It helps understanding conspiracy theories by comparing them to similar theories throughout the world. People who believe in conspiracy theories tend to believe their theories are restricted to the specific circumstance. For example, an Obama truther would say “There’s no underlying ideology, ulterior motive, or wider cultural anxiety undermining my belief. It’s just true because it’s true.” When in reality, Obama trutherism is entirely a manifestation of an underlying racist ideology.
If people have similar theories, across multiple countries, then the ideas must be coming from a similar psycho-political perspective. It’s like the idea that hardcore right-wing evangelicals in the US would certainly be Muslim extremists if born into a different country.
In this post, I will look into a an Indian conspiracy theory – the theory of Greater Bangladesh. I will explain the conspiracy, and how it’s based within certain historical developments that have spread to India, given its current condition. I will also look into a couple Chinese conspiracies, as a comparison against the Greater Bangladesh theory, and along the way, compare these theories against American ones, to better contextualize all of it.
The conspiracy theory of Greater Bangladesh is rooted in the fact that Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country, and India is majority Hindu. Traditionally, the Indian Provinces of West Bengal and Assam were Bengali territory, and these Indian provinces have high amounts of Muslim-Bengali people (although more Hindu-Bengali people overall).
The theory is that Bangladesh is sending Muslim-Bengalis into adjacent parts of India, like West Bengal and Assam. Once parts of India are occupied by enough Muslim-Bengalis, those areas will be ceded to Bangladesh (somehow).
You may notice this is the exact same theory as the Great Replacement and the White Genocide Theory. The idea of these theories is that Muslims (or Latinos) is replacing the population of white people through migration. For example, many right-wing conspiracy theorists in the U.S. believe that, if enough Latinos live in South Texas, it will, somehow, become part of Mexico.
The reason the theory of Greater Bangladesh is interesting is because it has characteristics of historically uniquely American and Western European conspiracies, imposed on a different cultural context. In the same way you could put an evangelical from Alabama into Eastern Syria and they’d become an ISIS member, you could move a white guy with “economic anxiety” who hates Latinos in Texas, to West Bengal, and he would then be a Greater Bangladesh truther.
And, although these conspiracies are all rooted in shared psycho-political manifestations, it’s disingenuous to pretend these conspiratorial fears are simply made up out of thin air. There currently is high amounts of immigration, and these rates will almost certainly go up, given the conditions of the world. However, there’s a dissonance between migration patterns, and the reactive backlash that conservatives kneejerk towards. This is because they aren’t reacting to immigration. They have been conditioned to think of politics in terms of their identity, and due to the cultural understanding about the nature of identity, they feel threatened by people of a different identity moving. This sense of threat then gets improperly imposed on a political fantasy.
One of the interesting things about these different theories though (White Genocide, the Great Replacement, and Greater Bangladesh), is the dimensions of identity they feel threatened by. The White Genocide conspiracy theory is the most overarching one, simply reducing all of geopolitics to non-whites replacing whites. It’s a rough-around-the-edges theory with little depth, and is based on the U.S.’s extremely simplified concept of race. It’s a theory that encompasses many different strains of thought about “population replacement”. The Great Replacement is usually the strain of “White Genocide thought” that’s popularized in France, specifically referring the Muslims.
And, although both of these conspiratorial strains of thought have a religious dimension, they’re really race-based theories. Since they fearmonger about Muslims, it’s easy to do the bait-and-switch of “we’re criticizing their ideas, not their race.” But that just means they can criticize Muslims as brutally as possible and always pull that card, as long as they never explicitly mention race.
However, the Greater Bangladesh theory is much more tied to religion than race. In the western far-right, the driving ideology is white nationalism. In India, it’s driven by Hindu nationalism, represented by the ideology of Hindutva. Hindutva is a political theology of cultural hegemony. Followers of Hindutva have a theory of “Pseudo-secularism,” where they argue that secularism is really anti-Hindu (similar to the white nationalist talking point that “anti-racist means anti-white”).
Hindutva is a fascist ideology, retrofitted for the context of India. One of the biggest tip-offs is the fact that it advocates class collaboration, rather than class struggle, within the dominant demographic, under the cultural banner of a distinctly right-wing interpretation of Hindu “culture”. This often, and certainly for Hindutva, comes in the form of feeling like your nation has been oppressed, coupled with the idea that your nation is superior. Oftentimes, the oppression part is completely divorced from reality (in the case of white Americans, of all people), but for cases like India, they actually were oppressed.
This speaks to ideas we can take from Mao. Some of his most insightful thoughts are his ideas about national liberation. Mao said that once a nation that has been subjugated to Imperial rule is liberated, there were be two forces left: the people who fought in order to obtain worker liberation, and the people who fought to fill the power-vacuum left by the Imperialists. Once conventional Imperialism ends, there will be people fighting for the liberation of all people in the nation, and people fighting to establish a national-capitalist replacement for the Imperial-capitalist system.
This is what happened in China after Japanese occupation. The Nationalists struggled for power from the Communists and lost, forming the Republic of China (Taiwan). The same happened for Vietnam. The opposite happened in in some other places. In Indonesia, the left-wing had power when liberated from the Dutch, but then the right-wing committed anti-communist genocide, then quickly seized power. In India, there’s a presence of Marxists and Maoists who never really had power, and instead India inherited the British Parliamentary Republic system.
The ideological conditions that lead to conspiracy
The reactionary identity-as-politics position of the North American and European right-wing has spread to India. This mindset became more popular around the dissolution of the USSR, corresponding with a global shift to a “clash of cultures” style of geopolitics. This mindset baked in the western consciousness for 20 or so years. Then, it was heavily accelerated by neoliberalism reaping what it sowed, tanking the global economy, and then not going away after that.
The Greater Bangladesh theory shows that the way reactionaries grapple with this context in North America and Western Europe, is now being exported to former colonies. Everywhere in the world, it seems like people feel their cultural identity is being threatened in a reactionary way.
The traditional Imperial-Colonial model is exploiting people, then excluding them from accessing the value generated, by restricting immigration, and restricting money from flowing back to the workers. This is one of the central tenets of global capitalism: make victims of Imperialism into pseudo-national factories for the first world. Among the common people in the first world countries, this dynamic is reinforced through stoking xenophobic in regular, easily frightened commoners. These commoners are also exploited, but are economically comfortable enough to feel “on the same team” as the capitalist overclass.
However, the fact that this conspiracy theory is popular in India shows that the Imperial-Colonial paranoia about poor people invading through civilian immigration has spread to former colonized nations.
This type of conspiratorial thinking blooms in a specific technological and cultural context. In North America, the current phase of conspiratorial thinking emerged in the 50s. Before that, conspiracy theories were more localized, to specific cultural contexts. They rarely had the more esoteric elements, like UFOs. They also rarely had the perspective of our government doing secretly evil stuff, because before modernism, the government in general was a less ubiquitous force in our lives. The conspiratorial antisemitism of the late 1800s and early 1900s was an early progenitor to current conspiracies, but these were outliers, and the theories were disseminated through much different channels than contemporary ones.
Our current phase of conspiratorial thinking came to be in the aftermath of World War 2, in the shadows of esoteric Nazism curiosity, after mass media became ubiquitous, and crypto folk ideas like UFOs became more widespread. The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and pulp novels added more cultural clout to the weird and strange. These are some examples, but in general, there were many many shifts in society at this time, and these shifts began compounding, for many reasons, in different ways.
Conspiracy theories as we understand them develop primarily in the middle class. They’re often associated with the working class, or more accurately, the lumpenproletariat, although non-Marxists don’t have a word for that class. The dynamic that happens is the reactionary middle-class cling to any theory they can that unifies them with the upper class, and emboldens their role as the pseudo-Feudal suburban Lords, in a dominant position over the working class. Their theories then become animated in the lumpen, the apolitical, alienated poor masses. For example, just consider how the alienated, apolitical mass embraced the Trump campaign, after having in regurgitated into their lap from a reactionary petty bourg, middle class.
With globalization and the progress of global development, this type of conspiratorial thinking has began growing in other countries. The fact that it’s spread to India shows that there’s a sort of middle class of countries – countries that are regional powers, with strong economies, but still defer to the Imperialist masters. And since conspiratorial thinking tends to flourish in the middle class of capitalist countries, it makes sense why the material conditions of India would allow room for conspiratorial thinking.
The character of Chinese conspiracy theories
My claim is that conspiratorial thinking is a side-effect of a certain type of “late-stage” capitalism. A way to test this idea is by comparing conspiracy theory culture in India, an example of a formerly colonized capitalist country, to China, an example of a formerly colonized communist country.
I don’t want to get into whether contemporary China is really socialist or not. I’m simply using it in an applied context, because the Republic of China was established by the Communist Party, and they still control the state now.
I had a difficult time finding examples of Chinese conspiracy theories online. There certainly are some, but they just aren’t easy to find on . my argument isn’t that only capitalist countries of a certain place in material development have conspiratorial thinkers, but rather, that those same capitalist countries foster specific types of paranoid, fascistic, racially anxious conspiracy. I figured that China uses different websites and parts of the internet than Americans, so it makes sense why I couldn’t find much. But, I knew I would find Chinese conspiracy theories eventually.
I dug a little more and found a couple fairly widespread conspiracy theories. The two I found, that are probably the most publicized in English-language media, are both pretty different than the Greater Bangladeshi, or White Genocide, theories. One, they’re both focused on health issues. And two, both theories blame the American government.
There are conspiracy theories regarding health in the U.S. too though. Some examples would be theories about the origin of HIV/AIDS, such as that HIV was deliberately put into Hepatitis B vaccines, or cocaine (I’m not convinced the latter is untrue…). There’s also denying that HIV/AIDS even exists, and it’s a secret plot. Also, there’s the right-wing and Earth Mama anti-vaccine conspiracies. There are water fluoridation conspiracy theories. I could go on, but keep these conspiracy theories in mind, because I will compare and contrast them to the Greater Bangladesh theory, and the two Chinese conspiracy theories I found.
A very popular conspiracy theory in China, mostly during the 2000s, involved the disease SARS in China. If you don’t remember, there was a fairly large SARS outbreak in China in 2003. It was primarily in China, but also spread to neighboring countries, Canada, the U.S., and small parts of the rest of the world. Four people died from SARS in the U.S., 44 died in Canada, 349 died in China, and 299 died in Hong Kong. There’s been no instance of SARS since.
In 2017, scientists discovered the source of SARS. They traced the disease from civets (those cat-like mammals that poop out coffee beans that people drink), to a cave filled with horseshoe bats infected with a coronavirus very similar to SARS (honestly, I don’t know what a coronavirus is, but it will come back soon) in the southwest China province of Yunnan. This helps to debunk the conspiracy theory, which had already lost steam by that time anyway. And, even before the SARS pandemic ended, China suspected that civets (which are eaten as food in Guangdong) were the cause and began culling the supply, they just had no idea about the horseshoe bats.
However, let’s go into the substance of the theory. It’s rooted in assertions made by Russian scientist Sergei Kolesnikov, of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Kolesnikov claimed that the SARS coronavirus is a combination of measles and mumps, meaning that it was likely man-made. Because of this, the conspiracy theory exists in Russia too, although it’s more germane to China, since China was actually infected.
They believe that the U.S. government created SARS as a biological weapon. They’re reasoning was it didn’t make sense why the most effected areas, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore, had Chinese people, but non-Chinese places, including nearby Japan, was hardly effected. This claim is dampened because Canada didn’t have a significant amount of deaths from SARS, but, if SARS was a biological weapon, it’d be impossible for the U.S. to control where it spreads, so it’s easy to reason around.
And even the discovery of the bat cave in Yunnan doesn’t exactly solve the problem (at least in the mind of the conspiracy theorists). Because the coronavirus found in the bats is structurally similar to the SARS coronavirus, but it doesn’t have the symptoms of human SARS. The symptoms missing are measles and mumps, which helps reify the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was a planted weapon.
There are two things I would take from this conspiracy: for one, it’s a reactive conspiracy. It’s reacting to an event that happened. Of course, this is well worn territory in American conspiracy theories as well. Think 9/11 and the JFK assassination. However, you may have noticed American conspiracy theories have mostly shifted away from this. Think White Genocide, George Soros, Bilderberg Group, birtherism, Pizzagate, Qanon, etc. None of these theories are reacting to any one thing. They’re spastic outbursts of anxiety-ridden conservatives who can’t understand why the US is going down the shitter. The Greater Bangladesh theory falls into the latter mold.
The other thing to take away from the SARS conspiracy theory, and is more relevant in differentiating it from American conspiracy theories, is that the U.S. government is the villain. Yes, the U.S. government is frequently the villain of American conspiracy theories, but it’s usually from the perspective of conservatives, saying the U.S. government is being undermined by internal evil factors.
The blaming of the U.S. in this conspiracy is not unfounded, due to the U.S’s oppressive, Imperialist regime. It’s also in line with the Chinese sense of nationality. In China, an idea called the century of humiliation is important to their national identity. It’s the idea that between the First Opium War loss against Britain in 1842, until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China was humiliated by imperialism and oppression from western countries and Japan. Because of this, China is skeptical about western intervention, and feel like they deserve to develop like the western world, unhindered.
It’s reasonable for China to be skeptical of the U.S., as the U.S. government has undermined China, numerous times, However, there are dozens of countries (most countries) that the U.S. has also undermined, that don’t have conspiracy theories regarding it. This speaks to the idea of the Century of Humiliation, and China’s anti-Imperialist history. Conspiratorial theories operate, and flourish within, the grammar of societal ideology. In China, there’s a culture of being skeptical of Americans. In other countries that have been equally damaged by U.S. Imperialism, they may not have the same skepticism towards the U.S., because their national government doesn’t promulgate that narrative.
One more Chinese conspiracy theory I want to mention, because it’s similar, is related to GMOs. In the U.S., we obviously have GMO-anxiety as well, but it usually comes from the liberal elitist poor-shaming perspective, that GMOs are bad “for wellness”. In the American context, it’s not from a conventional conspiratorial frame.
As for China though, in this survey by Cornell University’s Alliance for Science, they found that 13.8 percent of Chinese nationals believed that “GMOs have been created by the United States as a form of ‘bioterrorism’ against China, and that all patriots should therefore oppose them.”
This is a high amount of the Chinese population. Even if we round it down to ten percent, for simplicity sake, it’s still quite high. Since the question asked by Cornell includes a secret plot, we can assume that there’s more people who have a similar view, but less cemented in conspiracy. Think about how many Americans buy into far-right conspiracies, and stop short of blaming it all on “The Jews”. Far-right conspiracists disseminate versions of their ideas through mainstream mediums, but dampen the overarching conspiracy in common sense language.
We can imagine there’s more Chinese GMO skeptics. In the survey linked above, they were given three options, basically 1. agree 2. disagree 3. I don’t know (I’m paraphrasing because the link has really bad translations from Chinese anyway). 31.8% of people said “I don’t know,” which says to me a lot of people are inclined to believe some parts of the theory.
By looking at Chinese conspiracy theories, we see the difference between the right-wing conspiracy theories that are imported to Hindu nationalist India. Because of economic and ideological barriers, China has seemingly not imported these types of conspiracy theories. But then again, I’m only using a very small sample size.
My argument is that, given the specifics of a place and time, the dominant ideology, and the technology of the time. Since the right-wing of India are taking on theories similar to the right-wing of the western world, we can assume that something about the conditions of India make it facilitate this type of theory. This idea is reinforced by the fact that China, a similar country to India in many ways, has a different style of conspiracy theories, to match their state’s ideology.
The big question remains: did the Greater Bangladesh theory come into being, strictly due to India’s conditions? Or was it more directly imported, straight from North American and European cultures? I think it’s a bit of both.