India: Modi’s War on Science

2019 was a mixed year for Indian Science and Technology. The bittersweet Chandrayaan-2 Mission was a partial failure in the absolute sense, but a success in the relative sense. The PSLV-C44, Kalam SAT, Microsat-R, CARTOSAT and Mission Shakti were major leaps in aerospace engineering. India also became the world’s third-largest producer of Scientific articles, according to NSF statistics. However, there were several steps back as far as the scientific temperament of the Political circles is concerned.

Science and Politics

The incumbent regime of India helmed by the majority BJP Party has long cherished the idea of Hindu resurgence, mocked modernisation as ‘westernisation’, and accused the West of robbing India of its heritage, wealth and intellectual capital. Since its inception, the BJP has championed the cause of Hindutva, a quasi-martial Hindu-nationalist ideology disregarding and unfounded in the core tenets of Hinduism but claiming to be based in it. The ideology seeks to establish a Hindu nation-state bringing back the archaic Hindu social order, and incorporating certain other widely-disputed idealistic, moralistic elements they claim to be rooted in Indian history. With the assumption of its reins by Narendra Modi however, rationality has waned further, as patronisation runs rampant, threatening to drive India to a post-truth society and redirecting the mainstream narrative to suit its ideological mould. In order to serve its partisan interests, the BJP has attempted to rewrite history, belittle and trivialise scientific progress, and take alternative epistemic narratives to the forefront.  

This is an annual roundup of the incumbent regime’s Scientific claims, statements and factual Tours-de-Force. It puts in perspective the affinity, or the lack thereof, of the ruling BJP Government towards Science.

Former terror accused Member of Parliament Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur stated in April that “A mixture of gau mutra (cow urine) and other cow products cured my cancer”. Had it been true though, there would have been little compulsion for her to visit a number of top (Western-style modern) hospitals, and undergo three surgeries. Note that she said that the cow products “cured” her cancer and not that they “helped cure” it – suggesting that they wholly accomplished the cure. Her conviction in alternative (traditional) medicine seldom explains her prompt and frequent hospitalisation in modern hospitals, even for relatively minor ailments and indispositions. Her publicly proclaimed beliefs seldom seems to be concordant with her personal practice. While a handful of peer-reviewed publications have proposed and in some cases, affirmed, the therapeutic potential and health benefits of cow urine, such studies are far from being well-established and biochemical reaction-mechanically substantiated.

In August, she alleged that the demise of former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was the result of the Opposition using a “Maarak Shakti” (Fatal Power – a curse or hex of sorts). She stated that she believed a holy-man’s proposal that the Opposition party had used a curse against the BJP.

The case of Air Pollution

Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar stated that pollution is not linked to the shortening of life in India. “No Indian study has shown pollution shortens life. Let us not create fear psychosis among people,” he told the Parliament in December.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 titled “Impact of air pollution on deaths, disease burden and life expectancy across the states of India” says that in 2017, 12.5 per cent of total deaths, i.e. 1.24 million in India were attributable to air pollution, including 0.67 million from ambient particulate matter pollution and 0.48 million from household air pollution. Of these, more than half the mortalities were in people younger than 70. Notably, the study was funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Indian Council of Medical Research – the latter of which is under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

“The researches estimated that if the air pollution level in India was less than the minimum causing health loss, the average life expectancy in 2017 would have been higher by 1·7 years, with this increase exceeding 2 years in the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana as the pollution levels in these states were higher than the rest of the nation.”, reported India Today.

According to the  Findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 Booklet’s Potential loss of life averted through reduction of exposure to key risk factors, 2040 plot, reduction in Exposure to Ambient Particulate Matter Pollution would expectedly prevent 40,000,000 Years of Life Lost. The amount of life years predicted by forecast trends to be salvaged by reduction in exposure to particulate pollution is greater than that accomplished by curtailing alcohol use or cutting down on high cholesterol, to the same extent. Respiratory ailments, as Pulmonary Infections, Tuberculosis, Bronchitis, Silicosis, Asbestosis, etc., a majority of which are frequently caused due to ambient air pollution, are consistently a top leading cause of deaths, especially among infants. Lower Respiratory infection was the 4th leading cause of death, while Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) ranked on the 7th rung. Various studies have linked air pollution to Lower Respiratory Infection and COPD, either as a causative, risk-enhancer or an aggravator.  An article in the world’s most reputed and prestigious Science journal Nature, that says “Household air pollution is responsible for 2.9 million annual deaths and causes significant health, economic and social consequences, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

The “Estimates of the global, regional, and national morbidity, mortality, and aetiologies of lower respiratory infections in 195 countries, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016”, also includes data from the government of India and comprehensively elucidates the statistics of mortality owed to lower respiratory infections. “Childhood wasting remains the leading risk factor for lower respiratory infection mortality among children younger than 5 years, responsible for 61.4% of lower respiratory infection deaths in 2016 (95% UI 45.7–69.6). Interventions to improve wasting, household air pollution, ambient particulate matter pollution, and expanded antibiotic use could avert one under-5 death due to lower respiratory infection for every 4000 children treated in the countries with the highest lower respiratory infection burden.”, states the study.

The WHO and the British Lung Foundation compile and affirm the staggering hazards posed by air pollution to public health, particularly among children. “Air pollution driven by the burning of fossil fuels cuts global average life expectancy by nearly two years per person, according to a first-of-its-kind study by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute (EPIC). A 2017 report by the Global Commission on Pollution and Health identified pollution as the leading cause of death and disability in the world. But researchers at EPIC have now further established that emissions of airborne particulate matter – “a mixture of small particles and liquid droplets in smoke that can affect the heart and lungs if inhaled – pose the single biggest threat to human health globally”, the WTTW reports says.

“Over the past two decades, the concentration of fine particulates increased by 69 percent on average across India. As a result, sustained exposure to particulate pollution now reduces the life expectancy of the typical Indian citizen by 4.3 years compared to 2.2 years in 1998″,  the Air Quality Life Index India Fact Sheet states.

The Indian side

As for Javadekar’s selectivism and proclivity for “Indian studies”, here’s a report by a reputed Indian Think Tank Centre for Science and Environment that shows that air pollution has curbed the longevity of the average Indian by 2.6 years. “Air pollution is now the third highest cause of death among all health risks ranking just above smoking in India. This is a combined effect of outdoor particulate matter (PM) 2.5, ozone and household air pollution.

“Due to this combined exposure, South Asians, including Indians are dying early – their life expectancy has reduced by over 2.6 years. This is much higher than the global tally of reduced life expectancy by an average of 20 months. While globally a child born today will die 20 months sooner on an average than would be expected without air pollution in India they would die 2.6 years earlier,” the document says. The staggering findings elucidated that outdoor and household air pollution together are causing deadly diseases. Anyhow, a simple Google Search would suffice to yield study-after-study refuting his statement.

But then the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand already had a handy solution back in July, none other than the Right-wing’s Panacea – Cows. If Mr. Trivendra Singh Rawat is to be believed, the cow is the only animal that exhales oxygen and caressing and massaging it is a remedy for respiratory ailments. Fifth Grade Science Textbooks would suffice for one to know that a cow exhales carbon-dioxide. In some cases, a Third Grade Textbook would serve the purpose as well.

India’s Union Minister of Railways and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal attending a Board of Trade meeting in September made a farrago of justifications – a befuddling jumble of excuses, defences, distortions and arbitrary catharses.

While making a statement on the GDP calculations, Goyal said, “Don’t get into the calculations that you see on television…don’t get into those maths. Maths have never helped Einstein discover gravity. If he [Einstein] had only gone through structured formulae and what was past knowledge, I don’t think there would have been any innovation in the world.”

The 9th Grade government-prescribed Textbook of Science discusses the phenomenon of gravitation. It deals with the Universal Law of Gravitation and sheds light on Newton’s discovery of gravity. He happens to be an All-India second rank holder in CA Final Chartered Accountant and second rank holder in Law in Mumbai University. He has participated in Leadership Programs at Yale, Oxford and Princeton. He is said to have been a brilliant student in his schooltime, which speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the Indian education system.

While the Minister of Commerce, misattributed the discovery of gravity further in time, in an address, the HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal regressed to the Ancient Age, attributing the discovery of gravity to Indian Scriptures, in August. He also said that the sage Rishi Pranav was the first to discover atoms and molecules, a week after he had claimed ancient Indian medical practitioner Charaka discovered them. While it is true that atomism, as a philosophical belief had prevailed in Ancient Hindu Schools for centuries before the Common Era, its proponents, as Kanada, didn’t propose a rigorous theoretical model, but just put forth a simple belief that the universe was composed of discrete, indivisible elementary units. Kanada’s period of existence is quite dubious, placed between the 6th and 2nd century BCE. The Greek philosophers and thinkers Leucippus and his pupil Democritus belonged to the 5th century BC, while Charaka belonged to the 3rd century BCE, leaving room for contention as to who was the pioneer. Perhaps, Pokhriyal was confusing Charaka for Charvaka (Carvaka), a materialist-hedonist philosopher/school who incorporated elements of atomism in his writings. The 8th century BCE sage Aruni is said to have propounded the first documented case for atomism in his treatise. In the 7th century BCE, Carvaka, Jain and Ajivika schools of Hindu Philosophy prominently featured atomist hypotheses. Scholars have time and again suggested a bilateral influence, exchange and involuntary diffusion of theories between Ancient India and Greece. Pokhriyal ( of ‘Astrology is the topmost Science’, ‘Astrology dwarves Science’, ‘Transplant in ancient India’, and ‘Ancient sage conducted a nuclear test’ fame’) was formerly the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and has made notoriously unsubstantiated claims on multiple occasions, whether inside the Parliament or outside it. 

As the HRD Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ (a Master of Arts, author and poet who for some reason, likes to prefix ‘Doctor’ before his name and be referred by his nom-de-plume ‘Nishank’ meaning doubtless) is tasked with managing and supervising the Education sector. Speaking at the 65th Convocation at IIT Kharagpur, one of India’s five top Engineering and Science institutions, he claimed that Indian engineers built the Ram Setu (formerly Adam’s Bridge, a chain of limestone shoals between India and Sri Lanka), glorified Sanskrit, and exalted other impertinent mythical feats as Lord Shiva consuming the Cosmic Poison, the Halahala, thus saving the Universe. When his statements left the audience stupefied, he actively and provocatively elicited a response, obliging them to break into a round of applause. “In future, if we develop talking computers, then you have to prove it (through research) that Sanskrit is the most scientific and appropriate language for talking computers,” he said while terming Sanskrit as ‘dev vani’ (voice of the Gods). As a Sanskrit enthusiast, although I can affirm that the objectivity, flexibility, adaptability, clear and well-structured grammar and one-to-one spelling-to-pronunciation mapping, make Sanskrit a scientific language, I can also affirm with as much conviction that it has its non-idealities, ambiguities and incongruities, albeit fewer than other languages. While one can contend that its extensive, rich vocabulary, systematic grammatical structure and multilateral freedoms might explain why some speculate that its nature renders it suitable for programming, there is absolutely no formal proof of it being the most suitable language for developing advanced computers in. In fact, there hardly exists an estimate, let alone a measure or index that quantifies the suitability of real-world languages for programming.

The BJP’s affairs with Sanskrit are far from occasional. “BJP MP Ganesh Singh (BA, MA, LLB) on Thursday claimed that as per a research done by a U.S.-based academic institution, speaking Sanskrit language on a daily basis boosts the nervous system and keeps diabetes and cholesterol at bay. Participating in a debate on the Sanskrit universities bill, he also claimed that according to a research by U.S. space research organisation NASA, if computer programming is done in Sanskrit, it will be flawless. More than 97% of the languages in the world, including few Islamic languages, are based on Sanskrit, Mr. Singh said”, the Hindu reported.

While the first claim is so ridiculous, it doesn’t even merit a due dialectic refutal, the second is just another instalment in a series of arbitrary scapegoating of NASA – the Hindu right’s favourite arbitrary shoulder-mount of their jingoistic guns. It’s the third figure that needs attention – as it is a half-truth, a most dangerous lie, that is rooted in some form of truth. It can be debunked by simple math using another statistic. While Sanskrit is the origin of almost all North Indian Languages, it actually is Sanskrit’s predecessor Proto-Indo-European that is really the matriarch of all Indo-European languages. Even then, a good share of languages in the world belong to Australasoid tribes and non-Eurasian natives. For example, various forest-dwelling indigenous groups in Papua New Guinea had over 800 languages alone. So let us use this tiny island to expose this statistic. There currently are about 6500 languages in the world. If 830 of them, about 12% are indigenous New Guinean languages, that means there is no way 97% languages can originate from Sanskrit, the language of the Indo-Aryans. There is no “Islamic language” as such, and Arabic has in no way descended from Sanskrit, while Persian is a grand-nephew of Sanskrit, originating from Proto-Indo-Iranian, the intermediary between P.I.E. and Sanskrit.

Science and the cultural issue

The problem however does not lie merely in misquoting instances, facts and figures or warping truths – the realm problem lies in the alienation of the scientific method. When leaders in the regime talk of ‘Science’, they do not actually comprehend and envision it as a systematic corpus of knowledge based on experimentation and observation, but rather as a vague mystical sort of power that helps perform fantastic feats. They rid Science of its innate objectivity of method and calculation, and arbitrarily fabricate a loose corpus of disorganised, mutually-unrelated speculation and hearsay.

The indistinction of history and mythology and inability, nay unwillingness to distangle method from belief, faith and indoctrination has led to a quasi-post truth society. Trump-esque bashing of journalism as fake-news, fostering of right-wing conspiracy-pedaling fake-news outlets, and exploitation of the inflammatory and instigative potential of social media. Glorification of the ancient Indian past, and scapegoating of foreign migrants and invaders as the ones who destroyed the grand scheme and holistic, utopian sociocultural political order, is an integral cog in the regime’s propaganda machine. The damage dealt by these obvious falsehoods is of an insidious nature – native and foreign public conviction in even genuine and commendable achievements of the ancient Indians is diluted, the noise prevents academic rigour from becoming pronounced, hinders research, and the crywolf tendency clouds people’s judgement. For example, the sheer ridiculousness of the outlandish proposition that Indians had mastered head-transplants and plastic surgery overshadows and diverts attention from the fact that two millennia prior, a medical practitioner called Sushruta had actually pioneered and attained fine mastery in a number of surgical techniques.

The propaganda is not merely verbal and unsystematic – the regime has sponsored academic and industry research into bovine products, instated subject as ‘bovine engineering’ into curricula, diverted funds towards these ends, devoted important chairs and administrative designations in institutions to pseudo-scientists and academicians with a tainted, blotted conspiratorial and predatory record, and infiltrated the premier Science and Engineering institutions of the country. The prestigious scientific congregation – a global academic convergence, the Indian Science Congress was turned into a laughing stock and drew international flak, boycott and ridicule, three years in-a-row. Proclamations ranged from the dubious to the outright bizarre – ancient flying machines, propositions to rename Gravitational waves as ‘Modi waves’, ancient test tube babies based on scriptural evidence, and refutals of Newton and Einstein. These were disseminated from the same podia that were graced by Ivy League academicians and esteemed laureates. Before he was the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had frequently endorsed pseudo-scientific views and purported ancient esoteric sciences – amongst others attesting to claims of the existence of plastic surgery and reproductive genetics. Mythological scriptural verses are frequently cited from public podia by ministers and leaders, glorifying the so-called ‘Golden Age’ or ‘Vedic Age’ of harmony, prosperity and affluence and coordinated with the hypothetical construct of integral, undivided India i.e. “Akhand Bharat”, and its intimately related concept of “Hindu Rashtra” (Nation of the Hindus).

Glorification of the ancient period has thus become an indirect and harmless-seeming pernicious means of conveying xenophobic innuendos of reverting to a Hindu-exclusive caste-stratified society or at least a hierarchical social order under the command and paramountcy of Hindus. Moreover, the misinformation is contagious. The national ego-stroking and stoking of patriotic sentiments has elicited responses from even the well-educated and qualified strata of society. Propaganda outlets have mushroomed over the course of Modi’s Prime Ministerial tenure, and enjoy demographically widespread subscription. Meanwhile, academic cronyism is ongoing, and even traditional secular and socialist bastions have been infiltrated by the regime’s toddies and stooges. Any voices of argumentation are starved of funding and stifled.

Conspiracies, the occult, and the arcane, and speculations constitute the meat of mainstream India news programming. The media seldom reports academic research, but is preoccupied with extensively entertaining motley hypothetical scenarios as alien invasions, asteroid impacts and nuclear wars. Hysteria is dealt at length around the prime-time. It is not uncommon to switch on the TV and encounter a dichotomy – either snippets and vignettes of movies, celebrity gossips, and showbiz (even featuring replays of popular daily soap episodes), or an anchor exploring mythologically suggested or remotely hinted-at sites in the wilderness and temples, idols, pilgrimage sites and water bodies where “miracles” happen. Anchors can be seen hosting debates between clerics and logicians, and priests and scientists over obviously-refutable supersititous claims. At other times, they can be seen flying in poorly-morphed renditions of “ancient Indian aircraft” or digital reproductions of Indian Air Force’s fighter jets. At the time of the recent solar eclipse, Indian mainstream television media outlets, no matter how gigantic or prestigious were unanimous in pedaling superstition and “scientifically-justifiying” them. The superstitions and justifications included emission of special “negative-rays” from the Sun exclusively at the time of the eclipse whose effects range from putrefying exposed or even existent food, to the supposed risk posed to pregnant women. 

Recently, BJP Party members have espoused bovine products as a cure for COVID-19, indicating that novelty and unfamiliarity of a phenomenon is hardly a deterrent to their arbitrary linking and attribution. In fact, the social media response of Indians to the feared paranoia-inflicting epidemic testifies to the depth of seepage of the propaganda. Chauvinistic posts and ideas now spontaneously emanate from common individuals, not only media outlets. The preventive corpse-incineration of victims, the preference of folding hands over handshake, and meat-aversion hysteria unfolding in the wake of the COVID-19 scare are being used to glorify the Indian customs of ritual cremation, namaste, and vegetarianism. Modi’s call to clank together utensils and crockery to appreciate doctors was interpreted as an adroit scheme to supposedly disinfect the air by “antiviral positive vibrations” – even fake news of NASA somehow acknowledging the viral cover’s decrease over the nation was extensively encountered. Social Media runs rampant with widely-circulated claims of NASA and UN declaring various Indian superlatives – “NASA ne bhi maanaa (NASA too concedes)” is the Indian Right Wing’s handiest buzzword, even when they pronounce it as “Naasaa” and none of them can expand it correctly. Fake satellite images and news of International bodies declaring the Indian national anthem the best in the world are shared and endorsed even by some of the well-educated class. Claims of cow-urine consumption eradicating the infection are ubiquitous. Such is the depth of the penetration of the sentiment, that not even a humanity-imperiling pandemic is spared the scope of being used to celebrate nationhood and romanticise the bygone ages and mythical era.  

Cow urine distillate-based hand sanitisers are flying off the shelves. Now, the characteristic manic reverence for a cow may seem pervasively harmless – ridiculous but harmless. But, come to think of it, it serves multiple ends. BJP has not just used it as an implement to win elections, it has shifted the entire political discourse and the barycentre of the political compass with it! Consider this: the rapidly dwindling Indian National Congress – the prime Opposition Party could make a comeback by winning the Madhya Pradesh State Election, after its Chief Ministerial candidate promised even more cow-protective, godmen-patronising and othet so-called “Soft-Hindutva” measures than his BJP counterpart.

From Politics to Science

The overall fabric of the nation has been damaged and the discourse has been pinned at a skew. Provoked or Self-initiated mobilisation and deployment of rural, unemployed youth to spontaneously attack anyone carrying cattle under suspicion of them being beef-cattle smugglers is a convenient way for imbuing youth with a sense of purpose, duty, importance, and fulfillment. This also helps stoke the embers and fuel the fire of animosity between the beef-averse Hindu community and the beef-consuming Abrahamic faiths. Hindu youth in rural and suburban North India often organise as manually-armed goons, that patrol streets assailing everyone from social activists (on suspicion of them being converting missionaries) to cattle transporters to unmarried or interfaith couples. 

“To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”, is the 8th Fundamental Duty delineated in the Constitution of India. If only the BJP Parliamentarians considered them as much the citizens of the country, as the leaders of the citizens, they would have internalised the Fundamental Duties and acted accordantly, in the Parliament and in public.

Written by Pitamber Kaushik

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