This Week in Asia

Kerala floods: a tragedy in god's own country, but whose god?

THE RAINS HAVE stopped, the water is receding. It is Eid ul-Adha in Kerala, the southern Indian state grappling with the worst floods it has faced this century. Wading in slush and garbage swept in by unprecedented monsoon rains since late July, people are slowly returning to their ravaged, snake-infested homes.

Nizam Ali's family in the town of Mala in Thrissur, one of the worst-affected districts, has no place to offer prayers for the Islamic festival of sacrifice - the local mosque is under water. Ali hears the Purappillikavu Rakteshwari Hindu temple in the neighbourhood, in an unusual move, is letting Muslims use a hall in its compound to offer prayers. "I can hardly believe my ears," he says before scooting off to say his Eid namaaz in memory of the nearly 390 people killed and tens of thousands rendered homeless. "But more than anything else, I want to pray for people to stop this Hindu-Muslim-Christian charade."

Floodwaters in a village in Alappuzha district. Photo: Bloomberg

Ali is referring to the hate-mongering, bigotry and communal politics that have reared their ugly heads while Kerala struggles to keep its head above water. The Rakteshwari temple is a rare exception. Just the previous day, Ali had received a video message on WhatsApp, related to a media interview of Swami Chakrapani Maharaj, president of the Hindu body, All India Hindu Mahasabha.

The monk was openly urging Hindu relief workers in Kerala not to help Muslims since they slaughter cows, considered holy by Hindus, and eat beef. "The floods have happened because of them [Muslims]. They slaughter our 'go mata' [holy cow, equivalent to 'our mother']. About time these insensitive people suffer for their sins," he was saying at fever pitch.

Social media has been similarly rife with vile posts alleging that churches were exploiting the floods to their advantage, including putting copies of the Bible in relief packages, and urging Hindus not to accept any help from Christian organisations.

Kerala, which boasts the highest literacy rate among the Indian states and is known internationally for its tourist-friendly backwaters - "god's own country" as it is called - has been taken over by a hate factory in these times of unparalleled distress. Voice clips of unverifiable origins are doing the rounds on social media requesting people not to send food supplies, sanitary towels or money to Kerala because the "beef-eating state deserved it".

From across the state, stories are emerging of upper caste Hindu Brahmin families denying help from Christian fishermen, even when they have no other means of being rescued.

"People aren't able to watch television but social media is rife with these messages spreading hate and fear," says Krishnapillai C Santhosh Kumar, a Thrissur-based filmmaker and social activist, who is helping in the rehabilitation of flood victims.

Apart from the anti-Muslim campaigns by right-wing organisations, another popular belief has caught on - that the floods were the result of the wrath of Lord Ayyappan, a bachelor Hindu god. The Supreme Court recently started hearing views on whether menstruating women should be allowed entry into the lord's famous Sabarimala temple. The temple, cut off by the floods, has traditionally barred entry for women between the ages of 10 and 50.

The belief gained currency when the director of the Reserve Bank of India, S Gurumurthy, in a tweet, suggested that the Supreme Court reconsider its decision: "Even if there is one in a million chance of a link, people would not like the case decided against Ayyappan." He even countered the backlash from more rational minds on Twitter by saying: "Amazed at the hypocrisy of Indian intellectuals who trash people's faith. Ninety-nine per cent of Indians believe in God."

Santhosh Kumar says many Keralites he has met during his relief work - from all walks of life, and surprisingly, women - are convinced that the deluge is indeed Ayyappan's way of signalling to them not to mess with him. "Of course, the liberals and rationalists do not believe such nonsense but a majority of people do not fall into those categories," he adds.

Volunteers preparing to serve food to flood victims at a relief camp set up at Sree Narayana College Cherthala in Alappuzha. Photo: Bloomberg

Shashi Tharoor, a member of parliament from the state capital and a former international diplomat, tweeted: "The notion of divine retribution being peddled by some to explain the Kerala floods is a travesty of the Hindu faith they claim to espouse ... keep Sabarimala out of this!"

There has been a raging political battle over relief aid as well, between the right-wing central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the communist-ruled Kerala, the last left bastion in India. The state government had sought US$313 million as rehabilitation funds but New Delhi has approved only US$85 million as "advance assistance". The funds, the Modi government says, are over and above the US$80 million allotted earlier to Kerala's state disaster relief fund.

Though New Delhi promises to release more central assistance when Kerala sends fresh damage assessment figures, the state and the central government have been sparring over purpoted aid from the United Arab Emirates, home to around one million people from Kerala who live or work there. The UAE is still assessing the quantum of the aid, though initial reports had suggested an offer of US$100 million, which the Modi government says has not been officially conveyed yet.

Reacting to earlier reports of Delhi's refusal to accept the UAE's offer, Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac had said: "This is a dog in the manger policy. If the Centre cannot accept foreign aid, it should release that kind of money itself."

Tharoor says the challenge is much greater than anything that India has faced in recent times and it is always "useful to know what sort of international assistance is available". But his suggestions for a conference to rebuild Kerala, after his meetings with officials from the United Nations and World Health Organisation in Geneva this week, have been met with indifference by the state government.

Celebrated by Keralites of all religions, Onam marks the annual homecoming of the legendary king Mahabali, known for his prosperous and peaceful reign over Kerala. As more than 1.3 million people begin to return to their flood-ravaged homes to rebuild their lives, traditional celebrations have given way to a poignant reflection of a past era less riven by hatred and anger.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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