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On institutional promotion of ignorance in India

Where ignorance is bliss, ’Tis folly to be wise?

by Bharat Bhushan, 19 September 2019

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Business Standard, 16 September 2019

Arguing against ignorance in his politically trenchant manner, the irrepressible Justice (Retd.) Markandeya Katju recently tweeted: “Children must be taken to the Zoo to ensure that when they grow up they don’t confuse a Donkey with a Lion.”

Growing up is the process of escaping ignorance. India, however, increasingly seems to be a nation where ignorance continues well past adulthood and is even celebrated. Too much education, it is being suggested, can blind one to recognising real social and economic change.

Selling the government’s ambitions to make India a 5-trillion dollar economy to participants at a Board of Trade, Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal warned his audience that they must not be deceived by figures and data to the contrary. His clinching argument was “Maths did not help Einstein to discover gravity.” Though he eventually apologised for confusing Einstein with Newton, he did not regret his public contempt for “maths” and “calculations” of economic growth as means of ascertaining the health of the economy.

Other worthies too have been quite at ease making ignorant pronouncements and taking a dig at what they perceive as too much intellectualism.

Where ignorance is bliss, ’Tis folly to be wise?
The Prime Minister remains unabashed about his boo-boos on a variety of subjects. In an interaction with school students when asked about his views on climate change, he claimed that climate does not change, it’s just that with age people become more sensitive to changes in temperature. More recently he made some more enthusiastic statements about mathematics than Minister Piyush Goel. On a visit to Canada he wondered how (a+b)² resulted in an “extra” 2ab in addition to a²+b². His comments on how flying under cover of clouds would help Indian Air Force fighter planes to avoid being detected by Pakistan’s radars are surely too recent to be forgotten.

His ministers are known to have denied human evolution and claim that the Laws of Motion had been codified in ancient Indian mantras much before Newton. His former junior education minister Satyapal Yadav once asked if humans had indeed evolved from apes why had “our ancestors not mentioned this anywhere?” The ruling party’s MP from Bhopal, the saffron-robed Sadhvi Pragya claimed that it was a hex she had put on police officer Hemant Karkare that brought about his death in a terrorist shoot-out in Mumbai. Earlier she explained to a TV channel how stroking the hair against its direction of growth on a cow’s back was a sure cure for hypertension and claimed that her breast cancer was cured by ingesting cow urine. Another BJP MP Shankarbhai Vegad from Gujarat told Parliament that “cancer becomes cancel” by use of cow dung and cow urine which he said were “a 100 per cent cure for cancer”. Some activists recently got frogs ‘married’ to ensure rains in Madhya Pradesh. The frogs were later ‘divorced’ to halt the deluge that followed.

These and other abundant examples of ignorance are not to be sniggered at. Such ignorance promotes anti-intellectualism as a virtue when it gets an institutional stamp. Anti-intellectualism is a useful tool for the Bharatiya Janata Party, (BJP) to counter the Rationalist arguments of its critics.

Not only are some of the best Indian universities under attack but atavistic beliefs are being deliberately promoted by state funding of research. The Indian Council of Medical Research, the nation’s top funding body for biomedical research, is supporting a project to study the efficacy of an ancient Rig Vedic chant, the Mahamrityunjay Mantra (literally, the chant to defy death) in treating patients with severe traumatic brain injury at New Delhi’s state-run Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. In 2017 the Madhya Pradesh government’s Mahrishi Patanjali Sanskrit Sansthan set up an “Astro-OPD consultancy centre” where astrologers would help in diagnosing illnesses.

The Junagadh Agricultural University (JAU) in the prime minister’s home state of Gujarat, has an ongoing research project to extract gold from cow urine. Indeed, they claim to have done so already. The Archaeological Survey of India has “found” the mythical River Saraswati in several sites in India.

It is time to ask why public figures and institutions are promoting unscientific beliefs at citizens’ expense.

When people with little education become prominent in public life, they mistakenly assess their cognitive abilities to be greater than they are. Psychologists call it the Dunning-Kruger effect. Research has established that less intelligent people are usually much more confident than their relatively more intelligent counterparts who tend to be circumspect about the extent of their knowledge. Inadequate education leads successful people to proclaim their ignorance publicly and with aplomb.

However, the unashamed display of anti-intellectualism by the new political elite cannot be entirely explained by lack of education. The BJP government’s institutional promotion of ignorance is deeply linked to its politics. If those who control the State want to motivate people through fear and communal hatred, to win their confidence by simplistic explanations of social and political phenomena and to make state and non-state violence acceptable, then they must promote ignorance and non-reason. Under the BJP, the promotion of ignorance helps in the exaltation of communalism, social violence, over-zealous patriotism and its peculiar brand of nationalism.

For those whose politics is based on these public attributes, the promotion of an anti-intellectual society is a necessity. Anti-intellectualism facilitates emotional manipulation of the governed. The normalisation of ignorance on a social scale can thus become an effective tool of governance.

The important question is whether we are in the process of abandoning critical thinking as a societal value? In the name of education, will people accept research on cow dung, the birth place of Gods and the historicity of mythical subjects? If people do not realise that anti-intellectualism comes at a hefty price, it could be a setback to India’s ambitions of greatness. Hindutva’s ideologues cannot make India “Vishwa Guru (Teacher of the World)” by celebrating ignorance.


The above article from Business Standard is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use