Science and Pseudoscience in India

Modi’s false hope in a raging pandemic.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
A municipal worker walks past a graffiti of a young person wearing a face mask during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Mumbai on May 4, 2020.
A municipal worker walks past a graffiti of a young person wearing a face mask during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Mumbai on May 4, 2020. Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

On May 11, a disturbing video of Baba Ramdev, a yoga exponent and a purveyor of ayurvedic medicine, who is widely seen as close to the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, surfaced. In this video, Ramdev made light of the dire situation in India’s hospitals over the previous month as they struggled to cope with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worse still, in the same video, he explicitly questioned the value of allopathic (or science-based) medicine, referring to it as “stupid science.”

Not surprisingly, his intemperate remarks elicited a strong rebuke from the Indian Medical Association. And faced with a growing public outcry, the Indian minister of health, Harsh Vardhan, asked Ramdev to retract his remarks. Ramdev quickly issued a half-apology, even as he defended his initial statement. In turn, Vardhan upbraided him again.

For observers around the world who have faced over a year of COVID-19 conspiracists and liars, outlandish theories and changing science, this may seem par for the course. But it points to deeper problems in India.

For one, Vardhan’s reprimand likely came more out of political exigency than a strong urge to defend science. After all, on occasion, the health minister himself had touted the benefits of yoga and ayurvedic remedies for mild, asymptomatic COVID-19, providing a false sense of security and comfort. The Indian Medical Association took him to task over these remarks, which promoted unproven therapies in the midst of the pandemic.

India, of course, has a long tradition of reliance on various systems of Indigenous medicine. Indeed, in November 2014 during his very first year in office, Modi’s government even created a new Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa-Rigpa, and Homeopathy to promote these remedies as possible alternatives to science-based therapies. Although these traditional systems of medicine have their staunch adherents—and may well have some benefits—few of their therapies have been subjected to rigorous experimentation and testing. The studies that do exist suggest uncertain or and sometimes adverse results from a reliance on various ayurvedic products.

In many ways, adherence to Indigenous medicine still makes sense. Among the public, there is a strain of distaste and mistrust for allopathic medicine owing to its association with British colonial rule. Indeed, no less a figure than Mahatma Gandhi was distrustful of vaccination on utterly spurious grounds.

Gandhi’s political heir, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had a wholly different intellectual outlook and had made every effort in post-independence India to instill what he referred to as a “scientific temper.” He was, no doubt, successful to some degree. India today boasts some world-class scientific institutes and equally high-quality medical facilities. However, a streak of obscurantism has nevertheless stalked the country’s political culture. And those elements have come to the fore in political life as Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumed office in 2014. To the abject horror of India’s scientific community, at a meeting of the prestigious Indian Science Congress in 2019, some presenters asserted that airplanes and in vitro fertilization had been pioneered in ancient India. At the same meeting, Modi in a speech had claimed that plastic surgery had been developed in Vedic times.

Such claims may seem innocuous enough, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have taken a decidedly deadly turn. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the populous state of Uttar Pradesh and a virulent Hindu nationalist, claimed that yoga could keep infections at bay. Not to be outdone, a range of other BJP politicians across the country have also touted the ostensible preventive and curative properties of cow dung and bovine urine. These statements have proved resonant with substantial numbers of their constituents. BJP leaders have proffered these suspect therapies largely because they can generate political support at a time of acute distress and uncertainty.

Given the existing reservoir of distrust of modern medicine—and the willingness of especially BJP politicians to tap into that—it is hardly surprising that it is so easy for Ramdev to peddle a range of putative alternative cures. They are straws for clutching, especially in desperate times, when conventional medicine may well be beyond reach—itself a result of the Modi government’s abject failure to contain the pandemic or roll out vaccinations with haste. Some have turned to a drug, Coronil, that Ramdev’s firm, Patanjali, has marketed, in the hope that it may provide relief. Apart from his pecuniary interest in promoting these products, his hawking them also deftly draws attention away from the government’s abject failure to contain this runaway pandemic.

Ramdev is hardly alone in promoting pseudoscientific cures to the hapless. Preying on the desperation of the poor, others have also entered the fray. For example, an ayurvedic doctor in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in south-central India, advertised a “miracle medicine” and attracted any number of distressed individuals seeking relief. (These outrageous claims underscore an ongoing problem: the failure of the Indian state to carefully regulate a sprawling domestic industry that has long thrived without adequate surveillance.)

This regulatory lapse, on its own, is disturbing enough. However, the deluge of medical disinformation that members of the ruling party and its acolytes have unleashed in the midst of a ranging pandemic is downright lethal. The human costs of the pandemic, among other matters, highlights the critical need for improved regulation to prevent the hawking of spurious drugs and therapies. Simultaneously, it cries out for increased investment in India’s allopathic public health system to make it more accessible to the bulk of the populace.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.