Right-wing political forces all over the world are now characterised by an aversion toward rational and scientific thinking. Be it the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government in India that is making relentless efforts to convert everything dear to them—like cow urine, cow dung, the water of the Ganges (gangajal) and even the now infamous “Bhabhiji papad”—into medicine for COVID-19, or the Trump administration that thinks of injecting disinfectants into people’s bodies, or the Jair Bolsanaro regime of Brazil that officially discourages social distancing, all of them have an aversion toward rational and scientific thinking.
Why the destruction of reason is a prioritised item in the agenda of Right-wing forces across the globe deserves a more detailed analysis. Suffice it to say that Right-wing forces everywhere prefer politics of emotions and passions, for which rational and scientific thinking is anathema. The Hindutva brigade in India is no exception. Promotion of myths at the cost of verifiable facts, “self-evident truths” at the cost of scientific knowledge, and intellectual subservience at the cost of critical thinking has remained a strategy close to their heart. This approach of promoting irrationality and exploiting superstitious beliefs is hurting our attempts to resist the spread of COVID-19.
As the latest example of this is TN Harikumar, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) councillor in Kottayam, Kerala, who last Sunday mobilised locals against the cremation of a COVID-19 victim in an electric crematorium. The theory he invented is that the disease will spread through smoke from the crematorium. He managed to gather a mob, which tried to violently attack the officials concerned and obstructed the cremation for several hours.
Now, considering the larger political scenario in Kerala and how the BJP places itself within it, this cannot be dismissed as a stray incident. The admirable management of the pandemic by the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala is a direct challenge to the Central government, which has failed to rise to the occasion and take pro-people measures that could have saved lives and livelihoods.
Strengthening public health networks and strictly implementing scientific precautionary steps turned Kerala into a model in fighting the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. In fact, the Kerala government developed a Left model of administration, in which the value of human lives is upheld, affordable healthcare is considered an inalienable right and people are united in weakening divisive forces.
The special care that has always been shown to migrant workers from other states, whom the Kerala government calls “guest workers” with respect, has shown how working class solidarity can be put into practice even during a crisis.
In contrast, from the very outset, the BJP leadership of the state has been intolerant to the Kerala model itself, for it challenges the neo-liberal, anti-poor model that it upholds. When the Kerala model of COVID-19 management was being commended by health experts and policymakers all over the world, the BJP leaders, with help from their Union ministers, were doing all they could to sabotage these efforts. And they also did not forget to add the flavour of religion to their callous attempts.
Coming back to the question of rational and scientific thinking (and action based on it), the Kerala government’s commitment to scientific thinking and the results it produced stand in stark contrast to the Central government’s continued promotion of irrationality even in the midst of a pandemic. This prompts more and more people to look upon the Left as an alternative and a respite in these times of limitless political patronage to such irrational forces. The moves of BJP in Kerala are undoubtedly part of a larger plot to discredit the Kerala model, and mislead people from the scientific path, and to create chaos by prompting people to defy the government. This is not the first time the Hindutva forces are propagating pseudo-scientific beliefs as a way to legitimise their antagonism to Malayali identity and Left and progressive forces.
Another recent example was when they portrayed the Kerala floods of 2018 as divine punishment for consuming beef and attempts to end gender discrimination in places of worship. They see in the ongoing pandemic just another opportunity to cook up narratives of Hindu victimhood, disrupt communal harmony by propagating that some communities are favoured by the government, and by portraying restrictions imposed by the government as anti-religious.
In early March, BJP leader TP Senkumar asked the faithful to defy all restrictions on the Attukal Pongala, a Hindu festival in which a large number of devotees assemble and cook rice porridge for the deity. He encouraged people into collective disobedience with his pseudo-scientific theory that the Novel Coronavirus will not survive in temperatures above 27 degrees centigrade, lower than the heat emitted during the preparation of their offering.
When Dr Shimna Azeez, a young medical doctor who propagates scientific thinking, criticised his statement, he resorted to communal profiling and falsely accused her of having been silent when conservative Muslims had allegedly opposed polio vaccination in some parts of the state. What is really dangerous is the message inherent to his accusation—that a doctor with a Muslim name should not comment on a Hindu festival even if it risks the lives of thousands. This was another classic case of Hindutva forces reducing their critics to their religious identities and portraying them as enemies of the Hindu religion.
Senkumar had attributed his ridiculous theory to some Dr. Paul Haily, whom no one knows about. Haily, most probably, is just another imaginary scholar that pro-RSS WhatsApp Universities keep quoting in order to make their pseudo-scientific theories sound convincing. This is how pseudo-scientific theories are popularised by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, by making unverifiable claims about their validity. His followers also attempted to harass a woman journalist who had questioned his absurd statements during a press conference called by him.
Weeks later, this pattern was repeated when BJP state committee member E Chandran took the initiative to defy the lockdown and organise a Bhagavata Saptaham (week-long recital of the holy text Bhagavatham) in a temple at Erumappetty in Thrissur district. The BJP neither disowned the leader nor condemned his action, but saw in it another chance for communal polarisation. Sangh activists unleashed a campaign of online harassment against the woman journalist who had reported the lockdown violation—of course giving it a communal colour by pointing out that she is married to a Muslim. At one point, some top BJP leaders had criticised the state government for closing temples during the lockdown, saying that it deprives devotees of their freedom of worship.
What all these instances clearly indicate is how the BJP is systematically misleading people away from scientific attempts to contain COVID-19 and finds, both in traditional religious beliefs and the pseudo-scientific theories that they invent in order to strengthen the influence of religious dogmas, a powerful tool to derail Kerala’s pandemic management and implement their agenda of communal polarisation. This strategy of shifting people’s attention from the need for a united, rational, and scientific struggle against the pandemic by appealing to their attachment with religious dogmas and divisive feelings needs to be countered with a strong commitment to secularism and scientific thinking.
To conclude, it is a mistake to see all these as isolated and unconnected incidents of individual politicians speaking or act irrationally. Instead, it is part of a well-prepared plan to nurture a culture where scientific thinking is undermined and backward elements in people’s consciousness will be used for Right-wing populist mobilisation. Along with vigilance against COVID-19, it is high time we strengthen our political vigilance against these irrational forces.
The author is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views are personal.