Democracies are facing an unprecedented threat of fake news, disinformation and propaganda. Under the rapid rise of populist, right-wing, and majoritarian ethno-nationalist movements, the concepts of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ have taken a sustained beating as have science and expertise in various domains — academics, journalism, films, and so on. Anti-intellectualism or the ‘generalised distrust of experts and intellectuals’ has, thus, become the norm.
India is no exception to this.
Under this Hindu nationalist government, established notions of scholarship and expertise have been subject to populist attacks in fields ranging from science to history. Thus, we have claims of ancient India possessing such technologies as plastic surgery, the internet, stem cell therapy and the aeroplane. Such claims have been made by high State functionaries. Apparently, what matters is only majoritarian ‘opinion’ and ‘belief’; not knowledge claims accepted through universally established protocols. This is best illustrated by Narendra Modi’s sarcastic comment that “hard work is more powerful than Harvard” (in the context of Amartya Sen’s criticism of demonetisation).
This anti-intellectualism becomes even more drastic when it is Western expertise that subjects India to scrutiny. Whether it is the BBC documentary on Gujarat 2002, The New York Times’ coverage of Covid19, The Lancet’s research on excess coronavirus deaths or V-Dem Institute’s reports on the decline in democracy’s indicators, the response is a scathing dismissal of the credibility of these institutions. More worryingly, these criticisms are seen as part of a ‘Western propaganda’ or a ‘colonial mindset’ targeting the whole of India. Facts and truth in themselves have no place in the discourse when political populism and its minders take over the function of determining what knowledge is, this time under the guise of countering Western colonialism. It does not matter that the BBC is among the most trusted news sources in the world or that The New York Times pursues the highest standards in journalism. This is not to suggest that these reputed institutions cannot make mistakes or are free of typical Western biases. What is revealing is that their claims are not refuted on the basis of reasoning and supporting evidence. Instead, the response always is that there is a grand conspiracy by a Western cabal against India. This universe of ‘alternative facts’ must also ignore history. The BBC played a stellar role in bringing the truth of the India-Pakistan war of 1971. It must also ignore expertise, like that of the acclaimed Israeli filmmaker, Nadav Lapid, who had described The Kashmir Files as “vulgar propaganda”.
This is the crisis that anti-intellectualism has spawned. There is a complete breakdown in the shared understanding of what constitutes facts and norms and how to access them. As the philosopher, Bruno Latour, argued, “facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media”. But the conditions for a common culture, the fostering of trust, and democratic deliberation are dissipating under relentless populist and demagogic attacks on established knowledge mechanisms through techniques that researchers say are creating confusion by repeating lies, fear-mongering, gaslighting and so on.
Ironically, ‘fake news’ has been appropriated by authoritarian leaders themselves to castigate critical commentary about their democracy record. Donald Trump had accused CNN of peddling fake news; the BBC, similarly, has become the fount of fake news for Hindu nationalists.
Yet, Hindu nationalism is also in a cleft stick. As much as it sees Western expertise as targeting India, it also hankers after recognition from it. The makers of The Kashmir Files falsely — and bizarrely— claimed to be on the Oscars shortlist.
Despite these contradictions, the widespread, regime-backed anti-intellectualism and the resultant knowledge crisis in one of the largest democracies would have severe global consequences.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada