Why we are awash with conspiracy theories

It is conspiracy season now in India following eerily the pattern set in the US over the last four years

Disha Ravi
Protests against the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi were held across the country File Photo: PTI

Everyone is conspiring. Mostly against the government. Some against social codes. Some against religions. Some against cows, science, medicine and vaccines. The police are on a cross-country run across states to carry out weekend arrests with the connivance of magistrates on duty. Then the cops convert such voodoo theories into legal documents. Others join the race to trace conspirators, all hell is let loose.

It is conspiracy season now in India following eerily the pattern set in the US over the last four years. The mob assault on the Capitol on the eve of the taking over of a new US President was the result of various conspiracy theories pushed by a shady right-wing organisation called the QAnon, most of whose members were part of the physical assault.

Donald Trump helped propagate most of such conspiracy theories and also termed the US elections a big cheating exercise or grand conspiracy to dethrone him. In the US, such conspiracy theories have been raging over the last year which has also resulted in the COVID numbers rising dangerously as many adherents to loony logic defy government initiatives on treatment and protective methods.

Advertisement

Like Trump, in India too, the conspiracy theories are heavily endorsed by the government. When the prime minister said in Parliament that the farmers’ agitation was backed by a set of professional agitationists or what he termed ‘andolanjeevis’, he was endorsing or letting lose another conspiracy theory.

The raft of agitations against the government over the last two years are sought to be tagged to various groups who are experts in conspiracies and are tagged as such. No one can agitate in India without a global conspiracy backing it!

So why are conspiracy theories gaining ground in India too? Is it a right-wing thing to label any opposition or  argument as a conspiracy? The main reason is the BJP and the prime minister himself, like Trump, has made a fad of pushing such theories, giving it wide currency. Also people tend to swallow wholesale any such theories pushed by people in power. For instance, in no time the expression “andolanjeevi” became a national currency, trending not just on social media but in people’s minds as well.

Related news | Too many discrepancies in Disha Ravi’s arrest, claim lawyers

It can be argued that the happy embracing of such theories  has everything to do with how we are ‘cognitively hardwired’. Others believe it is the lack of education that makes people grab on to the latest conspiracy theory and endorse it in various ways. In fact, highly educated people too subscribe to many such theories.

At the root of it is also survival instincts: political survival, expansion of religious beliefs and a crass method or street tactic to cut down arguments and protests. In all such cases, logic and understanding are given a go-by. In India, many such theories mostly based on paranoia have helped BJP electorally. The love-jihad theory which has led to framing of new laws, though there is no proof of any love-jihad social trend, is a classic and clear instance of how ruling parties love such theories which help nibble at the secular framework of the Constitution.

If the ruling party creates a sense of paranoia, either by warning of foreign aggression, imminent catastrophe, financial collapse, secessionist groups gaining ground etc, many tend to come to the defence of such a beleaguered government. This is why the PM attacked agitating farmers and labelled them.

“In fact in small doses, paranoid character traits can be quite useful in many professions, particularly for politicians who  need to anticipate the challenges of their opponents,” writes Richard Friedman in New York Review of Books.

Related news | One month of UP’s love jihad law: 35 arrested, 12 FIRs filed

The propagation of various theories has resulted in the police, especially Delhi’s notorious Special Cell, and the NIA, having a free run trampling over laws and established jurisprudence. We need to look at the recent arrest of  Bengaluru activist Disha Ravi for editing a google document.

The Special Cell, with its imagination running far ahead of logic or reason, has given an elaborate conspiracy shape to theories to justify the illegal detention of this 21-year-old woman, linking her to various black-listed organisations in various parts of the world though she has professed innocence.

In all Indian conspiracy theories, the innocent victims are the prime minister, the ruling party, nationalistc agenda and the country itself. In such narratives, the farmer himself becomes the enemy of the state.

Hidden actors, stateless actors, unseen or unheard groups, various individuals who have fled to tax havens and remote islands funnel conspiracy theories and in the hands of the police, become tools to suppress democratic aspirations. It is also used to kill social media storms against ruling parties.

“The seistemic error central to conspiracy thinking is a failure to  distinguish what is plausible but fantastical  from what is true,” Friedman writes.

Related news | Disha’s arrest shows dissent being strangled in name of sedition: Kamal

Apart from the ruling party in any country or state, conspiracy theories are quickly latched on to by the police as it has happened here. The police can quickly weaponise such conspiracy theories and fill up gaps, like scriptwriters, to make the ending fantastical. The frequent raids on innocent people and journalists is an immediate fall out of such febrile imaginations (48 hour raid on a small website ‘Newsclick’ is an example). If a minister or a ruling party official mouths a conspiracy theory, it helps the police move swiftly and even convince magistrates into granting unending remands.

Once a society is used to swallowing conspiracy theories unquestioningly, laws are compromised, and emboldened police agencies increasingly station themselves outside the purview of law and attack basic rights with impunity. The ruling party in such cases always gets short-term gains, since it is easy to sell a conspiracy to a gullible populace and harvest the resulting hate or anger.

In the long term, however, such theories affect the confidence of a nation and of the judiciary as laws are increasingly misinterpreted. Also, real problems will not be tackled as political leaders start looking for excuses and conspiracies and the cracks that it  causes in the polity will swell into gangrene that have to be excreted at much cost.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

Get breaking news and latest updates from India
and around the world on thefederal.com
FOLLOW US: