League of nationalistsOli’s rhetorical tendency to spew erroneous ‘truths’ is a common practice among nationalists
As an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein is known to have said of him: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” For different reasons, there are many of these ‘scarce to believe’ types in the world at present. For what comes out of his mouth, the most obvious would have to be Donald J Trump, but not far behind is our own prime minister.
A little knowledge
As if any further confirmation was needed, a little while ago, I was directed to a video on YouTube in which KP Sharma Oli can be seen holding forth as follows: “Newton did not discover the theory of gravitation. It was invented by astrologer Bhaskaracharya. His book, Siddhantha Siromani, had already been published in 1150, and it was only a few hundred years later that Newton [unclear mumbling]. Newton’s work was publicised but it was invented by Bhaskaracharya. We are the inventors of the theory of gravitation but we have not made use of that. We can also use it to produce electricity. Experiments are being conducted at present in the world [in] Iran, America, and successful tests have been conducted in these countries to produce electricity using gravity.”
The clip appears to be an excerpt from an interview and as it did identify him as such, Oli was speaking as the sitting prime minister of Nepal—although one cannot tell whether it is from his current term or an earlier one. Again, the clip does not provide the context in which he was making his remark, but that is besides the point. Recognising nonsense rarely requires context.
One can forgive Oli the semantic error of conflating ‘discover’ with ‘invent’. Ditto with his use of ‘published’, when he probably meant ‘written’, given that it would be another 300 years before the printing press was invented. Egregious though is the fact that, despite serving as the prime minister of a country that relies so much on hydropower, he seems to be unaware that it is gravitational force producing our electricity. Although, to be fair, Oli appears to be referring to electricity generated using gravity alone, without the medium of water, for which some promising experiments appear to have been held but are far from being commercially proven as yet.
Oli appears to employ bits and pieces of information he has picked up to prove whatever point he is trying to make. (This is something Trump also does, such as in this reference to Abraham Lincoln: “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican”, when, in fact, a majority of Americans do.) Thus, when talking about one of his pet projects—shipping—Oli once argued if landlocked Mongolia can have ships, why can we not? Again, he seems quite clueless that Mongolia’s merchant navy belongs to the category of ‘open registry’ which allows ships owned by foreigners to fly the country’s flag. It is due to the same open registry that nearly half of the world’s shipping capacity is registered in Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Panama, and also why anyone who reads thrillers will inevitably come across references to shady ships flying Liberian or Panamanian flags. As an analyst once wrote, open registry is the “maritime equivalent of an offshore financial center, allowing beneficial ownership to be hidden, operating costs and taxes to be minimized, reducing transparency, and, in some cases, facilitating illegal activities”. We cannot imagine that is what Oli has in mind for Nepal, can we?
But, going back to Newton, I fail to understand what Oli was trying to get at. That we as Nepalis are all part of the Indian intellectual heritage and should be proud of the achievements of a 12th-century mathematician from Karnataka? Even forgetting that a large section of the Nepali population prefers to distance itself from India and all it stands for, is our prime minister not aware that around half the country’s population has nothing in common with India’s socio-cultural traditions, and could not care less about any accomplishments down south? The main point he appears to be trying to get across is that everything is already there in the shastras, that there is nothing to learn from anyone, particularly not the West. This position is one that is alarmingly becoming more common among the neo-nationalist brigade that Oli has stoked into existence.
Nationalism via religion
Of course, this harking back to the glory of ancient India is nothing new, and has been part and parcel of the Hindu right’s rhetoric in India. Hence, a few years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, another member of the ‘scarce to believe’ crowd, had proposed that plastic surgery was known to Indians of yore because the god Ganesh had an elephant head grafted on his body. Citing the Ramayana, one of his ministers had followed up by declaring that planes had already taken flight in India thousands of years before the Wright brothers came up with their contraption. The prime minister and the minister are, after all, politicians and some amount of exaggeration is to be expected from them. But, at the recent Indian Science Congress, no less than a university vice-chancellor claimed that the 100 Kauravas from the Mahabharata were test-tube babies and that the descriptions of wars in both the books is evidence that guided missiles were a common weapon of war in mythological times. There were other ludicrous claims as well at the Science Congress—including one that Newton had got it all wrong.
Which brings us back to Bhaskaracharya before Newton ‘theory’. One Vipul Singh Thakur (of India) provides a very considered riposte: “Never before Isaac Newton, anybody in their wildest dreams thought that there could be a single mathematical law which would unite heavenly bodies and earth and it would quantitatively describe tides, seasonal changes, lunar size variations, motion of comets... all expressed in a simple mathematical package…That material bodies can influence one another at a distance, is a much older thought. Even older than Bhaskara! These speculations had nothing to do with science or gravity. People, before the time of Newton or Galileo, had no/foggy understanding of causality. None of their ideas or thoughts were motivated by causal requirements. These were various random/astrological speculations without any empirical foundations…From almost a total nothing, Isaac Newton, single-handedly, changed the face of knowledge for ever and ever...Don’t discredit this HUGE human achievement for narrow nationalistic sentiments.”
Thakur’s indignation was presaged years ago by Arundhati Roy after the tit-for-tat nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in 1998: “The jeering, hooting young men who battered down the Babri Masjid are the same ones whose pictures appeared in the papers in the days that followed the nuclear tests. They were on the streets, celebrating India’s nuclear bomb and simultaneously “condemning Western Culture” by emptying crates of Coke and Pepsi into public drains. I’m a little baffled by their logic: Coke is Western Culture, but the nuclear bomb is an old Indian tradition?...Yes, I’ve heard—the bomb is in the Vedas. It might be, but if you look hard enough you’ll find Coke in the Vedas too. That’s the great thing about all religious texts. You can find anything you want in them—as long as you know what you’re looking for.”
In a scene from the British comedy show, ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, a spoof on and by (British) Indians, a migrant father and his British-born son have the following exchange in front of what stands for the ‘Mona Lisa’.
“Wow! This is amazing, Dad. The most famous painting in the world! It’s inspiring, isn’t it?”
“Inspiring? Of course, it’s inspiring. Because it’s Indian.”
“No, Dad, not the Mona Lisa! She was an Italian noblewoman from the 16th century.”
“Son, this is Mina Losa, a Gujarati washerwoman from Bhavnagar.”
“Yes! Look at the expression on her face. What is she thinking?”
“She is contemplating the irony of her situation, asking us whether we are observers or voyeurs.”
“Rubbish! She is asking how much is this painter charge because my brother can get cheap paint."
These were comics having fun at their own expense. But, the underlying message about how low misplaced nationalist pride can lead us is a cautionary tale for everyone.