As India collectively gasps for breath, confronted by a catastrophic surge of Covid-19 infections and deaths, the control and content of information related to all aspects of the pandemic have become highly politicised, even more so than has usually been the case for a good while now.
Having masterfully managed, threatened and eventually dominated most of the legacy media over the last seven years, the Bharatiya Janata Party government suddenly finds itself haplessly trying to contain not just the virus but the narrative about the extent of the carnage, the breakdown of the healthcare system, and the reasons for the clearly visible failures of Modi’s leadership.
Government spokespersons and proxies are flooding channels like Times Now to engage in damage control, praising the government on grounds like the rate of vaccination, which, frankly, has been poor in terms of the percentage of the vulnerable population covered. The Indian government has also asked Twitter to censor tweets that are critical of its response to the current crisis.
The harsh reality
Truth will out, though. The realities of the situation are being chronicled much more truthfully by the international press, with coverage drawing attention to the fact that the real rate of infection is significantly higher than acknowledged by the government, the incidence of death anywhere up to ten times what the official figures say, and the inaccurate attribution of deaths resulting from Covid-19 to other causes.
On social media and communication networks, the desperate appeals by family members of those stricken by Covid-19 for access to medical care, hospital beds, and oxygen tell a heartbreaking story. These cries for help also stand as a scathing indictment of the abdication of responsibility by both Central and state government authorities in anticipating and addressing the crisis.
Along with such pleas, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp are also teeming with facts and figures that offer a counter-narrative to official data about the scale and scope of the contagion.
Beyond personal experiences shared by individuals, it is hard to tell which claims on social media might hold true, and, if they are indeed accurate, what criteria and evidence might be marshalled to support them.
Long weaponised with devastating effect by the BJP and the Hindu Right to spread misinformation and engender violence, from which the hydra-headed Hindu Right apparatus has richly benefited, social media platforms have now unfortunately become generally suspect as credible sources of information in the Indian context.
Most worryingly, with regard to the present situation in India, these platforms continue to function as avenues for dangerous pseudo-scientific claims about Covid-19 in particular and matters of medicine and health in general. Many of these claims double up as propaganda about the greatness of Hindu scientific wisdom and the miraculous medical properties of cow urine and dung.
All of this is very much part of Hindu nationalist ideology and rhetoric, consistent with the claim of Hindu civilisational greatness, which the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and their adherents have promised to revive and grant long overdue recognition after decades of supposed denigration by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and its “elite, Westernised, anti-Hindu” followers.
For instance, the Twitter account of the actor Kangana Ranaut, boasting three million followers, has been affirming yogic techniques such as holding one’s breath to improve one’s oxygen levels, along with the banal advice to plant trees. These pseudo-medical strategies are likely to be of little help to someone who is severely ill, and secondly, may have dangerous consequences for a follower of Ranaut’s who chooses this option in lieu of going to a medical professional if short of breath.
The actor Akshay Kumar was trolled on social media for endorsing Dabur’s chyawanprash as a source of immunity against Covid-19 before promptly proceeding to contract the infection himself. Along with the cynicism, ire or even humour that such bogus assertions provoke, they raise a number of deeply disturbing ethical questions.
Whether he actually eats two spoons of chyawanprash daily or not, Akshay Kumar, no doubt, must be receiving the highest quality of medical care available in India. And that care, to those who can afford and access it, is world class. But what of his fans who worship and idolise him, and who may have taken his contention about chyawanprash granting immunity to Covid-19 seriously enough to not practice masking or social distancing? What if some of these fans were to contract the virus and wind up in a situation where they could not get decent medical care?
Likewise, other than the absurd spectre of someone trying to plant trees to save themselves while ill, Ranaut’s promotion of breathing techniques as a measure to improve oxygen levels comes across as callously unthinking and heartless advice for someone struggling to breathe at all.
Last year, Ramdev, whose business empire has been built on cow urine and proximity to the BJP leadership, claimed that the drug Coronil produced by his corporation, Patanjali, could cure Covid-19 in seven days. The claim drew an FIR from the police, on grounds of lacking appropriate approval from the Ministry of AYUSH. Ramdev stated that the demand for the drug had hit 10 lakh packets a day.
In February 2021, at an event which was attended by the health minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, Ramdev claimed that Coronil had received certification from the World Health Organisation, an assertion that was shortly thereafter denied by the WHO and condemned by the Indian Medical Association.
In April 2020, Jaggi Vasudev, who has built a fortune by peddling senseless jargon like “inner engineering” to gullible and stressed Indian techies in Silicon Valley, stated with his characteristic confidence that “the virus does not want to kill you. This virus is living in our body because we are a wonderful habitat for it.”
As a defence strategy, Vasudev advocated not treatment, but mental strength, calm, and a positive attitude. Good virtues all, no doubt, but unproven as a remedy for illnesses. As Siddhartha Mukherjee, doctor, researcher, and author of the Pulitzer-prize winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, states, “A positive attitude does not cure cancer, any more than a negative one causes it.”
Cow urine party
In March 2020, a Hindutva group, the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, held a cow urine drinking party as a means of providing protection against the virus. Given the reach of Ramdev and Vasudev and the incessant promotion of gaumutra by the Hindu Right since 2014, these grand pronouncements beg one big question: if there is any significant measure of truth to any of these claims, why was the virus not effectively vanquished or contained in India within a few months of these remedies being trotted out?
As with celebrity affirmations of dubious science, though, the more alarming issues here are, one, the complicity of the BJP government in actively promoting snake oil cures and, two, the moral and ethical responsibility for the harm arising from the propagation of such inaccurate and misleading information among the Indian populace.
To be clear, these kinds of arguments are not an invention of the Modi era nor exclusively believed by Hindu nationalists. They have a long history, dating back to at least the nineteenth century. The historian Gyan Prakash’s fine study, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (1999), describes how such claims are rooted in colonial-era anxieties about the universalist nature of neglected Hindu knowledge, which, Hindu intellectuals argued, had the potential to hold its own against Western science and technology though it first needed to be resuscitated from the depths of time.
These intellectuals identified the superiority of Western science, as a form of universal reason and rationality, as one major reason for the British colonial domination of India. Reviving the dormant potential of Hindu scientific knowledge would then be one means of achieving parity with the West. In the bargain, it would also provide a basis for anti-colonial resistance, Hindu and Indian enlightenment, and a modern society.
It is not my intention here to disparage the very real achievements of Indian civilisation in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, surgery, and the arts. The long history of appropriation and denigration of indigenous and local knowledge systems by Western and modern epistemological frameworks combined with the violence carried out in the name of scientific progress also explains the belief in obscurantist and unscientific concepts and theories.
Whether in India or other countries, including those in the supposedly enlightened West, scientific knowledge has long been abused, whether as an instrument of domination and exploitation of colonised populations, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945, the Tuskegee Syphilis experiment that calculatedly denied African-American men treatment for syphilis for decades in order to ascertain the long-term effects of the diseases, the forced sterilisations of poor Indian men by Sanjay Gandhi in the 1970s.
Yet, these claims that are marked simultaneously as scientific and as Hindu knowledge are also a source of violence in that they undermine legitimate scientific knowledge, provide people with a false sense of security, and – as the current situation shows – put people’s lives seriously at risk. While the combination of junk science and religion has a long and complicated genealogy, it has been churned out on a war footing over the last seven years since the victory of the BJP in 2014, with the active participation and blessing of the government and assorted Hindu organisations.
Add to that the evisceration of the autonomy of educational and research institutions by the BJP government, which are increasingly helmed by Modi supporters and those sympathetic to the ideology of Hindutva. Throw in the stranglehold of the government on the press, which is unable to report the truth freely. Sprinkle with the government’s own manipulation of data. And statements that would have largely provided light entertainment in non-pandemic times suddenly become explosively dangerous in the risk they bear for human life. In sum, a recipe for disaster.
In part, the packaging of junk science as genuine Hindu scientific knowledge represents a deep-seated complex about the significance and worth of Hindu identity in a global world. In the Hindutva schematic, Hindu identity is, of course, conflated with Indian identity. In part, this phenomenon is a product of a very specific battle that Modi has been fighting forever with the legacy of Nehru, who is his intimate enemy, the figure he wants to surpass and displace from institutional, collective, and public memory in India.
Yet, ironically, because of Nehru, the man that Modi, the Hindu Right, and BJP fans love to hate, India still has excellent scientific and educational institutions, the basis for a public culture of rationality no matter how attenuated, a record of vaccination drives, and countless dedicated doctors, scientists, public health experts who are nationalistic in the best sense possible.
The BJP, I had noted a few years ago, stood for “Blame Jawaharlal Party”. Today, I would suggest that they rename themselves the TJP: Thank Jawaharlal Party.
If no one’s life was at risk, we could all enjoy the paeans to the cult of Hajmola promoted by Indian uncles, the Instagram accounts on the wonders of Hindu science, the gems shared by Subramaniam Swamy on Twitter, such as the (allegedly) NASA-proven fact of the sun making the sound of OM. We could even crowdfund a research grant for Kangana Ranaut to coax trees to release more oxygen through Vedic chanting. Hell, despite his many millions, we could even raise enough money to keep Akshay Kumar stuffed on chyawanprash for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, not to mention brunch and afternoon tea.
But till we reach that state – and especially right now – when authentic, accurate, scientific information is crucial to saving lives, responding adequately to a public health crisis is the need of the hour, reviving faith in the government is essential, and providing a weary, frightened nation with a glimmer of hope is of the utmost urgency.
Sharing spurious information about the Covid-defeating powers of gaumutra, mental vibrations, or neem toothpaste is a profoundly un-Hindu, un-Indian, and unethical act.
Rohit Chopra, Associate Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University