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Conspiracies and theories

It's a funny thing, isn't it, that India should be almost completely exempt from the conspiracy theory syndrome, asks Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2006 00:29 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

So Prince Philip didn’t order the hit on Princess Diana after all. The blood sample that proved that Henri Paul was drunk when he crashed the Al Fayed Mercedes was not switched. And the Princess was not carrying a little Al Fayed inside her well-toned body.

We know all this because Lord Stevens told us so. The former head of Scotland Yard has just completed the most exhaustive inquiry ever into the death of the Princess of Wales and his conclusion, after years of investigation, is that she was not murdered but died in a tragic accident.

This should settle the matter once and for all. But, of course, it won’t. Mohammad Al Fayed, father of Dodi, has already held a press conference to declare that Lord Stevens’ report represents a cover-up and to reiterate that Diana and Dodi were killed on the orders of a male “senior member of the Royal family” (he means Philip not Prince Charles).

And though Al Fayed clearly has an axe to grind, millions of others will remain as unconvinced. The Internet is already full of objections to Lord Stevens’ report and the sceptics have their answer ready: well, if MI6 killed her, the British government is hardly likely to publicly accept this, is it?

Ah, the conspiracy theory: mainstay of the world wide web, the global tabloid press, the instant bestsellers’ market and Hollywood. The “Princess Diana murder” theory has had a good run over the last decade but it cannot match up to the mother of all conspiracy theories: the assassination of John F Kennedy. Though the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, numerous polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe that JFK’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy.

Similarly, many people are unwilling to believe that Sirhan B Sirhan killed Robert F Kennedy for the sake of the Arabs on the West Bank. Or, that James Earl Ray was a racist nut who killed Martin Luther King on his own. Or even, that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide (“The Kennedys killed her” is the buzz).

In fact, most high-profile assassinations and suicides attract their share of conspiracy theories. Why did Mark Chapman kill John Lennon? Was he really a lone neurotic? Or was he acting on behalf of the Establishment? Did Robert Maxwell fall off his yacht or did frogmen drag him to the bottom of the ocean? Was Pope John Paul a victim of heart failure? A best-selling book argued that he was murdered by corrupt Cardinals.

And then, there are the really far-fetched theories. Thousands of people still believe that the moon-landing was a hoax: the footage came from a Hollywood set. (Usual bit of ‘proof’: why did the US flag flutter after it was planted on the lunar surface? There’s no wind on the moon.) One bestseller argued that Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, was really a man (actually, now that I think of it, that’s not so far-fetched...).

More worrying are the theories surrounding 9/11. Millions of Arabs still refuse to believe that the attacks were ordered by Al Qaeda. They think that the Jews did it to make Islam look bad. Startlingly, a significant number of Americans also believe that the US government either had advance knowledge of 9/11 or actually orchestrated the attacks itself. (Proof? “Well, the twin towers clearly fell as a result of controlled detonation inside the buildings”: or, “if a plane did hit the Pentagon, how came we’ve never seen a photo of the crash?”) Not only do such views loom large on the Internet, but enough Americans appeared to believe them for Time magazine to have to run a cover story reassuring America that, yes, the Arabs had done it.

In the US (and in many Western countries), the conspiracy theory is a way of life. Was Gorbachev really a CIA agent who was paid to bring the Soviet Union down? Nobody would be very surprised if this turned out to be true.

Because, strangely enough, at least some of the conspiracy theories are based on fact. If you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald really killed JFK all alone (never mind the second shooter on the grassy knoll), then you probably believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and the essential goodness of Pervez Musharraf as well.

By now, Americans have learnt that all conspiracies are not a figment of the imagination. I doubt if the moon landing was a hoax (but if it was, then think about the ratings...), or if any of the unpleasant speculation surrounding 9/11 is justified. But the death of Marilyn Monroe? The drowning of Robert Maxwell? I don’t know.

Even Hillary Clinton went on TV, when her husband was in trouble over Monica Lewinsky, to declare that he was the victim of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’. (A conspiracy to do what exactly? To offer him oral gratification in the Oval Office?) In Washington, it is okay to talk about conspiracies.

But not in Delhi, oddly enough.

One of the marked characteristics of the Indian nation is that we have no time for conspiracy theories. Think about it. Indira Gandhi was killed by her own security-men, one of whom was then immediately bumped off by other security-men. And yet, we are quite happy to accept that the conspiracy consisted of four sub-inspectors in the Delhi police. Suppose Bush was shot within the White House by his Secret Service guards. And that one of the assassins was then killed before he could talk. How many conspiracy theories do you think that would spawn?

Similarly, we have no real curiosity about why the LTTE should choose the suicidal course of killing Rajiv Gandhi. All speculation about the assassination is discouraged, and the Narasimha Rao government did its best to frustrate the investigation.

Even those theories that do crop up never last. The Nagarwala case has never been satisfactorily explained. The speculation about the convenient death of LN Mishra never took off. We have no real idea who the Purulia arms were meant for. (The Anand Margis? Oh, come off it!)

Even when India would actually benefit from unravelling a conspiracy, we do not bother. For instance, the demolition of the Babri Masjid was clearly planned in advance given that the kar sevaks had enough implements to bring it down with and then construct a makeshift temple on the spot. But do we know exactly who planned it, and how and when? We don’t seem to give a damn.

I’ve been racking my brains for Indian conspiracy theories. The only ones I have come up with are the crank historical ones: the Taj Mahal was a Hindu palace etc. And, of course, the immortality of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.

On Bose, there is enough evidence to suggest that perhaps he did not die in that famous air-crash. But after that, the trail runs cold. Yet, millions of Bengalis believe that he is still alive, choosing at the age of hundred-plus to play a cruel joke on his followers by hiding where they can’t find him.

Apart from that, however, try as I might, I could not think of any Indian conspiracy theories on par with the JFK assassination hypotheses.

Which is odd. Because if you believe what the West says, then Occidental civilisation is founded on fact, truth and science, while the Orient is a place where the truth is hard to pin down, where superstition, fable and gossip hold sway.

But Indians treat what we learn as fact. It is the West that invents the fanciful theories and refuses to accept hard evidence, preferring to rely on rumour and distortion.

So, what makes us so resistant to conspiracy theories? My first instinct was to blame it on Hinduism. The problem with that argument is Nepal.

As we all know, Nepal is the world’s only Hindu Kingdom. And it will soon cease to be a Hindu Kingdom largely because of a conspiracy theory about an assassination. Most Nepalis believe that King Birendra and his family were not murdered by a drunken Crown Prince. They believe that there was a conspiracy and that the present (for the next few months, at least) King had something to do with it. This has led to a lack of respect for the monarchy with devastating political consequences.

If it isn’t Hinduism, then what is it? Could it be that conspiracy theories tend to obsess those with lots of free time on their hands? In India, we are too busy coping with the problems of everyday life to have time for paranoia.

Or is it that for all this blather about the argumentative Indian, the truth is that we are essentially a credulous people who take the line that if something appears in the newspapers then it must be true? That we have so much respect for authority that we tend to believe what those on top tell us?

Could it be that we are not a particularly sceptical people? Just as we take astrologers, godmen and ‘miracles’ at face value, we tend not to examine what we are told is the truth too closely.

I have no answers. Your guess is as good as mine. But it is a funny thing, isn’t it, that India, land of one billion people and five billion rumours, should be almost completely exempt from the conspiracy theory syndrome?

And as for the one theory we do have, let me just say this straight: sorry guys, but I do genuinely believe that Netaji is dead.

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First Published: Dec 17, 2006 00:29 IST