Indian Newspaper Calls Out Nationalists for Using Fake History and Ancient Astronauts to Push Right-Wing Agenda
Note: I will be taking tomorrow off to mark the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. I will return on Friday.
For a variety of reasons, including the predominance of U.S. content in the media landscape, and my own geographic location, I tend to focus on American fringe history claims, followed by those from Britain, Continental Europe, Australia, and the rest of the world in descending order. I fully admit that this is a bias on my part, but one I can’t entirely help since so much of the content outside the Anglo-American media bubble is geo-blocked, geographically restricted, in languages I can’t speak, or otherwise unavailable. Nevertheless, I think it’s valuable to check in around the world from time to time to see how other countries and cultures deal with the same attacks on history that we see here at home.
Today’s case in point comes to us from The Times of India, where Manimugdha S. Sharma wrote this week that the country is suffering from a massive and coordinated social media campaign of fake history launched by ultra-conservatives who are looking to undermine historical facts in order to promote a rightwing agenda tied to the nationalist agenda of Prime Minister Modi. We’ve talked before about the Modi government’s efforts to fabricate fake ancient history for India, particularly around claims of advanced prehistoric surgery, prehistoric rockets and airplanes, and other ancient astronaut-style nonsense derived from a literal reading of Sanskrit epics.
Sharma writes that a group of rightwing trolls is engaged in all of the techniques made famous by the Russian propagandists, content farmers, and trolls operating during the 2016 American election: manipulating photographs, creating misleading or outright false memes, trolling online discussions with provocative and outrageous statements, and denying even obvious historical facts in service of political ideology. The only important difference is that the conservatives in this case are the Hindu nationalists.
For example, last week, right wing extremists circulated a fake meme using a photo of a nineteenth century Zanzibari slave trader and claimed it represented the “true” Tipu Sultan, an early modern Muslim ruler of southern India. “Nobody bothered to pause and consider whether photography was available in the 18th century. This refusal to think is what the thriving factory of fake history exploits, and is the reason it has been so successful at polarising opinion.” Another faker used a photo of a 1984 anti-Sikh riot and claimed it was a 1948 photo of Brahmins rioting after Gandhi’s assassination. Most of the fake history stories in India, according to Sharma, revolve around the standard right-wing playbook: demonize Muslims, liberals, and elites. In India, demonizing Muslims is much more pressing matter than in the United States because India has substantial Muslim minorities and coexists uneasily with its Islamic neighbors. Indian television routinely alters history to cast ancient rulers like Porus as victorious over Alexander the Great, creating a fake but glorious ancient past.
But these abuses of history pale before the influence of the ancient astronaut theory and its lost civilization cousins. Sharma describes what is happening:
Another Facebook page called 'Indian History — the Real Truth' takes history to another level of fantasy. With over 26,000 followers, this one regularly abuses "Left-leaned (sic)" historians for faking the truth — and claims that some temple spires are proof of ancient aliens visiting our planet 6,000 years ago, that Hindus fired the first rocket 1,200 years ago from a temple, that Hindu astronomy and texts are 1,20,000 years old. In fact, the term used for India's most celebrated historians is "criminal historians", and appeals are made to file cases of sedition against them for "subverting the truth".
This is a whole other level of awful than American fringe historians, who settle for calling their mainstream rivals biased or dogmatic, not openly seditious and a threat to the paramount leader and his supremacist agenda. The good news, for what it is worth, is that the calls to prosecute historians are few and confined mostly to a radical fringe.
Sharma quotes the anti-Modi writer and freethinker Pratik Sinha to the effect that rightwing extremists know that they cannot simply alter textbooks or change facts without a fight, so instead they use the power of the Internet to simply flood search results with their preferred propaganda until the truth vanishes in a sea of lies:
Since the average internet user cannot verify facts by reading a textbook or asking a historian, he only has Google to turn to. These fake history pages often come up on the first page itself during searches, not academic links. So, people pick up what's easily available. [...] All this faking of history is part of a larger right-wing project to shape the national narrative. They cannot change much of what's written in textbooks without catching undue attention, both here and abroad. So, these changes are being made more subtly. But they know they can create noise and people won't bother to find out what recorded history says.
And that, in the end, is the most dangerous part of fake history. The noise, the lies, the half-truths, and the propaganda provide fact-like material that takes the place of real facts and destroys any appetite for truth because (a) ideologues accept the lie at face value because it confirms their beliefs, (b) half-interested people make use of the lie because it is the easiest answer to locate and looks reasonable, and (c) the uninterested don’t care enough to challenge the lie.
Whether in India or America, the problem is the same: There is a concerted effort to delegitimize the pursuit of historical truth in order to promote ideology and quasi-historical fantasy.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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