Over The Moon – OpEd


On August 23 2023, like millions of Indians, I was watching Vikram’s descent on the moon. As the landing reached its climax, the live feed was replaced by PM Modi’s smiling visage. An important moment in space history was sacrificed so that India could watch Mr. Modi waving a flag.    

The following day the Indian Foreign Minister tweeted a photo, from the BRICS summit, of PM Modi showing a newspaper with the headline ‘India’s Modi Out of This World’ to President Lula. On his return to India Mr. Modi was welcomed with congratulatory posters of his face and the satellite, there was no mention of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).   Undoubtedly this was a momentous event and therefore milked to the fullest. It also put a spotlight on the country’s earthly matters.

Here are a few  

1. India is forgetting her tradition of respecting elders: In the Mahabharata war, Yudhishtir, the eldest brother of the Pandavas sought blessings of Bheeshma Pitamah and other elders who are on the side of the Kauravas. The Bhagwat Gita teaches the way elders should be respected, as does the Ramayana. However, the celebrations of the soft landing were all focussed on PM Modi. This occasion did not merit a nod to the early visionaries. But this behaviour is not new with Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They have mothballed their senior leaders – LK Advani and others – who paved the road for them.

2. Mistaking religious belief with science: Post the landing, photos of the ISRO team visiting temples to pray for the success did the rounds with the text stating this technological feat was proof that praying ensured the mission was successful. Many on social media reshared a statement of the  ISRO chief S. Somanath about Vedas having all the science which was repackaged by the West to suggest that this achievement was proof of the superiority of Hinduism over other religions and science. However, as John Keay in his book India: A History points out, science in the Vedas was restricted to Brahmins who ensured this wisdom remained in their hands.  Interestingly, the ISRO chief recently clarified that science and spirituality are different realms  stating ‘I am an explorer. I explore the Moon. I explore the inner space.—– So for the outer, I do science and for the inner, I come to temples’  

3. Cultural wars:  The success of the Chandrayan-3 mission was an opportunity to add fuel to the culture wars. Many shared photos of women scientists dressed in Saris and Salwar Kameeze claiming it proved feminism could be clothed in traditional attire and that though Indian women have taken giant strides  they have retained tradition.  The assumption that working on space technology makes one a feminist or that wearing a sari is regressive, is a fallacious and restrictive concept of feminism. This showcasing of feminism was silent when the women of Manipur were being raped.

4. Caste and religion:  The moon landing gave India’s caste and religious fracture a new pedestal. Bigots had a field day publishing castiest tropes about affirmative action and Muslims. Many attributed the success of the landing to the absence of affirmative action in ISROs employment. A blatantly false statement. The celebrations included suggestions that there were no Muslims in the ISRO team. Former Indian cricketer turned nouveau rightwing troll Harbajan Singh tweeted ‘Some countries have moon on their flags, While some countries having their flags on moon’ deriding Muslims countries. 

5. Cartoons – There is a well-known joke about the ability of the people from the state of Kerala to make a home anywhere – including the moon. So, just before the moon landing a cartoon of a Malayali mixing tea on the moon did the rounds with the message ‘First picture coming from the moon’. There was much outrage against this purported slight and cases were filed against the person.  As of writing there are no cases filed against an anti-muslim tweet inspired by the moon landing.     

6. Pride and Hypocrisy – Citizens were understandably proud of India’s achievement. Chests swelled even further with the congratulatory messages from foreign leaders and the reporting of international media. However, these very same chests swell with indignant outrage when these countries and media comment on the diminishing freedoms many Indians face. At that time these countries are told not to interfere in India’s internal affairs. The government proudly claims India is  5th  among spacefaring countries in technology, but statistics of India falling in international development and freedom indices is viewed as  flawed or biased

The success of the moon landing led to the debate on whether money put into space exploration could have been better spent on social development. The industrialist Anand Mahindra responded to the BBC discussing the issue with an anguished tweet which argued that such achievements were vital given the poverty created by colonialism and ‘our pride &belief in our own capabilities’ being stolen by colonialism. Earlier, Mr. Modi tweeted ‘We have our national pride placed on the moon!’. Two things can be assumed by these statements. The first that the government’s primary focus is on boosting pride, the second there were no occasions that delivered national self-respect before this event and Mr. Modi coming to power. 

Have we reached that moment where when celebrating the best in us brings out the worst in us?

Samir Nazareth

Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites.

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