Last week, a weird story popped to national prominence in India. The new chief minister of Tripura, a small state that borders Bangladesh, said that the internet existed during the ancient times, back when the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata was written.
“Communication was possible because our technology was sophisticated and developed during those times. We had internet and a satellite communication system. It is not like internet or media wasn’t available in the age of Mahabharata,” said the new chief minister, Biplab Kumar Deb, according to The Hindu.
I happened to be in South India on a reporting trip when this came out, and it was one of those strange stories you see when traveling that seem nutty and hard to understand. I saw it first in a paper, then caught it again on television while I was running. Deb claimed that his evidence was based in the Mahabharata itself, which describes how a king was able to get battle updates in real time. That, Deb maintained, happened through an ancient internet.
Europeans and Americans claim that they invented these systems, Deb said, but “we had all these technologies in ancient times.”
Some context: Deb is a member of the rising right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led to massive electoral success in India since 2014. In Tripura, Deb and his party displaced a Communist chief minister who had been in power for 20 years. The BJP has ridden to prominence with an explicitly Hindu nationalist model and a kind of Make India Great Again braggadocio.
Indeed, when Deb’s statement began to circulate across the Indian internet, he doubled down. “Every Indian should have a common thinking that India is best and superior country all around the world,” he said. “My country had the technology years ago, which no country had. I am proud of that and I think every Indian should feel proud.”
At first, this felt to me like a story about the vast differences between people and countries. Indeed it is hard (though not completely impossible) to imagine that the governor of an American state would say that Moses had Google Maps or that David had a satellite phone.
But as I dug into the story a bit, familiarity flooded back in. Within Indian social media, many people were as flabbergasted as any Yankee eating breakfast at a business hotel on the Adyar River. At first, Deb’s comments were met with a wave of incredulity. Then, social-media users turned to the predictable forms of ridicule that would appear on platforms like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook. This ridicule was aggregated into news stories, viral building on viral. None of the proper nouns in the headlines would be familiar to most Americans, but the idiom itself is as comfortable and well-worn as your favorite yoga pants:
- “Social media reacts to Tripura CM’s internet theory of Mahabharata”
- “Tripura CM’s claims about internet in Mahabharat era inspires hilarious memes on ancient Indian tech”
- “Twitter explodes! Javed Akhtar trolls Tripura CM who claims there was internet in Mahabharata times”
- “Dear Tripura CM, You Are Right. The Internet Broke the Mahabharata”
Are the memes actually hilarious? Indian Redditor CuriousNoobKid posted this, which is not bad:
One news site, The Quint, which self-consciously styles itself after Facebook-friendly publications like Mic and Vox and Buzzfeed, went particularly hard at the episode, publishing several stories and videos, including a rap:
There’s a story that’s doing the rounds
That the Mahabharata is where WiFi abounds
As Maha-preposterous as it sounds
These are a CM’s words breaking all logic’s bounds
Dhritarashtra the blind binge-watched the war
As Sanjaya live-streamed the battle gore
Krishna’s Mann Ki Baat in surround
was a full HD download in .rar
“India’s the greatest,” says the CM and stuns
The media and the people while he sticks to his guns
You’re the butt of a hundred memes and Bhayanak puns
Man, what’s the story we’ll pass on to our young ’uns?
What kind of leaders did you elect, Pa?
It could be Mariah Carey. It could be a nuclear test. It could be an Ebola vaccine. It could be a regional Indian political figure claiming national glory in the country’s ancien régime. No matter the substance, content finds a way. Hilarious memes! Social-media reactions! Twitter explodes! Trolling! A broken internet!
I’m normally dispirited by the homogenization of stories into Facebook-ready lozenges—but dislocated in India, I found it exhilarating. There is a set of forms and an array of platforms that young people across the world use and understand, even if the particulars of their situations are entirely different or mutually incomprehensible. They’ve created an international language of exasperation in response to heavy-handed attempts to win them over simply by rewriting history. What kind of leaders did you elect, Pa?