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Religion in disasters

In times of personal tragedy, religion often provides comfort and support. One would expect that religion would be a source of comfort in the times of natural calamities and disasters. Unfortunately it is not so. It is in these times that the institutional religions—all of them—display their expansionist and parochial behaviour. The December 2004 tsunami is perhaps the best example of the unethical behaviour of institutionalised religion in stark contrast to the awe-inspiring behaviour of affected individuals and those who felt empathy towards them.

While there were stray cases of people opening up places of worship to shelter entire communities irrespective of religious belief, institutional religion showed its worst side in the aftermath. Almost all religions of the world, without exception, blamed the tsunami—and all subsequent disasters including the present earthquake—on divine wrath. That in itself would not be diabolical if not for the fact that they said that it was god’s punishment for the debauchery of the other religions.

Others took the circuitous route of condemnation and orthodoxy. One of the most benign was the group of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis who came to South East Asia to ensure that none of their co-religionists met their makers without the proper rituals to speed them on their way. So they completed the arduous task of identifying the Jews among the victims and then administering the last rites. A Bangalore based new age guru who teaches the breathing techniques promptly wrote an article about how there should be research on why only Hindu temples were spared, while all other buildings were destroyed. Was there some special science—‘Vedic’ science perhaps?—that was known in the days of yore, but was now forgotten? He suggested research in that direction. It is perhaps a laughable suggestion, but even in this he was not original. This was a mass delusion of fundamentalist Christian and Muslim priests, who made the same claims as well.

The religio-cultural internalisation of caste displayed its devastating consequences too. The fisher-folk, who consider themselves as a Backward Class, routinely denied aid for the Dalits who were equally affected in some pockets. They maintained that the fisher folk, and only the fisher folk, were affected, so all aid should be to them and them alone. While this appropriation of aid and monopolising sympathy can be justified based on some convoluted logic, what is totally unjustified and immoral was the absolute refusal of the fisher folk to even share accommodation with the Dalits even for a day! They were afraid that their contact with the Dalits would pollute them. It is a sobering fact that even a humanitarian crisis of such enormous proportions could not weed out the inhuman caste discrimination and bring about solidarity.

For instance, in Karaikal the fisher folk received 60 kgs of rice while the landless agricultural labourers—mainly Dalits—received only 5 kgs. This is bizarre since both have lost their livelihoods: the fisher folk lost their boats and nets and thus the ability to fish while the Dalits lost their ability to get work on lands since the land became saline with the ingress of the sea. Even the government was forced to have segregated relief camps. So strong is the hold of the caste system that even in their distress, others refused to inter-dine or share relief camps with Dalits. Ironically, Dalits were imported from other areas to bury the dead.

There was an unseemly scramble to identify and bury ‘our dead’ between the ‘volunteers’ of different religious groups. One religious group in particular laid claim to bodies, and then waited till persons from a particular caste could arrive to carry it off. During the delay they shooed off all others, despite the bodies starting to putrefy. There were turf wars during this early stage itself.

Priests and nuns from one religion stored relief material in one village. When they found out that there were no members of their religion there, they told the people of the village that they should either convert or let them take the relief materials to another village which had their co-religionists. This naturally made the people there furious. Fortunately saner counsel prevailed before the situation turned nasty. With discretion being the better part of valour, the misguided religious zealots quickly left.

It is in cyberspace that the venom of religion is most frequently—and unabashedly—expressed. This is but natural given the anonymity of the medium, and the poor educational level of its users. The users are often immature, expensively schooled, with enormous technological power in their hands. The gloating when adherents of the ‘other’ religions died is but a minor sideshow. Aid was mobilised, and denied, using the electronic media. While institutional religion constantly preaches the bygone utopia to its adherents, it has warmly embraced technology to propagate its medieval world view.

A few were motivated by their religion to compassion and empathy. Their efforts were drawn from the bedrock of their faith, and encompassed all those who were affected, regardless of any distinction—caste, sex, religion, or any other. But they were in a minority. It also demonstrates the best face of secular India: where faith is a personal affair, from which we draw our strength but does not become a political construct. It is when religion becomes a political construct that it spills over into the public sphere as identity politics resulting in discrimination and demonising the ‘Other’. During emergencies, and times of great change, people look to the known and the simplistic for comfort. At these times they are vulnerable, and faith is easy to manipulate. It is important that all right thinking citizens work to keep faith based groups out of disaster relief and community reconstruction since that is when the affected people are at their most vulnerable, and liable to be misused.

At all times, particularly during emergencies, we must respect religion so much as to keep it out of as many things as possible.