Conspiracy theorists are dime a dozen, especially in the age of the Internet, where all it takes is a viral video to establish myth as "research" and "fact". Tamil Nadu is no different. The state has several such popular conspiracy theory videos which make bizarre claims. According to the YouTube 'stars' of Tamil Nadu, everything from the jallikattu protests and the dengue outbreak in 2017, to women using razors to shave their legs, are all part of an elaborate plan hatched by the 'Illuminati' to 'enslave the people'.
While conspiracy theorists exist in every part of the world and propagate their ideas on social media platforms, what's troubling is that in Tamil Nadu, there are several people who seem to genuinely buy into these theories. While some can be dismissed as sheer nonsense, other ideas can have serious implications for the audience if they take it at face value. With titles that enticingly draw in the viewer with phrases like "truth revealed" or "awakening", these videos command a viewership in the millions.
The central premise of these videos is the age-old “Zionist conspiracy” theory that the Jews control the world.
These videos continuously harp on the idea that the Rothschilds, a wealthy Jewish European banking dynasty, lead a group of 13 Illuminati families who ultimately control every single corporate enterprise in the world. While there are several claims of secret societies around the world, this common anti-semitic trope has also been questioned repeatedly. Although it finds a place in popular culture, the idea of the 'Illuminati' controlling the whole world is built on hazy theories that fall flat in the face of facts.
There are two prominent “leaders” of this Illuminati professing cult in Tamil Nadu.
A self-described engineer and researcher, Paari Saalan is a prominent conspiracy theorist in Tamil Nadu. Almost every Tamil YouTube channel has an interview with him, giving him a platform to profess his theories.
Sample this. In one video, he claims that women’s clothing, like skirts and shorts, are manufactured so that products like razors can be sold - and that this is a conspiracy to keep women "enslaved" to shave their legs. Clearly against FDI in retail, he also claims that women are depicted as villagers in movies and ridiculed for using turmeric on their face so Walmart can sell face creams.
"In our towns, women wear fully covered clothes. How will they sell a product like Veet? Veet removes leg hair. He needs to sell it. How can he impose it here? First he tells women to wear short skirts, then he tells them to show their legs. Then he tells them to wear shorts. He needs to bring in all that. There's no other way. Only if he brings in all that, he can sell that. How can he bring that? Continuously he has to show glamour on screen. Women have to psychologically think we will look good if wear this. He will bring a wrong philosophy that wearing that is feminism and men shouldn't look at you in a wrong way. Then they will deploy four feminist agents to say this. Then people start thinking that it is their individual right to be glamourous and show their body. These opinions will be created. Who is this benefiting? This is so he can sell manicure and pedicure," Paari Saalan says.
While popular culture does influence beauty standards and consumer behaviour, it is quite a stretch to claim that it's the 'Illuminati' which decides women's fashion sense and Kollywood's poor scripts. Not to forget the involvement of "feminist agents"!
Anyone watching Paari Saalan, however, will be met with an assertive, "I am telling you the truth that nobody else will, so listen."
Perhaps his wildest claim is accusing the Tamil television show Bigg Boss and Kamal Haasan, its host, of being controlled by "Illuminati" simply because of the show’s logo - that of an eye. He goes on to claim that the Bigg Boss reality show was launched to psychologically manipulate people into forgetting about the jallikattu protests. Paari Saalan even believes that the 'Baba' symbol used in logos of Rajinikanth's media interactions is the devil's horn created by satan worshippers.
The jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu took place between January 8 and 23, 2017 while Bigg Boss Tamil first aired on June 25.
The man also believes that the Dravidian stalwart and anti-caste leader EV Ramaswamy or Periyar was "an Illuminati on assignment".
In one interview, a journalist who debates with him on the issue asks, how he believes in 13 secret families when he can’t believe that a historically documented leader like Periyar had contributed to the women’s liberation struggle. To this, Paari Saalan says, “Where is the proof that women were slaves? There is no need to talk about women’s liberation in Tamil society.”
Speaking to TNM, historian and filmmaker Kombai S Anwar says, "Anything needs to be supported with concrete evidence, that’s the only yardstick. If you put one conspiracy theory, I can show you 3 other things that can counter that. How can you take one lone incident? Today, there is a credibility crisis with corporates. That’s probably what is stoking this."
Commenting on the blind faith people express towards such conspiracy theories, Anwar says, "Better do your research and take a stance. Possibility of fake news in today’s times is high. You can't rely on just one video. Do your research. If you want to take a stance on something, you need to do research, identify the issue and then take a stance. But I don’t know if people will actually do it. May be after society pays a high price. That's the times we live in."
With several Facebook fan pages devoted to Paari Saalan, many on social media come to his defense, proclaiming him as the “soothsayer of the Tamil people”. In fact, in one hour-long “documentary” purportedly made by him called Kandy Nayakar, he claims that Sri Lanka is secretly ruled by by the Telugu people.
Perhaps not as famous but definitely more contentious is Healer Bhaskar.
He also claims that he can cure cancer in six months with his wide knowledge that comes from “researching from various gurus and YouTube”.
In one bizarre video shot during the jallikattu protest, Healer Bhaskar even brought out a huge banner with David Rothschild’s face on it. Screaming into a mic, he says, “If you haven’t heard of the Illuminati or the Rothschilds, please don’t protest. They are your true enemy.”
While several alternative and traditional medicines are common in India, Healer Bhaskar’s one hour videos on YouTube which are based on next to no facts are watched feverishly by a number of people. As he explains the "Illuminati" and "big pharma" conspiracies, the commenters appreciate him for making these "complex" topics relatable.
The popularity of these videos has ensured that these 'stars' are given wider platforms in the media. Healer Bhaskar, for instance, was interviewed by Behindwoods in 2017. Speaking on behalf of the media portal, Avudai said, "He takes classes for people. And through that he heals people. A lot of people who attend his class said it was helpful. In the comments, they say he has saved their life. We wanted to know what he is doing. He is saying that he cures AIDS and cancer. So we just wanted to know on what basis he is claiming all this."
It is true that conspiracy theories are not new to the world of social media. However, in an era marked by fake news and misinformation, such "alternative facts" marketers quickly gain validity and it becomes near impossible to convince followers to approach such theories with a healthy amount of skepticism and a questioning mind.