Acting with compassion, respect and empathy for the suffering are the hallmarks of humanity. Yet, every now and then, people of vile and bigoted mindsets rear their heads like ugly little pimples, laying bare their inherent apathy. And with the rise of social media, such hate has become easy to channel and easier to get away with.
Take the example of the devastating Kerala floods, one of the worst in almost a century of the state's existence. In just about a week, heavy rainfall killed at least 324 people (official figures on Friday evening) and managed to render lakhs homeless. The state exchequer has lost Rs 19,512 crore and over 3 lakh people are being moved into makeshift relief camps.
58 National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams are currently deployed in the state. The moving photographs of security forces, fishermen and locals rescuing the stranded; announcements of solidarity and support from across the nation and large-scale donations from public personalities as well as common people have helped maintain the momentum of the massive rescue operation that is currently taking place in Kerala. Amid all the chaos and despair, this is what powerful Kerala looks like now.
And yet, some elements in society have chosen to remain in abject ignorance.
While most people were moved by the plight of Kerala - now almost entirely submerged under water - some chose to blame the deluge on the most offensively bigoted thing imaginable - eating beef.
Amid all the destruction, loss and the mad rush to rescue people stuck on rooftops and even inside their flooded homes, some people claimed that the calamity was spurred on by 'Malayalis who ate beef'. According to them, 'God's Own Country' spurned the gods by eating beef. Some went as far as to say that Kerala deserved the disaster as it had not yet banned beef. If this sounds appalling, here's a look at some of the comments that were doing the rounds on Twitter.
Kerala hindus must stop eating beef. You can’t claim you’re a hindu and eat beef too. Mother nature will payback with interest — Krish Subramanian (@Krish_018) August 18, 2018
And even worse, some sounded seriously committed to what they were saying, and even questioned why anyone should help a bunch of 'beef-eaters'.
What help? Most are working outside Kerala, in Gulf etc. Islamic organizations and Churches take good care of these Commies! Try helping them with food to survive and they will ask for beef curry. Lol https://t.co/DsHWKZIsPm — Vibhuti (@victorvibhu) August 18, 2018
It seems to be true sir Lord Ayyappa is angry with the Kerala Govt, as whole country knows that Communist & Congressi Workers had publicly slaughtered an innocent Calf in protest of Beef ban, cooked it publicly & feasted on its cooked beef openly on the road ! God wouldn't spare. pic.twitter.com/OtulS7xf90 — JN Kaushik (@JaganNKaushik) August 16, 2018
The question is should we help BEEF EATERS of Kerala who slaughter cows which we pray? — Roop Darak (@roopnayandarak) August 18, 2018
While social media is usually a good place (it was the place where people connected to get help to the Kerala residents), it is also a place for hate mongers and bigots to flourish while hiding in plain sight.
The popularity of the micro blogging site Twitter, which essentially has replaced actual thoughts inside people's brains with a mixed candy bag of tweets, has made it a kind of breeding ground for these fringe entities, slowly fighting their way into the mainstream. It is also an important sociological tool because social media allows us to look into the fictional boy wizard Harry Potter's mischievously profound 'Mirror of Erised' and see what the other person wants to look like, what they project themselves to be.
The fact, that even in times of unprecedented calamity, bigotry and intolerance can so easily seep into public conversations is a marker as alarming as the rising levels of water in Kerala. It is a stinging reminder of the hate machinery so firmly in place in Indian civil and public discourse which often hides under the cloak of jingoistic 'nationalism' or popular opinion.
The question to ask would be, where do these prejudices stem from? In India, the answer to that could be tricky. Cow protectionism got a white collar framework in the 19th century with Arya Samaj founder Dayanand Saraswati establishing the 'Gau Rakshini Sabha', one of the first cow protection societies in India. Though the idea was not as glamorous then, cow protectionism has had its own journey to reach where it has today and has always been an important part of the far right movement in India. But what is happening right now, isn't cow protection. It's new integration with a skewed perception of collective, often violent, 'national interest' - as is evidenced in the numerous lynchings based on cow slaughter or even suspicions of it across states in the last four years - has made cow protectionism a toxic political agenda that often fuels itself on communal hate.
Politicians and public figures also help fan the fire of intolerance in their own measures, often normalising the hate. Yoga-guru-turned-billionaire extraordinaire Baba Ramdev recently said that 90 percent of 'gau rakshaks' were good and only 10 percent of them sometimes 'went overboard'. Apparently, lynching innocents in the name of protecting often imaginary cows is what gau rakshaks do when they get a bit too sentimental with their devotion to the bovine. A Telangana BJP lawmaker T Raja Singh Lodh tendered in his resignation stating his disillusionment was due to the party's failure to implement a ban on cow slaughter in the state.
With the upcoming festival of Eid-al-Adha, which involves ritualistic animal sacrifice, gau rakshaks and pro-Hindu entities in many states have taken it upon themselves to 'prevent' cow slaughter. Lodh said that now that he did not have a party to embarrass, he too was in a position to take real action against any defaulters. Lodh is one of many lawmakers and leaders within today's political shchema who have at some point defended, egged on or like the PM himself, remained silent about the atrocities that have resulted from such vigilantism.
Several Indian states such as Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have invested heavily in cow protectionism. Eating or transporting beef is banned in some states and gau rakshaks are generally perceived as the custodians of these laws, sometimes even when they don't exist on paper.
The fact is that cow protectionism is a political agenda and the fact that those denying compassion to Keralites for eating beef are not just criticising their food habits but also slamming their choice of political party and ideology.
Most of the hate messages against beef eaters with invariably laced with political undertones and opposition against 'communists', leftists, Congress supporters and others. The pattern was clear. If you don't support the allegedly dominant ideology, you do not deserve to be helped.
The sentiment has been echoed by many Keralites themselves who accused the central government of treating the ravaged state like a stepchild by curtailing funds and not providing adequate relief. PM Modi on Saturday announced a Rs 500 crore interim relief package for Kerala, in addition to the previous Rs 100 crore granted by the Home Ministry. However, the state claimed that the sum was not nearly enough.
While there is nothing wrong with eating or not eating a certain kind of food, the responsibility to forge acceptance and tolerance for diverse palates - and in extension a tolerance for pluralist beliefs, life styles and choices - falls as much on those spreading hate on Twitter as on those indirectly supporting or defending such bigotry.
At a time like this, when Kerala needs any and every kind of assistance, such apathy would just not do.
On Saturday, eight districts in Kerala were again put on red alert after warning of heavy rainfall in Ernakulam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta. Movement has been paralyzed as roads and even airports have gone under water. CM Pinarayi Vijayan has started a relief fund and several people have already donated large sums. Not just money, people of the country have come forward with food supplies, medicines, blankets and mobile phone recharges and many private platforms have also offered ways to donate money.
But the real test of solidarity would lie in eliminating such toxicity in the name of (political) difference and coming forward as a unified nation in support of saving and consequently rebuilding a state in distress. The swelling waters will eventually subside. But the wave of hate that is slowly soaking the country's fabric may take forever to dry off.