Why Indian Bioethicists Must Take an Anti-Hindutva Stand
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
- W. B. Yates, The Second Coming
In times when religion and medicine are being increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin, bioethicists in India must speak up. PM Modi’s government has used the pandemic to strengthen its hold on Indian society. Religious cleavages are deeper than ever in society as the calls for genocide become more frequent, and the Union government has done little to stop them. Rather, the political ideology of Hindutva that powers Modi’s politics seeks to hold on to power by fanning religious tensions. At the heart of the Hindutva project, has been this belief that science and religion in ancient India were the same. A belief that some Hindus today still hold to be true, according to a Pew Survey. But since the advent of Modi and the BJP, this belief has deepened and has become formalised through a Ministry established under the government of India as the next section will demonstrate. This Hindutva project, at its heart, seeks to conflate science and superstition, to create a spurious equivalence between theology and science. At the same time, there is vehement opposition to critical thinking skills that seek to test the limits of these claims. These religiously motivated pseudoscientific claims are now finding space in funding decisions, including that of clinical trials. The government has fallen into encouraging these claims through the Ministry of AYUSH which has become disastrous for India’s pandemic response. Every citizen has fundamental duty to promote scientific temper- a duty which is grounded in Article 51A (h) of the Constitution of India. But bioethicists have an additional duty, as moral philosophers with training in science, on themselves to call out jingoism and religious dogmatism in medicine and actively oppose pseudoscience.
However, pseudoscience becomes extremely dangerous when the health benefits of cow urine and cow dung which in the past could have been a source of humour have become risky for human life by permitting ayurvedic doctors to perform surgeries. In 2014, the Government of India created a separate Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha. And Homeopathy) to regulate and bring traditional cures for various illnesses into the mainstream. Since then, these alternative and non-conventional forms of medicine, some of which are rooted in Hindu theology have continued to be publicised and propagated. They are characterised by an absolute lack of evidence and mindlessness of best practices and ethics. The ministry is backed by the government and the Hindu scripture but is devoid of scientific backing. It has also faced stringent opposition from Indian Medical Association. Notably, when the minister of AYUSH himself got sick, he was admitted to an allopathic hospital, while citizens are asked to opt-in for alternative medicine. The pseudoscientific manner of handling the pandemic sent shockwaves in the country, with India’s leading health reporter Priyanka Pulla tweeting, ‘I feel like I am in a horror house. Except that instead of ghosts and demons jumping out from behind pillars and doors to say boo, it's AYUSH ministry shouting cow dung every couple of days.’
Pandemics have been known in the past to fan religious and cultural divides, and COVID was no different. There are far more sinister effects of Hindu nationalism than the spread of pseudoscience. It fans religious bigotry, and the best example is to look at how COVID spread in India was called an Islamic plot- which resulted in the vilification of and discrimination against Muslims. Because, the heart of this Hindu chauvinist project, is deep-rooted Islamophobia. This was not only a human rights issue but had a far-reaching cost of public health which made multiple Muslims wary of doctors and they refused to seek care. When the pandemic started, a religious gathering of 3000-5000 Muslims across the world was meeting in Delhi for a religious congregation between March 13 and 15, more than a week before the government imposed a nationwide lockdown. When it was discovered that some of the attendees tested positive, there was a vicious hate campaign against Muslims. This included false news of them misbehaving with doctors, calling this a corona jihad, and calling for a social and economic boycott of Muslims. Instantly, the mass spread of the pandemic was blamed on Muslims, and they were put to trial in criminal courts. The court later criticised the government and police for this and freed all men who were jailed. Throughout the pandemic, the government and its allies continued to religiously profile Muslims and the World Health Organisation had to intervene. So strong were the effects from the vilification of Muslims, that in some cases, Muslims were denied care at hospitals unless ‘they (could) prove that they were corona free’.
To anyone who has studied the history of bioethics and medicine what is happening in India is eerily similar to how bioethics originated as a discipline in the west- Pseudoscience, Nazi ideologies, and the targeting of minorities. India is at a moment of cultural reckoning. Hate has become the new normal on social media and in the social lives of people. Lynchings, caste-based violence, and xenophobia are at an all-time high. Muslims, Christians, and anyone who threatens the extreme form of Hinduism that has emerged in India is under the threat of persecution by the government. As bioethicists and political thinkers in the west ignore what is happening in the world’s largest democracy, minorities face existential threats in India. In the post-truth world that we find ourselves in, bioethicists play a crucial role in separating science from pseudoscience. They must be relentless in calling out religious bigotry and dogmatic fundamentalism before it is too late. Ask a bioethicist about how bioethics emerged as a discipline, and they will tell you that it was when pseudoscience dominated medicine in the form of Nazi Clinical Trials, a genocide, and a severe attack on the rights of minorities. Sounds familiar? Bioethicists in India face a similar reckoning today. To speak up, or forever hold their peace when they are criticised in history books of the future.