If the Indian Army tells us on Twitter that it has found the Yeti, should we believe it?
There is a bit of a dilemma here for most Indians. First, we are conditioned as a people to believe things we are told on the internet. This is why, of course, this country is unfortunately Ground Zero for fake news. And, second, we are also conditioned to believe everything the military tells us. Unlike in more mature democracies, a statement from the military is not open to question. Doing so would be solidly anti-national.
The other horn of this dilemma is somewhat more straightforward: there is almost certainly no such thing as a Yeti.
Let us, for a moment, take the army's announcement that it had found Yeti tracks near a Himalayan base camp seriously. Has anyone seriously and scientifically followed up on the possibility that there is in fact some sort of reclusive hominid living in the furthest reaches of the Himalayas? Well, yes. Many people have sought to examine the legend, and the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Yeti sightings and tracks are most often related to some bear species or the other. That is also the conclusion of a fairly comprehensive scientific study of the DNA remains in Yeti "relics".
That in itself does not prove there is no such thing as a Yeti, mainly because you cannot prove a negative. But it is very, very unlikely indeed that such a thing would exist. The Himalayas are infinitely more mapped and even crowded than they were decades ago when the Yeti was first postulated. The areas that see minimal human presence get smaller and more barren every year. For a Yeti to never have been properly seen by a human, the species would have to live in areas that are so barren and remote that mountain goats would struggle to survive. They would have to never have approached lower mountains or any human settlement. This is incredibly unlikely. It is as unlikely as that, to choose the other famous example of such sightings, a prehistoric immortal dinosaur lives in a Scottish loch.
And yet, of course, it is very unlikely indeed that we are being watched by alien spacecraft - but the United States Navy takes reports of unidentified flying objects or UFOs seriously. They have actual investigators on the job, and have had such investigative teams at various points in history. (Reasonable explanations have usually been found for historic UFO sightings.) In fact, there has been a notable increase in reports of UFO sightings recently, so much so that the US Navy has produced a new, formal set of guidelines to standardise how such sightings should be reported - though they prefer to call them Unidentified Aerial Phenomena or UAPs. That very difference in nomenclature is revealing: "UAP" makes no assumptions, merely that something has been seen in the sky, whereas "UFO" assumes that what as been seen is a flying object when it could be an optical illusion, a weather balloon, a Chinese spy drone, or any number of other things. Militaries are not supposed to be credulous. They are supposed to be careful about their investigations and suppositions. The US defence department never even acknowledged the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Programme, which studied UAPs till 2012. You know what it definitely did not do? Announce on Twitter that its pilots were seeing UFOs.
That gets at the heart of what was disturbing about the tweet from @adgpi, the Indian Army's Directorate General of Public Information. The tweet said, without any qualifiers whatsoever, that army mountaineers had sighted "Mysterious Footprints" - capitalised - of the "mythical beast Yeti". I had trouble with this tweet more than the fact that "sighted" had been misspelled "sited". (We all make spelling mistakes on Twitter, though if I were crafting a tweet I knew would go viral, I might have read it slightly more carefully than @adgpi did.) It also revealed a bit of confusion - if the Yeti is "mythical", it means it is not real, and therefore unlikely to be leaving footsteps.
For the first time, an #IndianArmy Moutaineering Expedition Team has sited Mysterious Footprints of mythical beast 'Yeti' measuring 32x15 inches close to Makalu Base Camp on 09 April 2019. This elusive snowman has only been sighted at Makalu-Barun National Park in the past. pic.twitter.com/AMD4MYIgV7— ADG PI - INDIAN ARMY (@adgpi) April 29, 2019
I trust I will not get trolled for having my doubts about the syntax in the tweet. After all, Tarun Vijay - a leading BJP intellectual and therefore a certified patriot - was also critical about some of the word choices. "You are Indian", Vijay told the Indian Army, just in case they had forgotten. As Indians, he added, we should not call the Yeti a beast. Show some respect, and call him a "snowman". Now I am not sure what the link is between showing hominids respect and being Indian - certainly, many of us have trouble showing other humans respect - but it is good to know that Vijay was on the job. After all, since the time he pointed out Indians can't be racist because we live with South Indians, he has been renowned as the BJP's most "woke" intellectual.
Congratulations, we are always proud of you. salutes to the #IndianArmy Moutaineering Expedition Team. But please, you are Indian, dont call Yeti as beast. Show respect for them. If you say he is a 'snowman'.— Chowkidar Tarun Vijay (@Tarunvijay) April 29, 2019
Most worryingly, the tweet just made the army look credulous, even irrational. If the army wanted to put out something fun and light-hearted, it should have done so in that vein. If it really thought the Indian public deserved to know that some mountaineers had seen some tracks, it should have at least presented what was seen with a little bit of distance and a large pinch of rationality. The US military's decades-long investigation of UFOs, carefully procedural, does not make it look foolish but instead like a modern, rational and scientific organisation. The Indian army putting out a tweet saying that tracks of the Yeti had been found, on the other hand, does not add lustre to its reputation. We expect more of our army than we do of the sort of uncle who randomly forwards WhatsApp messages saying "Yeti Sited! See the tracks of the Mythical Beast!" Let's hope that the top brass have had a few things to say to whoever at the DGPI thought it was a good idea to give the entire country simultaneous flashbacks to Tintin in Tibet.
That said, I do hope - as a fan of both Tintin and unsolved mysteries - that there is in fact a Yeti somewhere out there, however unlikely it may be. It's just that I would like to hear about its possible existence from academics and scientists, and not the Twitter handle of Indian Army PR.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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