Salt, Toothpaste, and the CIA

Allan D Polak. Skeptic. Volume 11, Issue 1. 2004.

Conspiracy Theory in Contemporary Indian Society

It is difficult, if not impossible, to grow up in the U.S. and not be familiar with at least one conspiracy theory. The JFK assassination, the coverup of the crashed UFO at Roswell, NM, and the plotting of the Freemasons are some of the most popular in a nation rife with belief in conspiracies. A 1997 Scripps-Howard News Service poll found that 51% of Americans believed that federal officials played a role in JFK’s assassination, while over a third suspected that the U.S. Navy shot down TWA flight 800.

Conspiracy theories are fun when they are not obviously destructive. They offer explanations for the seemingly inexplicable. And unlike dry sociological or anthropological studies, conspiracy theories offer intriguing plots involving aliens, the CIA, and secret societies like the Freemasons and the Illuminati.

I developed an interest in conspiracy belief systems in 1999 while observing two fundamentalist Christian groups that resided on Israel’s Mt of Olives. These fundamentalist groups, composed primarily of U.S. citizens, thrived on conspiracy theory. Members of the groups were more often found with books preaching conspiracy theories, than with Bibles. Prince Charles was the anti-Christ, I was told, and the U.S. government had implanted a computer chip in my forearm.

My curiosity eventually led me to ponder two questions. First, are conspiracy theories limited to Western culture? second, if conspiracy theories exist in non-Western cultures, are they more popular among fundamentalist groups in those cultures? I sought answers to these questions in India. The conspiracy theories described in this article are based on information gathered during a series of both unstructured and formal interviews conducted in India over four months, as well as on research of pertinent references such as books, journals, newspapers and magazines. Each of the theories described in the following pages meet the criteria for conspiratorial thinking: they are not backed by credible evidence, they are plagued by inconsistencies, and, in violation of Hume’s Maxim, they assume the greater improbability to be une.

The Salt Conspiracy

The addition of potassium iodate to common salt-the process by which iodized salt is created in India-is alleged to be “part of a ‘well-hatched conspiracy’ by multinational corporations to capture the Indian salt market, [while] excessive use of iodized salt makes people vulnerable to TB, diabetes, cancer and peevishness.” Or so declared Mahesh Sharma in an interview with the New York Times. Mr. Sharma is a member of India’s parliament and holds a seat on the steering committee of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM), a Hindu nationalist party also known as National Awakening Front.

Primarily as a result of the SJM’s statements, a segment of the Indian population refuses to use iodized salt, believing it to be part of a multinational corporate conspiracy. The belief is widespread, and its consequences are serious. Iodized salt is regarded as the most efficient and cost effective means of combating Iodine Deficiency Disorder (IDD), a debilitating condition caused by insufficient iodine. IDD is most commonly associated with goiter, a swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck. It can also lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, mental retardation, deaf-mutism, short stature, neuro-motor defects, and “stiffness in joint movement.”

Yet groups such as the SJM have blocked legislation aimed at making iodized salt a common household product throughout India. Their accomplishment owes much to the salt conspiracy theory, which relies heavily on distortion of history, and misrepresentation of the effects of iodized salt. As is common with conspiracy theorists, they manipulate the facts to create a “truth” based not upon objective factual evidence, but on personal ideology.

It’s just Salt

The facts are clear: iodized salt saves and improves lives. The immediate goals of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch are equally evident: overturn an existing ban on the sale of noniodized salt-and at this they have been victorious.

During the month of September 2000, India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee suspended a ban instituted by the Health Ministry that outlawed the sale of non-iodi/ed, or “common salt.” In an interview with the London medical publication The Lancet, Chandrakand S. Pandav, coordinator for the International Council for Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders, called the move “A major setback” because 70 million Indians currently suffer from Iodine Deficiency Disorder, while an additional 200 million are considered at risk.

The SJM challenges the understanding that iodized salt can combat Iodine Deficiency Disorder by attempting to discredit long standing evidence of the efficacy and safety of iodized salt. Mahesh Sharma, member of the SJM’s steering committee, addressed the safety of iodized salt when he stated, “[Iodized salt] makes people vulnerable to TB, diabetes, cancer and peevishness.” The question of iodized salt’s safety when consumed in large quantities has been raised before. The International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD), a nongovernmental organization recognized by the World Health Organization as an expert in the fight against IDD, addresses the issue on its list of “Most Frequently Asked Questions.” According to the ICCIDD, excess quantities of iodine rarely cause problems for those who consume it, as any excess is typically secreted. Persons suffering from Graves’ Disease (a disorder of the immune system) are considered less tolerant of iodine, but “most people can tolerate fairly large amounts without problems.” Also, individuals who once suffered from iodine deficiency may be at a higher risk for developing hyperthyroidism once they begin ingesting iodized salt, but the condition is easily treated. In addition, the World Health Organization bluntly described concern over iodine overdoses as “misconceived.”

Sharma, along with Murli Dhar Iiao, organizing secretary of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, further asserted that iodized salt loses its potency when cooked at a high temperature in dal, an Indian cooking oil, and other Indian foods. According to N. Kochupillai, chairman of the Department of Endocrinology at the all India Institute of Medical Sciences, this is a false claim.

Potassium iodide, added to the salt of U.S., Canada, and Northern Europe, is susceptible to loss when exposed to heat and cooking oil. It is likely that Sharma and Rao used this fact as the basis of their argument. However, the additive used to transform India’s salt into iodized salt is not potassium iodide (KI) but potassium iodate (KIO3), a more stable compound that is used in most of the developing world. Potassium iodate rarely dissipates during the cooking or boiling process. Loss of the iodized property of salt is also a concern during shipping, although the SJM failed to capitalize upon this possibility. In the U.S., corruption of iodized salt during shipping is not a serious concern thanks to “moisture-proof packaging.” Exposure to moisture would be problematic in a hot and humid country such as India if that nation used potassium iodide, rather than potassium iodate.

To further its case against iodized salt, the SJM crafted this final pseudoscientific declaration: “People in the plains don’t need to consume iodized salt.” The implication of this statement is that Indians living in the country’s plains region do not suffer from Iodine Deficiency Disorder because they receive iodine naturally from the soil. The statement is logically flawed because it assumes the SJM believes in the same benefits of iodized salt they regard as fictitious. But more important the statement is not true.

The SJM claims that soil in elevated regions lacks sufficient iodine, while low lying areas with greater soil depth do not. This is sometimes true in areas where erosion has leached iodine from the soil, as in Pakistan where IDD is rampant. While it was once thought that goiter, the most recognizable symptom of Iodine Deficiency Disorder, was specific to the Himalayas, this has since been proven incorrect. According to Dr. H. R. Keshavmurthy, a specialist in IDD research, occurrences in India have been reported across geographic boundaries, “even in the subHimalayan Tarai region, riverine areas and coastal regions like Bharuch district in Gujarat and Ernakulam district in Kerala.”

Even if one disregarded each of the SJM’s “scientific” claims, the issue of cost would still remain. The BBC reported that the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch told Indians that iodized salt costs at least six times more than common salt produced by local companies. However, India’s Salt Commissioner, R. Prakash, told the New York Times that salt iodization raises the price of a pound of salt no more than a “small fraction of a penny.” Compared to other methods available to treat IDD, iodized salt is regarded as the “most economical, convenient, and effective.” Iodine may also be administered through tablets and injections but these prove more costly and difficult to administer than iodized salt. Even if the SJM estimate of a six-fold increase were accurate, the alternative, the cost of an increase in IDD, pales by comparison.

The methods used by the SJM to create the iodized salt conspiracy theory follow several patterns traditionally used by conspiracy theorists. The group raises issues of genuine scientific concern, for example, “Can iodine overdoses be harmful?” The fact that iodized salt can, in extremely rare cases, result in iodine overdose is distorted by the SJM to produce die flawed statement: “excessive use of iodized salt makes people vulnerable to TB, diabetes, cancer and peevishness.” The possibility of iodine loss occurring during cooking is similarly distorted. The SJM ignores the fact that it is potassium iodide that is susceptible to break down during cooking, not the potassium iodate that is contained in Indian salt, when it confidently stated that cooking destroys the benefits of iodine.

Salting the Fields

Why then, if the SJM’s assertions regarding iodized salt’s safety and efficacy are plainly incorrect, has it aligned against its use? A brief description of the SJM’s stance on foreign trade is necessary to finding an answer.

The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch holds the concept of Swadeshi as its core organizational belief. In a book purchased at the Karnataka headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or RSS), a Hindu nationalist movement associated with the ruling BJP party government and a sister organization of the SJM, S.R. Ramaswamy describes “the Swadeshi view” as a system that “does not approve of either the production or consumption in excess of the actual necessity.” The war ay of the Swadeshi movement is self-sufficiency through Hindu nationalism, and to this degree, the Swadeshi movement discourages foreign trade and investment. Ramaswamy sees India as a nation enslaved by the global marketplace, a situation only Swadeshi can connect. Viewed through the Swadeshi lens, the Western world is in the process of destroying India by corrupting its morals and tainting its market.

Despite its medically-based objections to the use of iodized salt, the SJM is primarily concerned with two non-health related aspects of the issue. First, because iodized salt is sold to India by foreign corporations, an obvious problem arises in that its primary code of self-reliance is violated. second, and closely related, the SJM lobbied aggressively to protect local salt producers who lacked the technology or will to manufacture iodized salt-protection of domestic businesses is also a primary tenant of Swadeshi. The organization has altered the facts surrounding the importance of iodine to India’s population in favor of furthering its political goals of self-reliance and protectionism.

Rather than explore other existing methods of salt iodization the group dismisses India’s IDD epidemic as a product of Western conspiracy, and considers it an issue that government should not try to correct. Whatever the consequences might be for India, it is clear that based on its organizational and Swadeshi concepts, SJM reacted to its fear of multinational corporations rather than on scientific evidence.

Toothpaste Missionaries

While the salt conspiracy theory is a matter of grave consequence for the Indian people, what might one make of belief in a toothpaste conspiracy? This theory touches upon two issues of particular concern to contemporary Indian society: multinational corporations and Christian missionaries. These two seemingly unrelated topics are connected in the following Colgate-Palmolive conspiracy theory.

To understand this rumor I will turn to a valuable interview with Dr. Rajnath, a 45 year-old psychiatrist and ranking RSS member. As Rajnath and I concluded a discussion in which he spoke of the effects that multinational corporations have on India, I asked him to speculate about what their motives might be. “For example,” explained Dr. Rajnath, “it is always said that…Colgate toothpaste, which sells the toothpaste here, the money which it makes, large [amounts] of money is donated to the Christian missionaries. And the agenda is not at all hidden-to convert people. So they make profit from our own money to convert our own people.” It is a well-known fact, he concluded, “Even a shopkeeper would tell you.”

When I asked a Colgate-Palmolive public affairs representative, he claimed never to have heard of the rumor, and stated that ColgatePalmolive does not donate to any religious organizations or missionaries.

Hygiene Wars

With a population approaching one billion, India’s consumer market is not to be taken lightly; perhaps no other corporation has recognized this to the degree that Colgate-Palmolive has. For almost 50 years Colgate effortlessly dominated India’s toothpaste market until 1991, when changing economic policies led to the arrival of other brands. Colgate-Palmolive then began a large scale advertising war aimed at the one out of four Indians who currently use toothpaste, in addition to the 177 million who Colgate estimates will begin using toothpaste by 2005.

To accomplish its goals, Colgate-Palmolive went beyond its usual demographic focus, which had been predominantly urban Indians, and ventured into the countryside. It is a promising market, home to approximately 70% of the nation’s population; but to Colgate-Palmolive’s chagrin, it is also an area relatively devoid of television and literacy, obstacles for any advertising campaign. Colgate ingeniously addressed this problem in 1996 with vans equipped to bring toothpaste samples, educational pamphlets, and films to 16,000 villages and 10 million people.

It was a drastic change for the company, which until 1990 had marketed a single oral hygiene product in India-a non-fluoride dental cream which only slightly resembled its Western counterpart. If the use of vans by the company to spread the word of the virtues of toothpaste sounds somewhat like a political propaganda technique, this thought has merit. According to the Wall Street Journal, the idea was pioneered by J.K. Jain, a New Delhi doctor, who first used vans in 1987 to “spread propaganda for an opposition party that was denied air time on state-am television.” In 1989 Jain convinced companies such as Colgate-Palmolive that video-vans were the ultimate means of marketing to rural areas.

The video-vans proved successful, drawing large crowds of villagers who gathered to watch 27-minute infomercials featuring a fictitious village couple whose marriage is saved by a visit to a dentist and a tube of Colgate. Following the video presentation, Indians were typically addressed by a salesman who discussed the dangers of India’s traditional tooth-care practice of using charcoal powder. Then the salesman distributed toothbrushes to a handful of local children.

Reasonable Doubt

Taking into consideration the drastic increase in attention paid to rural Indians by Colgate-Palmolive over the past few years, it is not difficult to imagine why this raised suspicions in the minds of the rural population. When consumer goods are aggressively marketed to a segment of a population, those targeted often suspect an ulterior motive. That the suspected plot would involve Christian missionaries simply marries two concerns on the minds of Indians-religious conversions and foreign corporate influence.

Additionally, the ad campaign employed by the company was sudden and vast, elements that easily lead otherwise rationally minded people to entertain paranoid thoughts. The videos shown to villagers during the campaign also criticized traditional oral hygiene habits, a move that organizations such as the RSS and SJM, as well as the average Indian would most likely find reprehensible. Rajnath spoke about attempts multinational corporations have made to alter Indian habits with advertising: “The values that they come up with … are also something alien to some values we have cherished here. [A man in a TV ad makes a date with a girl, and then another man, who uses deodorant, winds up going out with the girl instead.] That as silly a thing as a deodorant could change this lady’s mind would make me feel so [repulsed by] the very concept of deodorant…I don’t like that [ad] at all.”

It is understandable then, that Rajnath, a follower of the Swadeshi philosophy and an active RSS member, with his anti-U.S. and anti-multinational corporation views would find the Colgate conspiracy theory plausible.

The Missionaries

In addition to fears about foreign economic influences, the Colgate-Palmolive conspiracy theory reflects India’s concerns about religious conversions. The two issues are interrelated because many Indians feel that Christian missionaries threaten India’s Hindu culture even more than foreign corporate influence. Dr. Rajnath’s statement that a consumer’s own money could be used to destroy their religious identity addresses a powerful Indian fear.

The fear is based partly on reality. India is currently involved in what can be seen as a struggle for souls. Both Christianity and missionaries have a lengthy history in India. Christianity arrived in India as early as 52 CE with the apostle St. Thomas. The more recent presence of missionaries and Christianity in India has had more than a subtle effect on religious and cultural aspects of Indian life. This fact has not gone unnoticed by contemporary Hindu nationalists who view the “Christianizing of India” as an example of Western interference.

The issue has come to a head over the past few years, with numerous speeches and protests aimed at ending Christian conversions, and it has even resulted in the death of an Australian missionary and his two sons. Anger towards missionaries is intensified by die Hindu nationalist view that Christian missionaries are foreign agents seeking to control India through conversions. While missionaries like Teresian Fr. Theophane Kilianthara, secretary of the Diocesan Dialogue and Evangelization Commission, deem such allegations as “ludicrous,” they in no way deny the goal of missionaries. “We are certainly trying to evangelize the people,” he stated, adding, “but our evangelization is to humanize the marginalized, never to augment the number of ritual Christians.”

In response, organizations such as the RSS have voiced concern over the activities of Christian missionaries within India. “How can we allow such people to work here?” asked K.S. Sudarshan, leader of the RSS. Other Indians echo his concerns. Abhinay Kumar Sharma, a 15-year old boy, told a New York Times reporter that conversions are a “social evil,” while Lal Singh a 65 year old farmer, stated, “Conversion is wrong. This is against our culture.”

To those who believe in the establishment of a Hindu state in India, conversion, especially by devious means, is a direct assault on the nation. The acts of missionaries are described in terms of an attacking enemy. According to a Hindu nationalist leaflet, the ultimate goal of the Catholic Church in India is “aggressive conversion,” while in the same pamphlet the Swami Dayanada Saraswati labels conversion an “act of violence,” and charity a method of neutralizing “any protest from the native religious community.”

Colgate: We Care About You

Despite the lack of evidence linking ColgatePalmolive to missionary activity in India, it is nevertheless believed that the company is actively and knowingly involved in spreading Christianity. What may be a more accurate accusation is that Colgate-Palmolive’s involvement in the dissemination of Western products and culture across India’s urban and rural geography threatens nationalist goals. ColgatePalmolive’s aggressive marketing in many ways resembles the techniques employed by Christian missionaries. A link established between the two by Hindu nationalists most likely led to the creation of the ColgatePalmolive conspiracy theory which combines the suspicion of foreign corporations, Western culture, and Christianity, into one complete easy to understand rumor.

The Colgate-Palmolive company may also be the victim of corporate warfare. The toothpaste wars the company has involved itself in could easily have led to the purposeful creation and diffusion of the rumor by corporate rivals.31 Should this prove true, the elements of the conspiracy theory as well as the concerns and fears it draws upon will remain unchanged. If the conspiracy theory was created by a rival, it was one who understood the connections that Indians make between Western aggression and Christianity.

Not just At the Airport: Hare Krishnas and the CIA

On November 11, 2001, I asked Ajit, a retired accountant, if he knew anything about the CIA. Ajit, a nationalist Hindu and RSS sympathizer, replied: “The CIA sends agents disguised as businessmen, they don’t come in uniform. For discussion sake I’m telling you, Allan may be a CIA agent. Normally, [what we think an agent] is a police constable or some inspector or some government official, some military man with a gun and all that may come as an agent. No, the American way of getting things done is by sending the normal people.” Ajit paused a moment and searched for a book that he then displayed to me. “This [pointing to the book] is International Conscious Society for Krishna Consciousness. You must have heard of it, ISKCON?” I had not. he continued, “I feel [that] ISKCON also is an agent of the CIA. They are making use of this ISKCON for political reasons.” We stopped for a moment and I clarified the name of the group; I now understood that he was speaking of the Hare Krishnas, a Hindu spiritual group established in 1966 and familiar to Americans as proselytizing airport pests. I asked Ajit to continue. “Because, why…are Americans interested in spending so much in dollars in constructing Hindu temples in India?” Ajit answered his own question:

I don’t know whether it is government or the people, the money [America] pours into the countiy for the purposes of spreading the Hindu religion in India. I don’t find the reason for that. If the Americans come here and spread the Christian religion, there is something. But I don’t: find the reason for America constructing temples in India and contributing money from America, or giving the temple authorities money at a lower rate of interest. I do not understand why the step they are taking.

“So I have a feeling,” he continued, “the ISKCON temple is only something outside, but if you [dig] deep into that, there is something behind the construction of six temples and contributing money for such construction.” What’s behind this, according to Ajit, is the CIA. According to Ajit, this is a common belief accepted by “a lot of people.”

Ajit claimed to have read of the link between the CIA and ISKCON in Indian newspapers, but he had also had come to the conclusion by way of his own deductions. “I have a feeling,” he explained, “that because I am not able to analyze why they should do it; if an Indian contributes and constructs a temple…I agree-why should the American people, many of them you know they get converted to Hinduism and then become Krishna conscious and then they spread the religion. There is no need for that.” Ajit summed up his argument succinctly, “So you have to understand, yes, there is something behind it.”

Conspiracy Theory: A Dangerous Thought

The historian Richard Hofstadter suggested that conspiracy theories are products of “those who have attained a low level of education [and] whose access to information is poor.” The opposite may be true in India. Among those I spoke with it was the most highly educated who knew of and accepted conspiracy theories. The most valuable data I collected was provided by intellectuals: a psychiatrist employed by a state mental hospital, a retired accountant, a financial consultant and nuclear physicist, and a university educated Indian activist.

Conspiracy theory is not a concept unique to the U.S., Europe, or even the Middle East, nor is it relegated to the uneducated. It can be found in virtually any nation, and supported by the most intelligent people. Additionally and of no lesser importance, my research also touched upon the level of anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment that exists in India today, and the role these feelings, when utilized by nationalist/fundamentalist groups such as the RSS, can play in the creation and spread of conspiracy theories.

Moreover, conspiracy theories aimed at multinational corporations and the United States do not help, but only hamper international relations. Person to person, and nation to nation communications become tarnished when one side suspects the other of plotting against it. Ignoring the U.S. and multinational corporations is unlikely to make them disappear. Nor is accusing them of poisoning the well likely to solve any real problems. Rather than focusing on non-existent conspiracies, such as the supposed multinational conspiracy to control India’s salt market, India would be better served by dealing with its iodine deficiency epidemic, or the quite real issues relating to foreign corporations, such as patent laws.

Daniel Pipes summarizes the tendency of conspiracy theorists to lay their nations’ problems in the laps of others in his book on Middle East conspiracy, The Hidden Hand. “The emphasis,” writes Pipes, “on a foreign conspirator leads to passivity in another way: letting one’s own government off the hook. Poverty and repression seem more overwhelming when they come from a distant capital.”

While Indian culture is susceptible to the creation of conspiracy theories, particularly by those who use them to further their ideological goals, they do not rule the entire nation. Many individuals I met with did not subscribe to any conspiracy theory, and offered me valuable assistance in ascertaining why certain Indians do.

A conspiracy-minded approach to the world offers few solutions, while creating many dilemmas. Once a history is altered or a story changed, it becomes necessary to reinforce the newly created version. To do this, information contrary to that explained by conspiracy theories must be suppressed, ultimately denying the population its most basic rights. While conspiracy theories are being created and reinforced, larger issues are ignored. In the end, the conspiracy theorist merely postpones the truth until a later date. Eventually the facts will reveal themselves to a people hardly prepared to deal with them.