Are we the world’s greatest conspiracy theorists? The question struck me while watching two eminent doctors argue with Mark Toleman, one of the co-authors of a Lancet article on the presence of a superbug in Delhi’s water.
Lancet had reported last week that Delhi water samples had tested positive for the multi-drug resistant superbug, NDM-1. But the doctors’ chief concerns seemed to revolve around nomenclature: ND stands for New Delhi, and if you must know the full name, it’s New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1.
Why should this bug be named after our great city, asked doctor #1? The Lancet article was designed to derail our medical tourism, fumed doctor #2? And then, in stepped the anchor, virtually draped in the tricolour, wasn’t this a conspiracy theory by the big, bad west?
Surely, this can’t be true, I thought. Surely the only questions that matter: is there a superbug — and I don’t care if it’s called NDM-1, R2D2 or Santa Claus — in my water? How did it get there? How do I get rid of it? And if I get it, then what?
None of these questions seemed to matter as much as superbug-as-conspiracy. In the din of ‘ulterior motives’ (Ghulam Nabi Azad) and ‘sinister design of multinational companies’ (SS Ahluwalia), we seemed to forget that bugs are named after various cities from Verona to Sao Paolo and countries from Sweden to US, and nobody minds. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit almost instinctively rubbished the report.
Yet, within hours of issuing a ‘no need to panic’ statement, she had agreed to a six-month study with the assistance of WHO. I’ll be happy if the superbug turns out to be a superdud, but on the basis of informed research not fake nationalism.
Why single out the poor Delhi government? In Jaitapur, the Maharashtra state government sees a foreign conspiracy behind the protests against the proposed 10,000 MW nuclear plant. “India is fast becoming a superpower and many people are not comfortable with it,” chief minister Prithviraj Chavan warned after a recent tour of the region.
That the Jaitapur protest is led by retired judge BG Kolse-Patil or that it has the support of the Shiv Sena and the Left parties or that a group of 50 scientists and academics have written to the prime minister asking him to review the project in the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis is perhaps irrelevant.
Conspiracy theories are not the monopoly of the State. Outed for supporting Narendra Modi, Anna Hazare has been speaking of a ‘conspiracy’ to derail the anti-corruption movement. Modi sees references to the communal riots of 2002 as an anti-Gujarat ‘conspiracy’ — no doubt his denial of a US visa is part of that conspiracy too.
The helicopter crash that killed former Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Rajashekhara Reddy smacks of a conspiracy. And even the forces of nature are not immune: an attack by bees on a Mayawati rally last year led to an investigation by the state horticulture department that concluded that no beehive had been disturbed, ergo the bees were manuvadi agents.
Is it an old subcontinental instinct to react with the words ‘conspiracy theory’ when faced with unpalatable truths? Indira Gandhi saw a ‘foreign hand’ in virtually everything that didn’t go her way from railway accidents to cricket Tests. Pakistan does it all the time: you have only to follow the Ray Davis story to know what I mean.
And, of course, we’ve never really gotten to the bottom of the conspiracy that led to the massacre of the Nepal royal family.
But conspiracy theories, from the moon landing to the death of Princess Diana, abound all over the world. Partly this is to do with trying to make sense of the big questions that face us: why did Hemant Karkare’s bullet-proof jacket go missing and why did it take so long for help to reach him? Partly this is to do with the lightning speed of the internet that acts as a breeding ground for madcap theories.
But mainly this is because today’s conspiracy theories — Watergate, Iran-Contra — have an uncomfortable way of becoming tomorrow’s truths.
(Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer.The views expressed by the author are personal)