For India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, religion is not a matter of personal belief, but a key feature of traditional identity politics and crucial to maintaining social order, ensuring discipline and conformity, and preventing radical change. Science and rationality threaten all of the party’s goals.
NEW DELHI – India’s junior education minister, Satyapal Singh, recently declared that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was “unscientific,” on the grounds that “nobody, including our ancestors, have said or written that they ever saw an ape turning into a human being.” It was a startling statement – and just the latest salvo in the current government’s attack on science.

According to India’s constitution, the development of “scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform” is the duty of every citizen – and, implicitly, the responsibility of the state. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, argued that unlike religion – which tends to produce “intolerance, credulity and superstition, emotionalism and irrationalism” and “a temper of a dependent, unfree person” – a scientific temper “is the temper of a free man.”

Yet, for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, such ideas are no longer fashionable. Its leaders and acolytes want to teach schoolchildren that evolutionary theory is just another hypothesis about the origin of life, equivalent to religious propositions. Their goal is to keep it out of school curricula entirely.

Darwin is not the only target. Earlier this year, Rajasthan’s education minister, Vasudev Devnani, another BJP stalwart, claimed that the cow is the only animal that inhales and exhales oxygen. The veneration of the cow is something of an obsession for the BJP and its followers, who have assaulted human beings in the name of protecting the animals. But this was a bridge too far even for many BJP sympathizers.

Both Singh and Devnani are educated people: Singh has a degree in chemistry, and Devnani is a trained engineer. Yet neither learning nor leadership apparently is enough to discourage flagrant pandering to ignorance.

The same goes for former Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court – reportedly a science graduate himself – who suggested in an interview last year that India’s national bird, the peacock, “is a lifelong celibate” that impregnates the peahen by shedding a tear. He cited Lord Krishna’s use of a peacock feather as proof of its celibacy.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has joined the assault on science. Modi likes to be portrayed as a technologically savvy twenty-first-century leader. But, at the inauguration of a Mumbai hospital in October 2014, he claimed that the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh was proof of ancient India’s knowledge of plastic surgery. The ancient epic the Mahabharata, he then declared, confirmed that, “people then were aware of genetic science.” It apparently didn’t occur to Modi that the smallest elephant head could not possibly fit the largest human neck.

The irony is that India was indeed a pioneer in plastic surgery. The country produced the world’s first known practitioner, Sushruta, and is the site where archaeologists have found the world’s oldest surgical instruments (dating from the first century). There is also evidence in ancient texts of rhinoplasty operations. Subsuming these historical facts in a narrative about mythological transplanted elephant heads did science – and the people whose achievements deserve to be honored – a serious disservice.

Likewise, Modi told schoolchildren in 2014 that climate change is not an environmental problem; it is, instead, a matter of human beings’ capacity to cope with heat and cold, which changes over time. Global warming, he explained on national television, “is just a state of mind.”

And it is not only politicians who, encouraged by the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, are propagating pseudoscience in India. Modi associates – such as the yoga teacher and Ayurveda entrepreneur Baba Ramdev, who sells remedies to “cure” homosexuality – are regular offenders.

This has provided further nourishment to the gaggle of gurus who have turned religion and pseudo-spirituality into a lucrative business in India. The New Age “Sadhguru” Jaggi Vasudev, for example, warned in 2015 against eating during a lunar eclipse, because “there is a distinct change in the way cooked food is before and after” such an event. “What was nourishing food turns into poison,” he declared. “If there is food in your body, in two hours’ time, your energies will age by approximately 28 days.”

Others assert, with some level of official encouragement, that every scientific discovery or achievement – including jet aircraft and atomic weaponry – was made in India during the Vedic age. The underlying message is that ancient India had all the answers, and thus that traditional and indigenous beliefs and practices must be fundamentally superior to imported modern ideas and lifestyles.

The BJP and its affiliates exalt the wisdom of the past because they view it as central to the promotion of the faith-based communal identity that the Hindutva project upholds. For them, religion is not a matter of personal belief, a form of stretching one’s hands toward the divine; instead, it is a key feature of traditional identity politics, a means for maintaining social order, ensuring discipline and conformity, and preventing radical change.

When ministers question Darwinism or assert the miraculous powers of the cow, they are not merely offering a choice between a scientific theory and a faith-based explanation. Rather, they are reminding the public that the worldview to which faith is allied is comprehensive, and that it demands adherence to a larger political project that prescribes beliefs and behaviors that actually have little to do with religion.

Science and rationality threaten such conformism, because they encourage skepticism, free inquiry, and testing of the traditional perspectives that the BJP is so eager to entrench. That is why, as the BJP attempts to transform secular India into a Hindu state, it must weaken the role of science.

It is difficult to overstate the tragedy that this trend represents. The obscurantist and atavistic state that the BJP wants to create would look nothing like the one that made India the scientific superpower of the ancient age. It is enough to make one shed a tear. One can only hope that there are no peahens around.

This article was originally published in Project Syndicate.