Why growing pseudoscience in India and Pakistan is a concern
By intermingling unreality, mythology, and science, India and Pakistan are paving the way for fascism in intellectual freedom and thought.
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By drawing parallels with Donald Trump’s presidency, Jason Stanley in his book — How Fascism Works — discusses the pillars of fascist ideology; elicitation of a ‘mythic past’, us-versus-them divide, ‘unreality’ that serves to perpetuate false distinctions, and the ‘atomisation’ of individuals.
Though the unfettered use of the oft-debated term ‘fascism’ can be questioned, the underlining characteristics are undeniably evocative of the workings of not just said presidency, but much of the modern world. The politics of rhetoric and myth, for instance, resonate particularly in the case of India and Pakistan. Formed through a violent rupture in 1947, both India and Pakistan’s historical trajectories have been different, yet have enabled the fashioning of a national consciousness where the political use of religion plays a defining role.
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In India and Pakistan, fascism draws to an ‘imaginary’ and ‘glorious past’; where fictitious discrepancies between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ populaces are imposed through ‘propaganda’ and ‘anti-intellectualism’, which disintegrate mutual reality, demean language and enable pseudoscientific and associated conspiracy theories to thrive. In India, since 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interpretations have muddled science and mythology by, for instance, affirming myths as historical realities; ‘the fantasies within them are records of our ancient accomplishments in cutting-edge science and technology’; and subsequently reiterating that the ‘knowledge’ they encompass has descended as a part of ‘unbroken tradition’, the indigenous prudence of which can elucidate the problems that the life sciences formerly face. Prime Minister Modi himself has endorsed claims that cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics were performed thousands of years ago such as by the warrior Karna from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.
In addition, Ramesh Pokhriyal, the Minister of Commerce, misattributed the ‘discovery of gravity’, regressed to the Ancient Age, and claimed that the sage Rishi Pranav was the first to uncover atoms and molecules. Also, there have been instances of subjective scapegoating of NASA – the Hindu right’s arbitrary shoulder-mount of their jingoistic guns.
The deification of the ancient Indian past, and condemning of foreign migrants or invaders as the ones who ruined the grand scheme and holistic, ‘utopian sociocultural political order’, is a fundamental mechanism in this regime and propaganda machine. This propaganda and regime have also subsidised academic and industry research into bovine products, ordained subjects such as ‘bovine engineering’ into curricula, rerouted funds towards these measures, dedicated key chairs and administrative designations in institutions to pseudo-scientists and academicians with a tainted, tarnished ‘conspiratorial’ subversion of Science and Engineering institutions.
The proclamations oscillate between the debatable, to the outright bizarre — flying machines, suggestions to rename ‘gravitational waves’, ancient test tube babies based on scriptural evidence, and refutals of Newton and Einstein. The mythological and scriptural verses are also repeatedly cited from public platforms by ministers as well as leaders, in turn glorifying the ‘Golden Age’ or Vedic Age of harmony, success and affluence and synchronised with the conjectural construct of integral, undivided India, i.e. Akhand Bharat, and its closely associated concept of Hindu Rashtra.
The glorification of the ancient period has thus become an implicit means of communicating xenophobic inferences of returning to a ‘Hindu-exclusive caste-stratified society’ or a hierarchical social order under the control and paramountcy of Hindus. The national ego-stroking and encouragement of patriotic sentiments have also prompted responses from the educated and skilled strata of society. Academic cronyism is constant, and outdated secular and socialist supporters have been infiltrated by the Modi regime’s propaganda.
Recently, BJP party members have espoused ‘bovine products’ as a medication for Covid-19, signifying originality and exoticism of a phenomenon that is scarcely a deterrent to their arbitrary linking and attribution. The precautionary corpse-incineration of victims, the folding hands over a handshake, and meat-aversion hysteria unfolding in the Covid-19 breakout are being used to praise the Indian customs of Namaste and vegetarianism. The prerogatives of cow-urine consumption wiping out the infection are ubiquitous. The pandemic is being used to celebrate nationhood and romanticise the bygone ages and mythical era.
In Pakistan, much like India, the manifestations of Stanley’s pillars of fascism as related in the national narrative glorifies an illustrious past and a unified religious identity in need of protection. It achieves this by distilling a constant feeling of threat from the ‘others’ (both outside and within) and engendering the acceptance of distorted facts, conspiracy theories and myths as ultimate truths — all through the mobilisation of politicised religion. For instance, since its inception, the country, both in educational as well as media narratives, has witnessed calls to the lost Muslim glory of medieval Muslim Kingdoms, often through erroneous conceptions of time and space. These fascist elements and subsequent articulations have particularly paved the way for the rise of scientific fallacies.
Take the case of coronavirus, which for many religious clerics poses no threat, “since Muslims perform ablution five times a day”. This belief resulted in a signed letter by renowned Islamic scholars and clerics during Ramadan, pressurising the government to exclude mosques from the orders of lockdown or risk facing the ‘anger of God’. Recently Ipsos, in an online poll, revealed how one-third of Pakistani respondents believed in conspiracy theories related to the pandemic — unsurprising considering the surge in ‘unreal’ propaganda.
On national television no less, Maulana Tariq Jameel, a renowned Islamic preacher immensely favoured by the government, openly proclaimed how the “pandemic was a testimony of god’s wrath that was prompted by the growing immodesty and immorality of women” — the ensuing retraction and public apology are entirely exiguous since conspiracy theories had already been incited.
Kaukab Noorani, another Islamic scholar, promulgated the pseudo-scientific theory that Jews will disseminate the coronavirus vaccine containing chips to control the minds of individuals. Yet, the government has failed to debunk the propagation of any of these preposterous myths.
The perpetuation and acceptance of these false distinctions can perhaps be attributed to the imaginary incompatibility between Western scientific thought and religion. This conflict is apparent in the teaching of science in schools, which Pervez Hoodbhoy has consistently critiqued for reading more as theology, with biology being an especially contested and ‘controversial’ subject.
Recently the administration of the Beaconhouse School System quite adamantly reminded parents to purchase the correct ‘Pakistan Edition’ of the Cambridge Science Course Book and Cambridge Workbook-8 and not the UK Edition, since it illustrates how reproduction occurs in Pakistan rather than the West, presumably in a ‘halal’ manner. In a similar attempt to ‘sanitise’ texts, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board (PCTB) recently banned 100 books, supposedly containing ‘anti-Pakistani’ and ‘blasphemous’ content. An example of said ‘blasphemous’ content was the illustrations of pigs for teaching counting concepts in a Mathematics textbook.
By intermingling unreality, mythology, and science, India and Pakistan are paving the way for fascism in intellectual freedom and thought. Particularly, illogical curbs on innocuous content and the propagation of myths in both countries has led to the prevalence of ‘pseudoscience’, which the thinkers of science such as Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos have rightfully described as a huge threat to liberal spaces. The situation seems unlikely to improve given the new educational policies in both countries that seek to give even more preference to ideology over scientific thought.