Narendra Modi should not encourage obscurantism now

In the name of fighting the coronavirus, Modi should not encourage obscurantism

Crises like these are opportunities to elevate the scientific temper of people; the fight against COVID-19 should not become another opportunity to rally people who solely respond to the call of religious issues

Narendra Modi file photo (Reuters Photo)

At 10.17 pm on Tuesday March 24, Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath tweeted a video in which he followed up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day lockdown order asking every citizen of the state to follow the guidelines. The Yogi asked people to stay at home and maintain social distance.

At 4.44 am on Wednesday, March 25, he tweeted a 46.48-minute long video with a three-word caption: “aaj Ayodhya mein (today in Ayodhya).” It was a hastily shot video of the entire process of shifting the Ram Lalla idol from the tent-like structure, built after the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, to another temporary structure a short distance away. The idol will remain here till the new temple is constructed when the idol will be finally installed there.

The video showed Adityanath leading prayers with many prominent Hindu religious leaders from the town in attendance. Senior government officials, including Ayodhya's district magistrate and the police chief, were in tow, fawning over the chief minister.

The video, which included an almost 12-minute long speech of the Yogi, depicted people practising social proximity, clearly in violation of the order issued after Modi's speech. The official directive stated: "All places of worship shall be closed for public. No religious congregation will be permitted, without any exception." 

Adityanath also declared that the shifting of the idol marked the beginning of the first phase of the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. This ceremony was previously to have been held during Ram Navami celebrations in the temple town but was advanced without prior public information.

Since the night of March 24, the UP Police – this writer is a resident of the state – has been announcing that stringent action shall be taken against those who violate the order. Certainly one does not expect the police to take action against the chief minister especially when it involves the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the primary reason for the BJP being India's dominant political party.

This incident, however, is not just about a gung ho Hindu nationalist politician sensing a bigger role for him at some point in the discernible future. Adityanath's insistence on completing the process of shift in the idol from the tent location to this temporary structure is symptomatic of the space given to religious sentiment at a time when the nation is locked in a war that it can expect to win only by harnessing medical science and technology and by marshalling all other available scientific forces. 

Crises like these are opportunities to elevate the scientific temper of people and not to push them deeper into the black hole of obscurantism. Future historians when they recount events and visuals of these times wouldn't be able to ignore images showcasing the fervour with which people were banging plates, clanging bells, marching through the streets and shouting, "Go corona go." If there were medallions for the most appalling public act during a national crisis, it should be awarded to Union minister Ramdas Athawale, the person who reduced the fight against the pandemic to a ludicrous level by chanting the mantra.

In some ways, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spawned the biggest ever collective display of obscurantist behaviour. Wednesday was the third day in succession after the Janata curfew on March 22 that the 'taali-thaali gang', as they have been dubbed, were in their balconies and in common spaces of apartments and colonies blowing conches, ringing bells and banging plates. It is no longer an expression of gratitude for those engaged in the frontiers of the war against a deadly virus or even an endorsement of Modi's leadership. It is nothing but sheer blind faith to believe that shankhadhwani, temple bells and vedic chants will drive away the virus.

There can be no bigger paradox than the fight against the pandemic which requires marshalling the most dedicated scientific minds, being fought alongside by hordes with plates and bells in their hands. If the selfless perseverance of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel – sadly, they have been targeted by neighbours and landlords for bringing the disease closer by tending to people possibly afflicted with COVID-19 – requires a round of applause, the one fanning obscurantism needs condemnation.

The reason that both have been promoted, in a way by Modi himself, is because while the prime minister in him requires the finest medical hands to be on the hazardous job round-the-clock, the politician in him needs the support of people who are driven by blind faith and rally purely on the call of religious issues. This is what explains why it was essential for Adityanath to make the nocturnal visit to Ayodhya and complete all rituals before the crack of dawn. 

But the co-existence of scientific temper and irrational faith in rituals and powers of divinity to kill viruses provides an occasion to recall a piece of satire written in the late 1980s at the height of excitement over Rajiv Gandhi's call to Indians to prepare for the twenty-first century. The piece painted an imaginary scene of a newspaper office in December 1999. The chief reporter asked a lackadaisical reporter for a story on people's preparations for the twenty-first century. 

On December 31 with no story insight, the cub-reporter was tersely informed – either resignation or report by evening. People were unwilling to speak through the day, busy as they were with last-minute checks for the transition. Resigned to fate, close to the entry of the office, the young journalist came upon a person with a small bag. 

He too was ready for the 21st Century but with just a laptop and Hanuman Challisa. Why is this combination?

Because, he would do all his work with the computer and if it went wrong, the religious text was there to repair it!

Three-and-half decades later, not much has changed. Indians have geared up to face the COVID-19 challenge with a mobile and the thaali-ghanti combo. If you don’t have the latter, two hands will suffice. Just clap!

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))  

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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