Cow dung, cow urine didn’t work. Groundless argument. Tomorrow I will eat fish”.
In mid-May this year, this simple Facebook post about the futility of bovine waste as a cure for Covid-19, was enough to get Kishorechandra Wangkhem, a journalist from Imphal, Manipur arrested for ‘sedition’ .
The post upset members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as it came soon after the demise due to COVID-19 of Manipur BJP president Saikhom Jitendra Singh, a proponent of the cow dung/urine therapy. Based on their complaint the police promptly arrested Wangkhem under the stringent National Security Act, reserved usually for hardened criminals and terrorists.
The incident highlighted the seriousness with which pseudo-science is taken and promoted by the movement called Hindutva- a mix of Hindu supremacy and rabid nationalism- that has dominated Indian politics over the last couple of decades. And while complacency has been often blamed for India’s inability to contain the recent deadly second wave of Covid-19, a bigger role may have been played by people in top positions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government spouting a variety of nonsensical claims.
Along with a deeply authoritarian approach one of the Modi regime’s chief hallmarks since coming to power in 2014 has been the championing of a host of spurious theories about everything from climate change to the evolution of species. The Prime Minister himself claimed in a public forum several years ago that the Hindu god Ganesha, known for his elephant head, was an example of advanced plastic surgery in ancient India. The prestigious Indian Science Congress in Mumbai in 2015 saw one presentation claim that aircraft more advanced than today’s versions existed in ‘Vedic’ times!
Such officially endorsed obscurantism has played out in a particularly deadly fashion in the context of Covid-19. In April this year, as pilgrims gathered to take a dip in the Ganges for the Kumbh Mela, Tirath Singh Rawat, the BJP Chief Minister of Uttarakhand claimed that ‘holy water’ of the river, considered sacred by Hindus, would ward off Covid-19.
The religious festival, that stretched over a month and attended by more than nine million, has been dubbed as perhaps the largest superspreader event in the history of the entire pandemic so far. India’s second wave of Covid-19 spiked sharply after those attending the event returned to various parts of the country.
Millions of Indians have been hospitalized since then and thousands have died to lack of even basic oxygen support and access to hospital beds. After a relatively mild first wave, which saw the government claim ‘victory’ over Covid, India has set a global record for both the highest number of both infections and deaths on a daily basis over the last month and a half.
The special prize for wild claims however goes to the mantra pushed by almost everyone in the regime, from top leaders to lowly party workers, about the allegedly curative powers of cow dung and urine for a large variety of ailments. In case of Covid-19 too, from the start of the pandemic, the popular media, especially through the WhatsApp networks, has been flooded with videos and messages on this theme.
In Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Modi, media has reported believers covering their bodies in cow dung and urine in the hope it will boost their immunity against, or help them recover from, the coronavirus. The chief of the Hindu Mahasabha, an extremist allied with the ruling BJP, hosted a cow urine-drinking event in March this year in New Delhi, to ‘stave off’ the coronavirus.
Along with pushing dubious therapies and ideas the Hindu right wing party and its supporters have also been regularly sniping at modern medical science itself,, which they derisively call ‘English medicine’. In early May for example, “Baba” Ramdev – the popular yoga guru turned traditional medicine entrepreneur, who is very close to top BJP leaders, outraged the Indian medical community by claiming tens of thousands died of Covid after taking modern medicines.
He also claimed, quite callously, that the hundreds of deaths in India due to oxygen shortages were actually the fault of the people who had died – they didn’t know “how to breathe properly”. Ramdev apologised after an intervention by the Indian Health Minister (worried about strong condemnation by doctors associations) but his statements expressed the real sentiments of those running the BJP and its allied organisations.
The pandemic of pseudo-science, supported by both politicians and influential sections of the Indian public, is ironic as Indians take immense pride in being a space and nuclear power. India is also known as a leading nation in knowledge-intensive sectors such as software and pharmaceuticals.
These achievements have been due to early investments in building excellent institutions of science as well as training of good quality scientists. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister was a great votary of the ‘scientific temper’ and modern science, research and education. In recent decades though there has been a severe erosion in the integrity of many top Indian educational institutions and a dumbing down of science-related policies in general.
All this, combined with the rise to power of the Hindutva movement, which thrives on half-truths and harks back to a mythical time when everything in ‘India was Great’ – has been deadly for reasoned public debate or understanding on many national issues.
In some ways India’s situation today parallels that of Germany under the Nazi regime, which came to power almost a century ago using a mix of mysticism and national pride, despite the country being home to some of the world’s greatest scientists and thinkers. Apart from supporting the racist discipline of ‘eugenics’, top Nazi leaders like Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, promoted a host of pseudo-scientific therapies in the name of alternative medicine.
The Nazi regime was also notorious for carrying out a range of brutal modern medical experiments on prisoners, the differently abled and anyone deemed ‘undesirable’, especially religious groups such as the Jews.
While contemporary India is yet to reach this level of depravity, going by the current Indian regime’s intense hatred of minority populations and its fascination for dubious solutions, getting to that lowest point in human history cannot be ruled out with any certainty.
Satya Sagar is a journalist who can be reached at email@example.com