the north. This may owe to the fact that the Europeans are northerners themselves and have invaded nations lying in the south. As the Vikings and the Valerians invaded Europe from the north; as the native Indians populated the Americas from Alaska in the north down to Argentina in the south; as Australia in the south was populated from the north; as the Mongols invaded China from the north; as the Goths vandalized Rome from the north; and as the Bantus expanded into Africa from north-west, the idea of an invading north and an invaded south became deeply entrenched in the European mind, conveniently ignoring many exceptions. This syndrome became manifest in many concocted invasion theories in the colonies of the European powers.

Diffusionism vs Multiple discoveries

The psyche also dictates a diffusionist idea – that an idea or a people originate at one place and then percolate to the rest of the world. It is hard for a colonial mind-set to conceive that an idea can simultaneously or independently take seed at two or more different places together. The idea of multiple discoveries and simultaneous inventions is inconceivable for a diffusionist psyche. The proselytizing nature of the Monotheistic faiths of Europe and the Near East has led to the popularization of this diffusionist idea. The Prophetic Monotheistic religions gave birth to Conquistadors, Crusaders and Jihadis. To them, any novel idea has to originate in one place and then be taken to the rest of the world.

In another such case, the Fertile Crescent, the area adjacent to the birth of the three monotheistic religions, was for long thought to be the only site where agriculture was invented by humans.[vi] Now, enough proof exists to the contrary, establishing that many places like India and China had developed agriculture on their own way back in antiquity.

This diffusionist psyche was further embellished by the Christian diktat of proselytization. It became manifest in the myth of Prester John – the Christian king of Ethiopia who migrated there at the beginning of the first millennium and proselytized the “barbarian pagans” of Asia. There are many versions of this myth, but every version substantiates the narrative of pagan darkness and Christian redemption with an itinerant backdrop.

The Model of the Colonial Psyche

The European mind created these myths and established this psyche to justify its brutal treatment of the rest of the world.

Just about two centuries ago, Europe was a backwater of history; an area of darkness, full of diseases, hunger and impoverishment. They rarely went outside Europe and were hardly capable of doing so. The Renaissance and Enlightenment changed this miserable state of Europe and the sailors of Europe finally stumbled upon other civilizations in the world. Finding some of them technologically inferior, they subjugated and enslaved them, committing unimaginable atrocities against them. In many cases, in the Americas for example, about 90 per cent of the indigenous peoples were killed by diseases these European invaders brought with them or by mass slaughter.

Over time, this produced a civilizational guilt in the European people. To relieve this guilt, some social thinkers came up with the idea that invasions and massacres were the normal course of history and that these atrocities were not unique. It is this psyche which gave birth to the many Invasion Theories all over the world.

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This does not mean that there never were any invasions or they never resulted in the destruction of native societies. Proofs to the contrary are so abundant that it would be absurd to claim otherwise. The aim is not to deny the idea of invasion as such, but to deny the theory that for every case of cultural destruction or change a foreign invasion is responsible.

Some of these invasion theories have become successful in taking root in local and international academia and are still used for political purposes. While most of the countries have unburdened themselves of this colonial baggage, India is still carrying these theories on its shoulders and quite proudly at that.

It is time that we consign these colonial interpretations to the dustbin of history. It is time that we reclaim our history by adhering to the scientific method and by relying on our own sources instead of blindly relying on interpretations handed down to us by outsiders who came not out of love for this land but to loot, colonize and oppress.


[i] Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin non-classics. 2011. Chapter 10.

[ii] Illife, John. Africans: The History of a Continent (African Studies). London: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007. Chapter 5.

[iii] Time Almanac.

[iv] Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador. 1999. p. 11.

[v] Pikirayi, Innocent and Vogel, Joseph O. The Zimbabwe Culture: Origins and Decline of Southern Zambezian States (African Archaeology Series). New York: Altamira Press. 2001.

[vi] Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin non-classics. 2011. Chapter 10. p. 362-363.


Pankaj Saxena

Pankaj Saxena is a scholar of History, Hindu Architecture and Literature. He has visited more than 400 sites of ancient Hindu temples and has photographed the evidence. He's also writes articles, research papers and reviews in various print and online newspapers and magazines and is the author of three books.