Issue 2

Anti-caste allyship: we need to do better

The rape and murder of the 19 year old Dalit woman, Manisha Valmiki at Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, has awakened the consciousness of the nation. An important question being asked in debates everywhere from popular news channels to Twitter threads is how this case was about caste: “Why are you making rape about caste? Why does her Dalit identity need mentioning?”. This question is important because it shows us a glimpse of the true state of general society with respect to awareness about caste. This case is of a young Dalit woman who was working with her mother in the field of an upper caste, where four upper caste men rape her, then break her legs and cut her tongue off. What followed is a series of administrative actions nearly as brutal and horrifying as her rape and eventual murder: delay in getting her adequate treatment, the police locking her family up and burning her body in the dead of the night, the administration desperately trying to prove there was no rape. This case has caste smeared in bold red all over it. Yet, Indians fail to see the casteist violence here, just like we are blind to the violence that people around us and we ourselves perpetuate through our caste privilege.

The Uttar Pradesh government, despite backlash for their mishandling of the Hathras case, is currently set to investigate an “international conspiracy” to defame the Yogi Sarkar and incite caste violence. Rape apologia, thakur men threatening with agitation if the four accused Thakur men aren’t released, the National Savarna Council supporting the accused — all of this has followed since, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Indian society has historically failed at even acknowledging casteism, let alone working on obliterating it. 

However, such a denial of caste coming from urban upper caste journalists, academicians, feminists, people with social/political power, is truly regressive. Leaders like Atishi Marlena from the Aam Aadmi Party have been heard demanding “justice for all women, not just Dalit women”. Savarna (upper caste) feminists speaking about this incident have amply displayed such hypocrisy. 

Even those savarnas who claim to understand caste and call themselves anti-caste allies end up taking too much space in a movement about Dalit feminism. Swara Bhaskar, an upper caste woman, deemed it correct to climb up to the roof of Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad’s car at a recent Delhi protest. Kiruba Munuswamy, an anti-caste activist and lawyer, spoke in a panel about how savarna women talk so much about the upliftment of the marginalised castes, appropriating a movement where they are supposed to be allies, not the spokespersons or leaders.

Such space-hogging and appropriation hurts the movement by snatching space from the actual leaders, those with the experience of marginalisation. This ends up reproducing the very marginalisation that the movement is against. Allyship is important as there is strength in numbers, but tokenistic understanding of the role can become toxic for the movement and add to the oppression further. It is important to address this toxicity, to understand what being an ally should be about. Even well-meaning people may have confused notions about allyship.

Allyship has to be understood as an actionable construct. It is not an identity tag for someone who knows a bit about a community’s oppression and is sympathetic towards them. Allyship is an active practice of unlearning and reevaluating one’s privilege because one seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalised group. It is something that one chooses to do not out of guilt but out of responsibility. This is important because allyship is a genuine, effortful investment, and someone acting out of guilt would do this more for themselves and less for the marginalised group.

Anti-caste allyship then is a continuous process of building a relationship with people who have been oppressed by savarnas for centuries. As savarnas seeking to support marginalised caste groups, we would first and foremost need to acknowledge our own privilege consistently. We should use this privilege to help the community. People in positions of power should make space for better representation of the lower-castes in their respective fields.

We must always remember that we are here to support the others, and so allyship cannot be self-defined. Work done as an ally should be recognised by the marginalised group and be framed to help them. For this, the abilities to be sensitive, communicate well, and take criticism are important. And doing this work shouldn’t mean that we shift the focus onto ourselves.

Anti-caste allyship should also involve educating ourselves and our private, upper-caste circles, about privilege — talking to them, calling them out, fighting them for oppression through their actions, and even failing to recognize their own privilege. This is specially needed right now, when most people don’t acknowledge the oppression at all. Work on ending the oppression can only happen when the oppression is recognised in the first place.

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar said that caste is like a multi-story building without doors and ladders; wherever you start, that’s where you are for perpetuity. The current ally-activism is like the savarnas in the upper storeys chanting anti-caste slogans, since they have “understood” that caste shouldn’t exist. But the building still exists intact!
Posting on social media, going to protests for Manisha or even ultimately getting the culprits punished will not be the end of this. In the words of Kiruba Munuswamy, justice for the Hathras case is nothing less than annihilation of caste. This is a long journey, and it demands consistent, morally conscious action from us all. Despite all the allyship duties listed above, being an ally is actually quite straightforward. We can start simply by reading Annihilation of Caste or truly listening to even one Dalit person’s experience, and just being more compassionate.

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Issue II: Editor’s Note

As we continue living our lives online, we are forced to confront and challenge our world through our screens. We debate and deliberate over real-world politics and elections, moderated and manoeuvred by the rules of the internet. With the potential to consume the content of the world, and the ability to have the world as your audience, we have a platform like never before. With this however, come important questions about how to control and carry out conversations online, and the extent of its real-world impacts.

In this edition, we attempt to start a conversation around precisely these topics. We start with the notion of privacy online, as Debayan Gupta explores the importance of software encryption and discusses whether governments should be given a secret key to decrypt citizens’ conversations. Aradhya Sharma looks at privacy in the context of health data, in light of India’s recent attempt to digitise healthcare through the National Digital Health Mission. In Deep Vakil’s piece, we deepdive into a real-life case study of online privacy—an instance of doxxing of university students and how it is situated in the context of ‘culture wars’ between ideological oppositions online.  When our online lives get too much, we try to get away from it—but can we really resist the allure of our devices? By understanding human psychology and its interaction with online media, Simantini Ghosh suggests practical ways to escape the trap of the ‘black mirror’.

But is life beyond technospace any better? With the unlawful investigation of Manisha Valmiki’s rape and murder, there has been polemical uproar against the police, media and the judicial system. Mansi Ranka’s piece tells us why caste is central to the Hathras case and touches upon how activists are carrying out related protests during the pandemic. With COVID infections still steadily increasing, many other people prefer to voice their criticism of the investigation online. Social media has been rife with polarizing opinions. 

But then again there is no dearth of people for whom the pandemic has not been a deterrent to assert their ‘invincibility’. These people, most of whom are on the conservative side, have flouted health advisories and social distancing guidelines. Isha Deshmukh examines the nuance between one’s political leaning and their proclivity (or lack thereof) towards science in her article. 

As similar political criticism continues online, engaging the voices of millions globally, it takes on various forms apart from 280-character opinions. Karantaj Singh explores one such instance in Amazon’s hit show The Boys, which stars an anti-superhero protagonist eerily similar to Donald Trump. Speaking of the current President of the United States, Aditya Burra takes us through a journey of Trump’s America over the past four years, reminding us of the high-stakes game that is November’s Presidential elections. We also take a look at the state of democracy in today’s world, and the role of American government and aid agencies in promoting it, in Bann Seng Tan’s exploration of American foreign policy.

It is thus important to remind ourselves that the world goes on, despite the pandemic and our lives online. In no way are we immune to being scrutinized by various actors digitally. In no way can our society easily get rid of structures it is entrenched in. But also in no way can we ignore the ability to collectively amplify the voices of those who haven’t been passed the mic, for the greater good.

– Nirvik Thapa, Pravish Agnihotri and Samyukta Prabhu

Issue 2

Girl in White Cotton: An ‘Unusual’ Depiction of Mother-Daughter Relationship

Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi, just like cotton, flows through one’s hands. Released as Burnt Sugar in the United Kingdom, it is one of those rare novels which make you question its motive, the selection of words used to depict a scene or an emotion, the intentions behind acts and dialogues. It proceeds in such a way that by the time one is done reading, it feels like it’s time to read it again. There is so much to understand and so much to take away that one reading would never be enough. It is not surprising at all that this debut is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.

The novel is about issues and relationships of everyday life. It deals with the mundane in the ways of the profane. On the face of it, it’s an ordinary tale of failed relationships. In fact, the story revels in its ordinariness. In it, there are a lot of characters who have complicated relationships with each other. However, as the story progresses, the reader realises that in its entirety, it is about Tara in the voice of her daughter Antara. Tara has always been a woman who has broken convention, be it in her life as a daughter, a wife, or a mother. She has risked the ‘normal’ upbringing of her daughter for the pursuits of her heart. Never having really gotten along with her parents, in-laws, or her child, she is now at the stage where old age has crept in and dependency cannot be avoided. Antara narrates her trail of difficulties which she faced as a caregiver at the expense of a person she never really cared for. 

Antara talks about her mother’s hatred for herself. She delves into how her mother wanted her to be everything she wasn’t because she loathed herself so much. Even her name, which means intimacy, wasn’t chosen because Tara liked it, but because it was unlike Tara.

‘Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.’ 

Written in first person, Doshi presents a very crude and crucial picture of motherhood. It seems as if all the martyred depictions of motherhood that women are made to consume, and one day embody, fall apart. The story takes us through Antara’s life with Tara, going back and forth; her years at the Ashram in Pune where her Tara was a disciple, her convent boarding school, her college (which she never finished), and her married life. Throughout her journey we see her consciously attempting to separate herself from her mother. And yet, she gets reduced to being Tara’s caretaker, the caretaker of a mother who could never take care of herself or her daughter.

Doshi presents a very South Asian representation of motherhood, where being experimental and adventurous after marriage and after birthing children, isn’t appreciated.  It is the reason why this story hits so close to home. The entire episode of Antara’s pregnancy is a journal towards becoming a mother. It gives a glimpse into the apprehensions a mother might have — doubts, insecurities and fears — about how dreams might never turn into reality after her child is born. Such limitations might not be as perceptible elsewhere. I couldn’t help but draw a contrast between the mothers in Girl in White Cotton and Hideous Kinky, a novel by Esther Freud, in which the mother is celebrated for being carefree.  

The last chapter of Doshi’s book is a lost puzzle in some ways. Tara’s intentions become unclear to the reader — is she pretending to be someone she is not? Is she pretending to forget? Does she want to eliminate the traces of her daughter like she’s always done? No one knows. The only thing obvious here is to empathise with Antara. 
Girl in White Cotton is also about mobility; it shows how men move and are mobile while women stay. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about who gets to move and who doesn’t. What does mobility mean and how is it exercised? More than that, it is about how flexible romance is. It makes one wonder as to how much freedom one has in a codependent relationship. It also raises questions alluding to ethics but does not answer them. If that is a statement on Doshi’s idea of ethics, then she has wonderfully proven her point. All in all, it is not a story you might have never heard before; one of its elemental subplots resembles Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman. But the uniqueness and the beauty of this novel lies particularly in its how.

Ananya is a postgraduate student studying English Literature at St. Stephen’s College and a researcher with Zubaan.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Culture Wars: When Private Goes Public

India and China have been engaged in a military standoff in eastern Ladakh for over 150 days now, with the worst cross-border violence since the 1962 war between the two nations. There is a heightened sentiment of nationalism in the country, which has made its way into the digital lives of several students of Ashoka University. On 24th September, two right-wing social media accounts, one on Twitter and the other on Instagram, publicly shared screenshots from a closed Facebook group of Ashoka’s undergraduate students. The screenshots were of comments made by Ashokans on a months-old post in the private group. Some of the comments in the screenshots, which were not blurred to hide the names and profile pictures of the students, were critical of “Indian culture” and the “armed forces.” 

Those who posted the screenshots claim that these comments amount to cyberbullying and point to the “anti-national” and “vile mindset” of the “activist lobby and left-wing students” of Ashoka, who “celebrated the death of Indian Army.” The comments on these posts include the use of misogynistic slurs, a call for “public execution”, and even one threat of worse-than-Hitler treatment. As of now, the Facebook group has been disbanded by Ashoka’s Student Government out of fear of other students being doxxed for their older posts. Deliberations are underway as to what should be the way forward, bearing in mind the safety and privacy of all members of the student community. 

Since the accounts are public, and the posts continue to remain online, many of the students whose identities were revealed have had to temporarily, or in some cases permanently, deactivate their social media handles. There are credible accounts of some of these students being flooded with unknown friend requests and receiving threatening messages in their inbox. While such an incident may be a first in the history of the student body, many Ashokans have individually had prior encounters with such hate and vitriol online. 

There is a sense of deep division and distrust within the student community, as comments made in a closed group with the pretext of privacy have somehow been “leaked” and put on public display. This polarisation over social media is certainly not unique to Ashoka, and it has largely characterized political discourse on social media over the past few years. Several hot-button political issues have emerged in India in the recent past. This has sharply divided many Indians. 

While there are commercial antecedents to this phenomenon (i.e. confrontational posts on social media get more engagement and therefore increase ad revenue of these platforms), there is also a sociological angle. American sociologist James Davison Hunter provided the framework of “culture wars” in 1991, through which this polarisation can be analysed. While the phrase “culture wars” has mainly been used in the context of the US polity, it can resonate greatly in the Indian context. A culture war can be understood as a power struggle between social groups with competing ideological worldviews that clash over values, moral codes, and lifestyles. Although the conflict may be fundamentally underpinned by genuine disagreement over what is good for the public, instead of positive tactics of constructively reasoning about one’s ideology with others, a negative strategy of systematically discrediting one’s opponents increasingly becomes the go-to one. 

The addition of technology only serves to vitiate this concoction further. The advent of mass media like print and television, for example, in the context of culture wars, meant that public engagement amongst opposing groups over their political differences was increasingly antagonistic and asinine. Likewise, the frontier of social media is historically unique in this regard and much more conducive to the negative strategy, according to research by Samatha R. Holley on social media’s effect on the culture war. Echo chambers and disinformation campaigns cause one’s existing convictions to be reinforced, leading in some cases to cognitive dissonance when confronted with alternative viewpoints. The algorithms that run our social media feeds are meant to psychologically manipulate us into staying on these platforms. 

As the world’s second largest social media market with 35 crore users, India is undoubtedly affected by these phenomena. In attempting to draw a picture of the warring groups on Indian social media, one may reduce it to two sides: the religious/orthodox right-wing and the secular/progressive left-wing. The right would consist of the conservative and Hindutva ideologies and the left would consist of the liberal and socialist ideologies. However, it must be noted that this crude oversimplification of the political spectrum must not obfuscate the fact that the groups are in no way homogenous or equivalent. It would be simply dishonest to deny that the balance of power tilts in favor of the right-wing in India today, in terms of finances, institutions, and human resources.

Both the warring groups claim that their “way of life”, or in some cases, their very lives, are under attack from the other side. The negative tactics manifest themselves in the form of “trolling” on part of the right, and “cancel culture” on part of the left. Many diverse incidents tend to be smoothed over and bracketed under the umbrella term of cancel culture. It refers to vitriolic behavior that is just as harmful as trolling, but justified, not by traditional value systems in society, but by misplaced ideals of social justice and political correctness. The use of the term here is not intended to repudiate the democratising effect of social media, that has led to traditional elites like politicians, authors, and artists, being held accountable for their words and actions. 

The revolution of social media in culture wars has been likened to that of industrial weapons technology in conventional warfare. Some of the strategies deployed on these platforms are dangerously harmful, and in some cases, also fatal. On other occasions, such as the incident involving Ashokans, the boundaries between the public and the private are seriously impinged. These tactics are justified by inflating the political stakes to such an extent that no means seem morally unjustified. 

Granted, in the present political climate, the stakes for minority groups and marginalized folks are indeed unimaginably high. However, many of those indulging in trolling or cancelling are doing so with a sense of speaking and fighting on behalf of the subaltern. One is being naive if they believe that fighting such online battles alone leads to anything but momentary self-gratification. Grassroots change has not been achieved when the privileged abdicate this most basic social imperative by saying “I do not owe it to educate you”. It has been achieved when students and activists heed the Ambedkarite call to “educate, agitate, organize,” with emphasis on the first step.

Deep Vakil is a student of Political Science and Sociology at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Sitting inside the black mirror and peeking at the world beyond

Social media is all around us. One can argue that the very way in which we communicate today and conceptualize interactions with the world at large, has been fundamentally altered by social media. Television shows such as Black Mirror or the Netflix Documentary Social Dilemma have drawn public attention to the ramifications of human-computer interactions.  While there is no denying that social media has made staying in touch with friends and family, no matter where they are a breeze, as well as aided technological progress, there is unfortunately, a flipside. The problem is twofold —  one, we often believe our social media feeds an accurate representation of reality. And second, we spend too much time on our devices, which makes problem one worse.

To understand why we keep spending increasing amounts of time with our smart devices is tied to how internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Instagram etc. make money while providing services for free.   

A company, by definition, exists to generate a profit. That holds true for internet companies as well. While we are not charged for Facebook, Instagram and the likes, they monetise through ad revenues. This, therefore, makes them depend on their algorithms to detect patterns in our browsing behaviour, so that they can match us to the best possible advertisers, and if we look at an ad long enough, we might be prompted to spend money.

Two corollaries further follow: 

First, better accuracy of the algorithm in predicting our patterns of behaviour on the internet allows the company to better tailor its content for our feed. 

Second, the longer time we spend on our screen, the more ads we see, the more money the company makes by charging the vendors. 

To achieve the first goal, one of the main strategies companies use is AI based smart algorithms. Machine learning means you give the algorithm a goal and then it’ll figure out how to achieve it by itself. AI is also only as good as the data that it’s trained it on. Companies like Google and Facebook have huge data sets at their disposal, because of the vast number of their users from different countries spending lots of time online. This amounts to an unfathomable quantity of data. Modern algorithms accurately tailor social media feeds based on these patterns. By showing content we like frequently, they ensure we stay on the devices longer. Knowing this is very important, because this prevents us from believing that our social media feed is an accurate representation of the world. Once the false belief system takes hold, it makes us more partisan — to the level we cannot even consider having a discussion with people harbouring contrarian viewpoints. The lack of will to engage rationally with the other side is dangerous for public discourse. This is at the centre of exclusion, discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes based on gender, class and caste, ethnic and religious minorities. 

Additionally, most of the social media apps are designed based on the psychology of persuasion and more dangerously, addiction. In the 1930s, B.F. Skinner showed what we describe today as “operant learning”- animals repeat behaviours and learn a task when given a reward.  They don’t do this when the reward is taken away. However, when Skinner started to change the schedule of reward delivery, he found something striking.  When reward delivery follows a varied ratio interval (food pellet delivered after an uncertain number of lever presses), i.e. when the animals expect without knowing when they will be rewarded, they learn to repeat the task behaviour fastest. More importantly, even if the rewards are stopped entirely, they keep on pushing the lever. It showed that this type of learned behaviour is extremely difficult to extinguish. This is exactly the principle on which gambling and slot machines work: they keep the gambler on tenterhooks of expecting a win and in the process, they keep them playing and continue betting.

Both the brain pathways and the neurotransmitters that underlie such addictive behavior have been characterized in detail over the years.  Deep in our midbrain and brain stem sits a group of neurons that release dopamine, the pleasure chemical. This area is the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA). VTA neurons talk to another set of neurons hidden under the cerebral cortex- the nucleus accumbens, which in turn talks to the frontal part of the brain, where most important executive controls and decision making reside. Any natural rewards, such as food, pleasurable sex, or satiety, result in dopamine release at the Nucleus Accumbens, which through the cortex, causes the sensation of pleasure and reward. This is why we like to repeat what makes us feel good. Addiction hijacks this pathway, whether it is a chemical addiction such as cocaine or a physical addiction like gambling. These behaviors cause a massive upsurge in dopamine, much larger than physiological dopamine release. In seasoned addicts, the anticipation of reward releases twice as much dopamine than the actual reward. This biological phenomenon makes it hard to successfully abstain from addiction. 

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This is the mechanism that has been targeted by most tech companies. As the time spent with the devices is directly proportional to the ad revenues the companies earn, it favours the companies’ interests to make social media usage addictive. Hence, most elements of app design now use endless notifications, personalizing our feeds better everyday, and building in features like the answering bubble with moving dots when someone is replying. Most apps did not have this before. This is a classic example where the dopamine upsurge of anticipation is utilized. If this is a person of romantic interest or a recruitment manager, the anticipation of the reward can be more addictive than the reward itself. 

The fact that you pick up your phone and 25 minutes whoosh past isn’t random; it isn’t you. The anticipation of receiving curated content is arguably similar to a dopamine rush a gambling addict would get.

If this sounds far-fetched, take a simple test. Go device free for 24-48 hours. Lock them away. Track your mood changes, craving and general wellbeing and distress in this time. How irritable or uneasy are you? How much do you fear you are missing out or crave your device? Once you are able to get your device back, chart how long you have used it every day (all smartphones/tablets can tell you how much screen time you have had in a day). Now compare the usage from the 48 hours after abstinence to your regular usage. The mood charting shows how bad your social media habits are. 

 We survived fine till 2007 when smartphones were introduced. While our brains have evolved little over the past millennia, our environment has exploded over the past decades, especially in the online space. Biological evolution cannot keep up with the exponential evolution of technology. Therefore, spending too long on your devices makes you vulnerable to a range of health problems: poor eyesight, postural pains, lack of exercise etc. Also, engaging constantly with deeply disturbing content, even if they are on social justice issues, will inevitably start affecting your mental health and wellbeing. The world around is brutal and unfair. It is rife with discrimination and atrocities. While we should be aware of such inequalities, engaging with news all day can lead to a sense of loss of control over your life. All of these are good reasons to give yourself a periodic detox from social media. 

Given how all-pervasive social media is, where and how do we draw the line? Here are a few tips:

  1. Know that this is a world of your own creation. 

If you subscribe to viewpoint A, the apps curate your feeds with everything that reinforce A and negate all other viewpoints. You gravitate towards atrocities committed by members of anyone who does not subscribe to A and you behave as if the only reality in the world is understood by those who subscribe to A, and all others cannot be debated or even conversed with. Ultimately this makes the society more polarized. Arguably, this world is far more polarized than the world 40 years ago. Falling prey to believing the version of reality on your screens as absolute reality, you open yourself up to be easily manipulated to now indulge in hate speech, insensitivity, and sometimes, physical violence towards people whose views contradict yours. Listen to the contrarian view-points. Don’t allow one ideology to wholly dictate what you trust.

  1. Give yourself a digital detox every now and then. 

 When you’re not busy with work, limit your screen time.  When you go out with your friends for a much sought-after coffee, engage in conversations. Mutually agree to restrict mobile usage to 3-5 photos for the entire duration of the meet. Write physically in a journal every day. Exchange letters. Indulge in hobbies and activities that do not involve screens.  When you are on vacation, switch off your phone entirely. Activate an automatic email reply with the dates when you will return to work and the name of an interim person who can be reached out to if urgent. 

  1. Resist the temptation to document each moment of your life on social media. 

Besides adding to your digital footprint, this leads to unhealthy comparisons. Most people put their best foot forward on social media. Everyone posts pictures where they are doing something fun. Very few people post unhappy pictures on Instagram or write when they have a bad day at work on Facebook, yet negative things happen to all humans, every day. If we believe everything we see on feeds to be a true reflection of their lives, we buy into this idea that everyone has a perfect life, except, well, ourselves. This is not true. No one has a perfect life, and what people project on social media is often different from their real lives. So do not compare yourself to anyone on social media. Live your life as you want, without telling everyone about every moment of it. The “likes” only activate those short dopamine loops that provide instant gratification and are addictive. No amount of likes determine self-worth. So actively stop tying notions of self-worth with the likes and followers on social media. 

  1. Be a conscious consumer and not a prey to the influencer phenomenon. 

Social media can be used constructively. Collaborations, products and partnerships have evolved to its credit. If you are curating your own feed, use this awareness and the powerful AI behind apps to curate a feed that is good for you —  pages and channels that deliver creative content, help amplify positive messaging, promote mindfulness and healthy living. 

In that same vein, be picky about who you choose to follow as their content will make your curated feed, and likely only add similar content. We live in a country where influencers with millions of followers routinely promote misogyny, crass, classist, casteist, and majoritarian views. When you decide to follow an account,  try to determine the veracity of their claims. Do they cite data? What is the source? If you look at the data, does their conclusion make any sense? Never amplify something you have not fact checked before. There is a tremendous amount of misinformation in the post truth era. 

  1. General principles of sensible social media use

 Research has shown that constant social media usage leads to an inability to focus and restlessness. These directly affect professional or educational performance. A slew of productivity-based apps using the pomodoro technique (20 minutes for work followed by a 5-minute break) and restricting social media usage are available on all platforms and can be used for structuring the work day. The break can be used to do any activity that does not involve phones or computers. Outside work hours, make some rules for social media usage and stick to them. Turn notifications off for most apps except your calendar or reminders.  

Another effective rule is the “no phone at dinner and beyond” rule. Do not reach for your phone before sleep and as you open your eyes the next morning. Try holding off at least until after breakfast. These simple rules go a long way to ensure our internet usage stays under control.

While social media can foster a sense of community, it can also take away from face to face interactions which eventually raises a lot of concerns over your physical and mental health. Being conscious of that is relevant, simply because we cannot avoid it.

Simantini Ghosh is an Assistant Professor and PhD Coordinator for the Department of Psychology at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Am I my Map? Cartography and Reworking Identity

We live in states as docile citizens and take a lot of things for granted. There are many facets which directly affect our nation that we have never even thought about. Maps are one of them. 

The very creation of a map entails conceptualisation of borders and their representation. That is why maps are called ‘projections’. The idea is to take an orange peel (originally spherical) and spread it flat, it can never fit neatly into a rectangle without stretching, cutting and bending it. When an n-dimensional globe is reduced to a 2 dimensional image on paper, it will lose its precision. We do this exercise with the orange peel on a global scale (quite literally) whenever we make maps. 

We use maps in our daily lives. States use them to assert dominance and demarcate territory. In the process, we implicitly agree that the word ‘projection’ allows for distortions. On top of that, we understand that distortions are acceptable in any form of representation. The question here is exactly which distortions are we willing to accept?  

Knowing this, it is unfathomable that borders are sort of a given. The more robust your border, the more secure your national identity. This is why soldiers get stationed to harsh climates, fight over land which is uninhabitable (as in the case of Ladakh) and countries use their maps to assert influence. The question to ask is why does your national identity depend on a border you have never seen? 

We are all products of different identities– caste, class, gender, race; it’s just a matter of context which identity gets called upon at what time. With the nation state, the identity that gets called upon most often is that of the citizen. As Sankaran Krishna brings up in his work, Cartographic Anxiety, While we don’t relinquish our religious, linguistic or regional identity, they are rendered vestigial, at least for the time being. Cartography creates an ‘India’ on paper while simultaneously conversations, laws and political mechanisms create the ‘Indian’ in our minds. The existence of one serves as reinforcement for the other.

This conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; India has experienced threats to its borders from Pakistan, Nepal and China in the past couple of months. These are intrinsically tied to cartographic representation as maps become important for both escalation of conflict and its eventual disengagement relevant in the current context. 

Pakistan’s new map, as explained by Prime Minister Imran Khan, shows the aspirations of its  people as well as the people of Kashmir. For India, these aspirations mean showing the Indian territories of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and parts of Gujarat as disputed. The new map came as a response to India’s inclusion of areas like parts of POK and Gilgit-Baltistan in its own November 2019 map. While Pakistan claims to stand for the Kashmiri cause, India has called this battle of the maps “an exercise in political absurdity.” The map here is defining the state’s position but it’s also defining what national matters are because it defines where the nation begins and ends quite physically in a political imagination. 

In the case of Nepal, the new issue of the Indian map of November 2019 was exacerbated by another issue– the virtual inauguration of a road to Lipulekh by the Indian defence minister in May 2020. Nepal claimed that at least 17 kms of this road fell on its land. The issue gained traction in Nepali domestic politics as it saw protests with #BackOffIndia trending on social media. In the following month of June, Nepal’s Parliament approved a revised map showing the disputed areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as its own.

The root of the Nepal problem can be tied back to different interpretations of the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 which demarcates the origin of the Mahakali river as the natural boundary. The countries differ on the point of origin. We have inherited borders drawn by British colonial powers. India is anxious to cement them in areas such as the western front, and contest them at other fronts. 

India also shares a 3488 km long border with China. It is one of the longest disputed borders in the world. The current standoff at Galwan Valley deals, among other things, in occupying land that the two nations perceive to be theirs. It is a game of perceptions where ground reality matters little, simply because it would mean one side or the other giving up their claim. 

The three instances seen through this lens tell us one thing– there is a connect between military confrontation, people’s stance and map-making. 

Nations can allow their maps to engulf more territories but never to shrink. Looking at India and its neighbours, redrawing the map must be seen in light of people’s opinion and diplomatic arcs. Bookings Fellow Constantino Xavier said in an interview to Scroll “India cannot afford to think of permanent friends anymore in its neighbourhood.”

In conjunction to this question of maps, we need to ask ourselves if we are taking a top-down view of the border. Does the map matter beyond the concerns of the state for border populations, especially in the case of an open border like India and Nepal? While the focus was on India, the conversation around borders and maps is larger. Questions of identity become important in dealing with refugee crises, in camps deliberately placed outside legal boundaries and in treating people as foreign, alien and different.

Many mechanisms are used to reinforce our citizenship. The map is one of them, it imprints a visual image in our mind of where we belong. This is why people in Nepal protest Indian encroachment, and Indians break TVs at a call to boycott Chinese products in the climate of the standoff. Maps show you the state as a natural, ideal entity. By placing troops, defiling natural features and building walls among others, the state seeks to fit this ideal.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Liberalization at the Margins in Hard Times

Observing a world where the global momentum towards democracy is stalling, I asked in my book what donors can do to nudge aid recipients towards democracy. The audacity of the question stems from the fact that we are living in an era characterized by feckless democracies and resurgent authoritarianism.  These are hard times. If we are not to despair, we should examine our political constraints realistically. 

In democracy promotion, I argue we should take both the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients seriously. Unlike other approaches to democracy promotion, I do not assume donors value democracy promotion as much as they say they do. Neither for that matter do I assume that authoritarian regimes will give up power voluntarily. The reforms that donors seek are painful for autocrats. Which self-respecting dictator will voluntarily give up power? Instead of democratization, our smart autocrat can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions in exchange for the desired aid. This means some recipients like Egypt, will have leverage against the West and are effectively immune to donor pressure to liberalize. I label such countries, “primary recipients” in my book. Primary recipients can push back and as such are not suitable targets for democracy promotion. It also implies that some recipients, like Fiji, will lack the attributes to make counteroffers attractive enough to the aid donors. I label this group the “secondary recipients” in my book.  Secondary recipients, precisely because they have little else to offer to donors, are more likely to liberalize in exchange for the needed aid. Notice what have been theoretically achieved, I just spelt out a path that works around both the disinterest by democratic donors and the resistance by authoritarian recipients for focusing on the leverage of recipients. If my theory is correct, it follows that a strategy of targeting secondary recipient is a way to promote democracy. 

A not uncommon response to this strategy is to assert that it has been invalidated by the Trump administration, with its lack of interest in democracy promotion. Behind this stance is a sense that Trump’s foreign policy is radically different from those held by previous American presidents.

When evaluating foreign policies of any country, it is important to go beyond their rhetoric and look at their actual behavior. A politician, a country or any actor can claim a commitment to a lofty goal. It does not mean they will allocate the resources necessary to realize such goals. The verbal commitment is cheap talk. The actual spending of resource is a costly signal. We focus on the later. It is true that Trump’s foreign policy does not follow traditional Republican principles such as the promotion of free-market capitalism, democracy and the liberal world order. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is an eclectic mix of realism, protectionism and personal expediency.  Under this approach, any deal is judged acceptable so long as the US or Trump himself personally benefits more than the other negotiating party. 

Trump’s approach is also distinctive in that he is indifferent to the identity (read regime-type) of his negotiating partners. Liberal democracies are treated no different from authoritarian regimes. Long standing NATO allies (such as Germany, France) and trade partners (Canada, Mexico) have to pay their share or they risk US tariffs. Trump demonstrated a personal affinity for populist leaders (including Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, and Hungary’s Orban) and found common course with authoritarian leaders (notably Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim and Saudi Arabia’s MBS). Authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that provide tangible benefits to the US (or to him personally) were given a free pass in human rights abuse and democratic backsliding.   

These imperatives of Trump do not consider the secondary consequences for the international order or the impact on the US credibility as an ally. The result is predictable. William Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer, and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made the following memorable observation: 

For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing (Foreign Affairs 2019). 

This verdict is devastating for US prestige, what does it imply for democracy promotion?  The key is to recognize Trump’s foreign policy is transactional. Under Trump, every relationship of the US, regardless of whether they are with democracies or autocracies, has to offer value to the US in direct monetizable terms. Primary recipients, by definition, have lots to offer to aid donors. They, by virtue of their policy concession to the US, remain unsuitable targets for democracy promotion – just as my theory predicts. More importantly, secondary recipients, who have less leverage because they have little to offer to donors, remain the group that is more suitable for democracy promotion.  

It is plausible that recipients who have no direct monetary value to the US might fall beneath the attention of the White House. This may allow for aid agencies such as the US Agency International Development (USAID) to work behind the scenes and quietly push for liberalization.   

If, by way of a counterfactual, I had argued that there was a time when the US values democracy promotion above all, then the current Trump administration would present a severe challenge since they prioritize interests that are immediately monetizable.

Instead, I observe that the US is not that invested in democracy promotion, if doing so entails the sacrifice of other strategic or commercial interests. The Trump administration, as negative as it has been for democracy promotion, does not represent a fundamental break with the past behavior of the US (recall the distinction on costly signals); there was simply no Golden Age of democracy promotion to harken back to. A transactional US does not fundamentally alter a strategy of liberalization at the margins. This holds true even if Trump wins a second presidential term

The bad news is that “we the people” do not care enough about international democracy promotion to prioritize it over other policy concessions we might get. We have to recognize the political limits, such as they are, and work around them. The good news is that there is a way forward.  We can filter recipients by their leverage. This suggests a focus on secondary recipients as the path to democracy promotion. Liberalization at the Margins, as it were. 

Bann Seng Tan is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His first book is on the strategic use of foreign aid in democracy promotion (

*The author retains copyright over this article

Issue 2

A Vote for America’s Soul

Since 2016, American politics and governance have been marked by a disappointing lack of trust in institutions, both international and domestic. Now, amidst the pandemic and during the run-up to the presidential elections, most of the world has been looking at the United States with a mix of shock, bewilderment and exasperation. Even as the diminution of America’s image and it’s power began before the pandemic, it has come into sharp focus this year. The country’s reputation seems to be in a free-fall. The perception of the USA seems to be that of a first-world country increasingly acting like a third-world country. A Pew Research Center poll of 13 countries (such as Japan, Australia, and Germany and Canada) found that its populations have been looking at the United States in its most negative light in many years. In all the countries surveyed, most respondents thought that the United States was botching its pandemic response.

As a candidate starting in 2015, President Donald Trump prioritized “America First”, in what he promised would be the “major and overriding theme” of his administration. By doing so, he pushed for nationalist, and anti-interventionist policies at the global stage. Nearly five years later, it is evident that we are now living through arguably one of the worst presidencies in modern history. For Trump, “America First” seems to stand for Trump first, America second, and Americans all alone. Starting with the global financial crisis, and exacerbated by the stewardship of Donald Trump, the USA evidently no longer occupies the position of the undisputed leader of the free world. International accords have been snubbed, policy agreements have been left unsigned all in the name of an America First policy. In 2017, the US pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate deal, originally signed by 196 countries, to widespread condemnation. Donald Trump also weakened NATO by not publicly announcing USA’s compliance with Article 5 of it’s charter. His refusal to support the idea of collective defence commitment shook the base of the military alliance. The culmination of the last 4 years, compounded by the gross mismanagement of the pandemic, is that the status and power that American citizens have enjoyed is rapidly waning. Commensurately, the passport of the United States has lost the enviable status it once enjoyed, with a large swathe of countries disallowing American citizens. President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has automatically implicated US citizens with his racist and anti-science perspective. 

Within America itself, the presidency and Mr. Trump’s businesses have lost logical and moral separation. He makes money by visiting his own golf resort in Mar-a-Lago as a sitting President. The Trump International Hotel in Washington has become a meeting site for conservative politicians and lobbyists, for those currying favor in Republican halls of power. Donald Trump’s reluctance to release his Income Tax returns, and the subsequent leak by the New York Times paint a worrying picture of his financial liabilities, amounting to more than 420 million dollars. The President has reportedly only paid taxes in 11 out of the 15 years with available data. In 2016 and 2017, he only paid 750$ in Federal taxes. Additionally, The Justice Department has been transformed from a public affairs apparatus to a partisan instrument of the administration. William Barr, the Attorney General has taken strides to diminish the reputation of his department, one that is supposed to be a legitimate arm of the government that seeks public trust. As the commander-in-chief, Trump has also repeatedly disparaged the military and servicemen, calling them “sore losers”.

Worryingly, Mr. Trump refuses to commit to the American populace a peaceful transition of power after November 3rd, raising fears that he would mount an unprecedented effort to wield power after an electoral loss, leading the nation into unchartered territory at a historical moment defined by national and international tensions. Poll predictions of the race have remained steady, with Biden continuing to hold a significant lead. This has been sustained through all sorts of turbulent developments and drama that are characteristic of Donald Trump. 

Joe Biden’s electoral campaign has been centered around a referendum on Donald Trump. Through a 47-year long career as a Senator, Joe Biden has had a mixed record on issues, and has hardly been progressive. His redemption, however, comes with his willingness to consult, listen to and follow through with the advice of experts on issues ranging from healthcare and climate change, to policing reforms. The Democratic Party continues to deliver searing moral rebukes of Trump’s 4 year tenure in the White House, a stance that doesn’t seem far removed from the truth. Delivering to Donald Trump 8 years at the helm of the country will result in fundamentally altering the idea of America. His personal contempt for American values and institutions might convince Americans that democracy and checks of power do not work. The scary implications of a second Trump term justify this election as a test of America’s moral pulse, the trajectory of the country, and the world. 

The triumphs of globalization seem to be firmly in the past. Countries across the world are struggling with widening inequality and mercantilist impulses. Isolationist stances by leaders are becoming common. Democracy and its institutions seem to be in a decline across the world, and nationalism is apparently the flavour of the day. International institutions, the bastions of a coordinated global society are paralyzed by those initially championing them, by too much bureaucracy and evidently too little investment. All this is occurring as the clock of climate change ticks at an accelerating rate. To navigate this, the United States will need to move beyond the recklessness emblematic of this administration. America still has the world’s strongest military, the most influential economy, widest-ranging alliance system, and with it the most potent soft power in the world. However, a reinvention is needed to figure out America’s role in the world. That begins with the election of 2020, and recognizing it as a vote for the soul of the country.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

National Digital Health Mission & Privacy: Should we be worried?

On the 15th of August, Prime Minister Modi announced the new National Digital Health Mission and its pilot launch in six government territories. According to the policy draft, this new mission will radically change healthcare – lowering cost, increasing transparency, and bringing healthcare services even to the most remote corners of the country. However, ever since its announcement, many have been voicing privacy concerns. 

While some believe that this will be a revolutionary change to India’s Healthcare system, making all things healthcare easier than ever before, others argue that such a program is unnecessary and distracts us from real issues. According to the Indian Medical Association, such a plan may distract us from real problems such as the lack of sufficient and proper medical health structure. The association also said that strengthening public health infrastructure and addressing social determinants of health should be our priority right now, and the new plan will possibly divert funds from these issues, further jeopardizing public health care. The biggest concern, however, is confidentiality and privacy. 

Confidentiality and health privacy of patients is one of the most fundamental principles of Healthcare. This is not only to protect the patient from any kind of stigma and discrimination but also to establish trust between health facilitators and patients. Another important cause for this is the idea of self-ownership and bodily integrity; as rightful owners of our bodies, only we have the right to own our biological data and decide with whom our data is shared. The Digital health mission repeatedly emphasizes its stringent security and consent-based shared guidelines on the policy document but many still believe that the national health mission could pose a grave threat to the privacy and security of citizens. 

One reason behind this is the numerous privacy breaches of the past. With data as sensitive as this, how can we trust the government to believe the same will not happen again? The Aadhaar, for example, has been a subject of data leaks on far too many occasions, yet there is still no accountability from the government. Furthermore, if our Health IDs will be connected to our Aadhaar, the risks of our personal health data being accessed and misused by an unauthorized person or entity further increase. Similarly, with the Aarogya Setu app, there was no transparency on whether data collected was being deleted after patients recovered and how the app functions on the phone due to the code not being open source. 

Another area of concern is the possibility of our health data sold off to private companies. According to the National Health Data Management policy, anonymized, de-identified, and aggregated data may be made available to organizations (page 21). In the past year alone, there has been an explosion in the number of cases of big tech and pharma companies collecting personal health data. The NHS was found to be providing data to Amazon, Google bought the health records of 50 million Americans from insurance companies, and pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline paid DNA testing company $300 million for customer data. Big companies are chasing after our data, and with the implementation of the National Digital Health Mission, India might become a new market for getting such data. 

Big tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple are collecting health data for the use of building their own AI Health technologies. While these AI health technologies could prove to be highly useful and beneficial in the future, there are still concerns about whether these companies are using this data ethically. For example, last year when Google bought personal data from insurance companies and medical institutions in the USA, we found that even though those records were stripped of identifying details such as name, contact information. Google combined these records with the information Google already had from the database. This included all personal information collected form smartphones that could easily establish the identity of the patient’s medical records. This is not just true for big tech companies, research has shown that even anonymous information can be easily re-identified, even if data sold is anonymized and aggregated. How do we know that big tech companies will only use this research as they claim, and not for profit? Although tech companies say this data will only be used for research, an anonymous whistleblower has claimed Google does use this data to mine patient information, run analytics and then sell this data to third parties to be able to target healthcare ads based on the patient’s medical history. 

The truth is that there is no guarantee of how this data will be used. Although personalized healthcare ads might be a relatively light issue, we cannot even comprehend how this data could be used and what harm it could cause to us in the worst-case scenarios. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one example of how our data was used against us to sway elections. With our sensitive health data involved and big tech companies beginning to work on AI based healthcare, the implications of possible data misuse could be even graver. 

Besides big tech companies, pharmaceutical and insurance companies are chasing after our medical data. Pharmaceutical companies have also been found to use digital record-keeping systems in hospitals to gather information and use it to sell drugs. There are also some findings that insurance companies are beginning to gather data on race, marital status, how much TV you watch, and even the size clothing you wear. With our entire medical history available, insurance companies would have more power than ever before, patients could be denied health coverage or be charged higher based on their medical history or even one’s genetic data. 

While it is true that digitizing the healthcare ecosystem in India could be beneficial for streamlining healthcare, the privacy concerns are difficult to ignore. Along with bringing transparency and accessibility, it also opens new doors for data misuse and possible stigma and discrimination. Without a data protection law in place and actual technological infrastructure to protect our data, the implementation of this project is dangerous. 

Aradhya is a psychology major at Ashoka University. In her free time you’ll find her reading books, drinking chai and cycling at odd hours.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Give Me Liberty, COVID, or Cow Urine

Before 2020 the idea of the world coming together against a large-scale disaster was placed in the distant future, possibly once climate change had an apocalyptic effect. Natural disasters were far more localised, with only parts of the world being affected at any given point in time. The rest of the world stayed unaffected and in a position to provide support to affected areas. COVID-19 changed that. Suddenly, entire countries, and to some extent, the entire world had to come together to successfully control the disease. And we as a society proved our inability to do so. People around the globe continue to deny the dangers and at times even the existence of this virus which has already claimed more than 1 million lives.

Handling a disease at policy and personal levels requires a certain scientific temperament. One needs to accept advice from expert sources and follow safety measures. The basic prerequisite to this is believing in scientific evidence. In the current scenario, one can observe a lack of this temperament with too many Americans openly defying safety measures and even denying the existence of the virus. How do we understand Americans denying the virus even as their country has registered the highest number of COVID deaths in the world?

April 2020 saw widespread anti-lockdown protests across America. In Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states, protesters called their Governor a tyrant and compared her to Hitler.  Almost all the protests called for freedom, with slogans like “Give me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” and “Freedom over fear”. Protestors ranged from those simply wanting to reopen businesses to COVID-deniers and anti-maskers. The general sentiment amongst the protestors was that stay-at-home orders and the closure of businesses were un-American because they did not respect individual choice and liberty and that the economy could not be threatened for public safety.

A common thread among these protestors was their political orientation — they were overwhelmingly conservative. Almost all the protests had Pro-Trump and MAGA posters, guns and confederate signs, and even anti-abortion signs. President Donald Trump praised these protestors, as people who “love our country”. 

Political Psychology may hold the answer to why these people underplaying the crisis were largely conservative. Decades of research on personality types has led to an understanding of conservatives as people who are fearful of change, of unfamiliar people and places. They try to maintain a sense of familiarity and comfort by following rules But by this logic conservatives should be more inclined to following government guidelines for COVID control.

Needless to say, there is a lot more nuance to the connection between our scientific temperament and political ideologies. A 2013 poll found that while liberals believed in the primacy of science during the policymaking process, conservatives were more moderate in their approach towards science. Additionally, there is a divide in the kinds of scientists either sides prefer and by extension the issues on which they will regard scientific advice as important and necessary. Liberals trust scientists involved in areas of regulation, like public health and environmental science while conservatives prefer those involved in economic production — food scientists and petroleum geologists for example. 

These nuances can help us better understand the reaction of conservatives towards COVID-19. ABC News has quoted a Michigan conservative leader as saying “bankrupting the state is not going to cure this virus.” Another protestor is quoted saying “…I don’t think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe.” As we can infer from the studies, conservatives are inclined towards economic interests and are not very trusting of public health experts. They are thus more concerned with protecting their businesses, even when they acknowledge the threat posed by the virus. They are also inclined towards protecting the law and thus extremely protective of their constitutional rights, which they feel are being threatened by impositions of lockdown. It isn’t a case of dismissing science as much as it is a case of misplaced priorities.

The most important factor influencing conservatives is political propaganda. Conservative news outlets, politicians and most importantly President Donald Trump have been consistently underplaying or outrightly denying the virus, touting it as a Chinese or Democrat conspiracy to undermine Trump’s rule by crushing the economy. The virus has become a political issue rather than a scientific one. Human beings have a tendency to think emotionally more than logically. It has also been found that one can be persuaded of anything if the correct language is used, and if exposure to any kind of information is high. When one is exposed to such propaganda, one has an emotional instead of rational response to it and will be prone to believing it if it fits with one’s values. Since conservatives are being told that the virus is a conspiracy to undermine their leader, they believe this over their already weak scientific beliefs. Political propaganda and a desire to fit in has ultimately won over scientific temperament in conservatives.

It is interesting to examine India’s scientific temperament in its reaction to COVID. While American conservatives undermined the virus to align with and protect their political leaders and beliefs, Indians acted in a very different manner for similar ends. In recent times, India has become increasingly conservative with a rise in Hindu-nationalism. These ideas follow from the nationalist ideologies of the ruling political party, the BJP. PM Narendra Modi of the BJP has enjoyed immense popularity in recent years and has gained the support of a majority of conservative and right-wing groups in the country. 

Unlike Trump, Modi insisted on the dangers of the virus and the necessity for a nationwide lockdown. In his speech announcing the ‘Jantacurfew’ in India in March, he asserted, “one step outside can make way for coronavirus into your house” and “Experts are saying that ‘social distancing’ is the only way to tackle coronavirus”. His response created a sense of fear about the virus. His supporters followed his advice, but this had more to do with their trust in him than with their scientific temperament. 

This was apparent in the paranoia that followed. While Modi simply insisted on the importance of following safety guidelines, paranoia around the virus was at its peak despite the number of cases being at a few thousand. There were reports of people denying cremations to COVID patients and ostracising the ones that lived. Doctors and nurses were forcibly evicted by landlords. These behaviours continued even after the government issued notices asking the public to fight the disease and not the diseased. Unlike American conservatives whose fear was expressed through denying the virus, Indians reacted with heightened fear responses.

In addition to paranoia, scientific temperament was challenged by the government promoting traditional medicine. There were countless WhatsApp forwards about alternative medicines claiming approval from the WHO. These ranged from “Kadhas” (broths) of turmeric, honey, black pepper, cloves and every popular ingredient used by Indians to treat common colds. There were claims of methylxanthines, found in tea, declared as a cure by the Chinese doctor responsible for raising alarm about COVID early on in Wuhan. Using the WHO and names of chemicals helped legitimise these myths. Union AYUSH Minister Shripad Naik stated that COVID-19 can be treated by Ayurveda and that 60-70 percent of COVID cases in India were cured by Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha prescribed home remedies. He claimed that Ayurveda would boost one’s immunity and prevent the virus from attacking. A peculiar solution was found in cow urine, which was said to strengthen lymphocytes in the blood and be rich in antioxidants. The cow is considered holy in Hinduism and is being used as a violently nationalist symbol by the Indian right, with a leader claiming touching one helped cure her cancer. COVID gave these groups another opportunity to promote the cow. Thus followed cow urine-drinking parties organised by senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha. The consumption of cow urine surged to 6000 litres per day in the state of Gujarat.

Like the cow, Ayurveda and Indian home remedies have also been used as a political tool to claim the supremacy of Indian, specifically Hindu culture and tradition. The BJP and the Indian right have been trying to invoke pride in an ancient Indian history that is rooted in Hinduism, before the “invasion” by Mughals and the British, to increase nationalistic pride.

In the USA, scientific temperament was challenged by a preference for economic stability by conservatives, and by Republicans to protect the reputation of their leader Donald Trump as a saviour of the American economy. The Indian right used traditional medicine as a tool to battle coronavirus and further nationalistic sentiments. Whatever the end goal, the casualty was the same — the death of scientific temperament.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).