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Modi and the Erosion of Critical Thinking in India

(PTI)

“Postcolonial and post-modern scholarship criticize science as a Western construct with no real legitimate claim to truth or objectivity, thus paving the way for Hindu nationalists to come up with their wild theories.”

Narendra Modi has been recently re-elected as Prime Minister of India, in a landslide victory. The world’s largest democracy is fed up with corruption and the dynastic politics of elites. The Congress Party, the successor of Nehru, has become ossified. A few decades ago, the Indian people acknowledged that party’s leadership and role in the struggle for independence. But it now seems that the Congress Party’s time has worn out, and the current front man of Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, will never have the popularity of his grandmother, Indira. The fact that his mother is Italian does not help.

It may not seem like it, but this is, in fact, a big issue. Rahul is not viewed as fully Indian by some people, and this plays neatly into the hands of nationalist politics, which is the language that Modi speaks. Despite his big failures as Prime Minister in the economy (he ran for the first time on a platform of huge economic promises), Modi remains immensely popular because, well, nationalism is about blood and soil, not about rationality. And it seems that those who took him to power are more worried about making India fully Hindu, than about reducing unemployment.

Modi came out of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (SSS), a Hindu nationalist organization known for some very aggressive stances. Out of this ideology emerged many representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s current ruling party. The BJP does its best to moderate the voices of Hindu chauvinism and anti-Muslim sentiment within its ranks. As they present it, they simply want to do away with what they call ‘pseudo-secularism’; i.e., in the name of secularism, accommodating privileges to religious minorities while not granting those privileges to the Hindu majority. They have a point: religion in India seems to be as relevant as ever, and the country is far from being secular. By constantly accommodating to religious minorities in many spheres of life, India does not fully achieve a sense of national unity.

Yet, Modi himself has contributed very little to the secularization of Indian society. And this  ultimately has a negative effect on India’s aspirations to be considered a major player in the international scene. We can all admire India’s increasing contribution to science and technology; the stereotype of the Indian kid who goes on to become an accomplished engineer or physician both in India and abroad is increasingly becoming a frequent reality. But it seems to me that were Modi to continue with his nationalist agenda in the coming years, this stride towards scientific and technological achievements cannot last for long.

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Modi has publicly promoted some whacky ideas that, in fact, have been part of Hindu nationalism for some time. Basically, all forms of nationalism rely on some past glory of the nation (does “Make America Great Again” ring a bell?). Some of these past glories are factual, but most are invented or distorted by nationalists. Hindus in India have plenty of real glories to exhibit, as the Indus Valley civilizations of previous centuries are truly admirable. But somehow, in the minds of many Hindu nationalists, these past glories are not strong enough to make a connection with current times. Sure, Indians may have invented the zero (actually, they didn’t), but Hindu nationalists want to claim intellectual pride over something more relevant to contemporary times. And thus, they make all sorts of outlandish claims about the presence of modern-day inventions in ancient Indian history.

Modi himself has claimed that plastic surgery was invented in India, because, how can Ganesh have an elephant’s head in a man’s body? Airplanes are mentioned in the Ramayana (one of India’s most famous epics). In-vitro fertilization is also present in this great epic. Lord Brahma (one of the most important gods) discovered dinosaurs. The Internet is already referred to in the Mahabharata (another of the great Indian epics). The archaeological site of Mohenjo-Daro is evidence of the use of nuclear weapons in ancient India (perhaps a projection of the BJP’s pride in current nuclear arsenal?).  And so on.

In a sense, Modi and his nationalist flock are actually engaging in a game that was played long ago by Erich Von Daniken. In an outrageous book, Chariots of the Gods, Von Daniken set forth the hypothesis that aliens built the pyramids in Egypt, the Nazca lines in Peru, and the Moai in Easter Island. He seemed to be working under the racist assumption that non-Westerners could not have built such monuments. He thus brought aliens in. Hindu nationalists also seem to be under the same racist belief that non-Indians could not have invented the wonders of modern life. So, they bring ancient texts in, and voila!, they find obscure references in sacred Indian scriptures and report them as references to the invention of television and the like.

To be fair, this is not a game only played by Hindu nationalists. Some Muslims do flatter themselves in claiming that the Qur’an already foretells scientific theories about the expansion of the universe, the Big Bang, and so on. Very much as Hindu nationalists do, Muslims who do this read the Qur’an with hindsight bias, finding in obscure religious passages, confirmations of our current knowledge. Some Christians are also fond of playing this pathetic game, although in their case, it tends to have more of an apocalyptic flavor, as in Hal Lindsey’s preposterous 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth, which purports to show that the prophecies of the biblical book of Revelation are coming true today.

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However, as the great Indian scholar Meera Nanda acutely observes, this hermeneutic approach is far more pronounced and accepted among Hindus. In Nanda’s view, this may be because, unlike the outlandish claims of Muslims or Christians, Hindu nationalists enjoy some considerable academic support. Sure enough, there are Creationists in America, but they are the laughing stock of intellectuals, especially those in on the political left. By contrast, Hindu nationalists who make ridiculous claims seem to get the tacit approval of left-wing intellectuals, on account of their post-colonial stands.

Throughout colonial history, the West was deeply arrogant and dismissive of other civilizations. Unfortunately, many post-colonial scholars are too happy to give Hindu nationalists a free pass, as a way to counter Western arrogance. Postcolonial and post-modern scholarship criticize science as a Western construct with no real legitimate claim to truth or objectivity, thus paving the way for Hindu nationalists to come up with their wild theories.

With this kind of mumbo-jumbo being publicly defended by India’s Prime Minister, the country cannot endure for much longer in its scientific and technological development. Unfortunately, Modi is only a reflection of this trend, so it is a phenomenon with far deeper roots. Yet, Modi himself and politicians of all parties in India, as well as intellectuals both in India and abroad, do need to be aware of their social responsibility, and their pronouncements may make a relevant difference. India has much to be proud of, and it has the potential for making even greater scientific contributions to humanity, but sadly, if nationalist irrationality gets in the way of sound critical thinking, that opportunity will be spoiled.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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