Akshay Deshmane reported for The Morning Context on October 20 that the Union environment ministry has reversed two important decisions it made earlier this year: (a) to invite private law firms to help amend the Indian Forest Act 1927 and (b) to oppose the Delhi high court’s directive to translate the new draft EIA notification to 22 languages and extend its public consultation deadline to December this year. These are both major U-turns in the sense that the original decisions were both obviously anti-democratic and had the government’s unwavering support, so to walk back on them is to admit that the government’s original stance on both counts was wrong.
Now, I’m of the firm belief that India is currently ruled not by a government but by an autocrat at the very top who likes to be seen pulling the ministerial strings when things go right but pushes some sod forward when things go sideways. I concede that this has pretty much been an ex post facto rationalisation, but it fits the facts every time and also draws some support from the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his fingers not in some pies but in every pie. This would entail a certain failure rate – as would be statistically typical, as is normal – but if the government’s press releases and communiqués and ministers’ speeches are to be believed, he has never screwed up. Never. The incumbent government is also incapable of making any decision without his express approval, if not being entirely of his office’s initiative.
In this context, it’s notable that between making the two decisions and admitting that they were wrong, in July 2021, Prime Minister Modi reshuffled the Union cabinet, replacing a glut of ministers – and apparently also giving himself room to rethink some decisions without requiring a mea culpa or, at least and as has become so common, retaining plausible deniability. Among the new lot was Bhupender Yadav, brought in to replace Prakash Javadekar as the environment minister. And it was Yadav’s office that announced it wouldn’t challenge the Delhi high court and that it wouldn’t continue with the process to have private firms amend an important legal instrument.
Would the ministry, and the minister, have been so brave as to admit wrongdoing while they were still in the same office? Unlikely; it has seldom happened before. Would the prime minister have been so brave as to admit wrongdoing? Ha!
A similar thing happened with the outgoing health minister Harsh Vardhan and the incoming Mansukh Mandaviya, who said shortly after his new appointment that the health ministry didn’t do enough against India’s second COVID-19 outbreak in April-May this year. There’s no reason to stop believing that the prime minister is still pulling the strings, and there’s no reason to stop believing that he will continue to ‘prove’ he’s always right.
There is a famous comedy scene in Tamil cinema, starring the actors Vadivelu and ‘Bonda’ Mani. Those who understand Tamil should skip this awkward retelling – intended for non-Tamil speakers, to the video below and the post after. Vadivelu has blood all over his face due to an injury when ‘Bonda’ Mani walks up to him and asks why he’s got tomato chutney all over his face. Vadivelu looks stunned, and punches ‘Bonda’ Mani on the nose. Mani reaches a finger to his nose to find blood and cries out that he’s bleeding. Then Vadivelu asks, “If I have red stuff on my face it’s tomato chutney, but on your face it’s blood, eh?”
It would seem Vadivelu spoke what he did for many millions of us today wondering how exactly the Indian government designed its unique response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. One of the centrepieces of its response has been to punish journalists, by shutting them down or in many cases slapping them with nothing less than sedition charges, when journalists are critical of the government or seem to be asking uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, pseudoscientific claims that can directly cause harm, what with us being in the middle of a health emergency, are let off without so much as a slap on the wrist when they’re pronounced by journalists in pro-right-wing newsrooms or – as it often happens – by ministers in the government itself.
Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, has told NDTV that he believes the novel coronavirus was not natural and that it was made in a lab. Another BJP member, this one a state-level office-bearer, had some time back said something similarly idiotic, prompting a rare rebuke from Union minister Prakash Javadekar. But I doubt Javadekar is going to mete the same treatment out to Gadkari – his equal, so to speak – in public, and it’s what’s in the public domain that matters. So if there’s red stuff all over a journalist’s face, it’s tomato chutney, even if it’s actually blood. But on a minister’s face, it’s always blood even when it’s actually tomato chutney. And the government and its foot-soldiers have conditioned themselves as well as >30% of the country to follow this rule.
Second, NDTV is also complicit in the ignorance, irresponsibility and recklessness on display here because its report simply says Gadkari said what he did, without so much as a note mentioning that he’s wrong. The reason is that what Gadkari, Javadekar – who recently vowed to “expose” those who ranked India poorly in press-freedom indices – and their colleagues, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, have done is hack journalism, at least journalism as it used to be practiced, with editors and reporters stubborn about not taking sides.
This culture of journalism was valid when, simply put, all political factions advanced equally legitimate arguments. And according to Modi et al, his government and colleagues are also advancing arguments that are as legitimate as – often if not more legitimate than – those in the opposition. But there’s often plain and simple evidence that these claims are wrong, often rooted in scientific knowledge (which is why Modi et al have been undermining “Western science” from the moment they assumed power in 2014). Journalists can’t treat both sides as equals anymore – whether they be the Left and the Right, the conservatives and the liberals or the progressives and the dogmatists – because one side, whether by choice or fate, has incorporated pseudoscience into its political ideals.
Now, sans a note that Gadkari is really spouting rubbish and that we have enough evidence to reject the idea that it was human-made and accept that it evolved naturally, NDTV is not – as it may believe – staying neutral as much as being exploited by Gadkari as a way to have his words amplified. NDTV is effectively complicit, bringing Gadkari’s unqualified nonsense to millions of its readers, many of them swayed as much by the authority and political beliefs of the claimant as others are by the weight or paucity of evidence.
Indeed, the news channel may itself be consciously playing to both sides: (i) those who know exactly why the minister and others who make such claims are wrong, joined increasingly by unthinkers who need to and do say fashionable things without understanding why what they’re saying is right (often the same people that place science in wrongful opposition to religion, social science and/or tradition); and (ii) the allegedly disenfranchised folks paranoid about everything that isn’t Indian and/or homegrown, and have since become unable to tell cow urine from a medicinal solution.
 I read some time ago that Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to god if he died and came face to face with an almighty creator. Russell, a famous skeptic of various religious beliefs, apparently said he would accuse god of not providing enough evidence of the latter’s existence. I don’t know if this story is true but Russell’s argument, as claimed, makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? In the context of Gadkari’s comment, and Luc Montagnier’s before him, complete evidence differs significantly from sufficient evidence., and it’s important to account for sufficiency in arguments concerning the novel coronavirus as well. For example, the people who believe the novel coronavirus originated in a lab are called conspiracy theorists not because they have an alternative view – as they often claim in defence – but because most of their arguments use the fallacy of the converse: that if there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove the virus evolved in nature, it must have originated in a lab. Similarly, I and many others are comfortable claiming the virus evolved naturally because there is sufficient evidence to indicate that it did. For the same reason, I also think I and many others can be proven wrong only if new information emerges.
Featured image: Union minister Nitin Gadkari, 2014. Credit: Press Information Bureau.