By Shobhaa De
June 7, 2020
What is common between the horrific death of a 15-year-old female elephant in Kerala and the murder of a 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis? Both were victims of human cruelty in the extreme. The sort of cruelty that makes most people avert their eyes and block out the memory of such suffering.
An elephant and a human being made the world cringe and momentarily forget the Covid crisis. But we responded differently to these two deaths. Why? Why did the pathetic sight of an injured pregnant elephant standing helplessly in a river, mutely waiting to die, move us to tears and lead to countrywide criticism? Why did George Floyd’s last few words, “I can’t breathe”, as a burly white cop kept his heavy knee pressed on Floyd’s neck till his body turned lifeless, trigger the most widespread protests and rioting across America?
This wasn’t the first time an elephant was killed, or a black man was at the receiving end of police brutality in America. Yet both instances of unbelievable sadism, divided as they are by thousands of miles, generated sufficient outrage and revulsion to make a huge impact.
There are active lobbies ‘explaining’ both tragedies. It was pointed out that the loaded pineapple was not ‘fed’ to the elephant and was meant for crop- destroying wild boars. Similarly, Derek Chavin, the white cop who choked Floyd to death, may not have intended to kill him at all. The point is death happened in both cases. And nothing can undo the far-reaching repercussions of both heinous acts now that human emotions have been heavily invested in them and swift justice is being demanded.
It is impossible to apply cold logic in such times and ask, “But why is everybody over-reacting?” This is beyond the control of analysts and social scientists. Who can accurately deconstruct the sequence of events that has led to so much sorrow? Call it timing. The world is reeling from the dance of death unleashed by a microbe. People are at a loss to come to terms with the scale of suffering and destruction. There is confusion and anxiety all around. In the midst of this global panic comes the sad news about the elephant and Floyd. This further disturbs our minds and leads to immense and intense questioning with no clear answers.
I saw hand-drawn posters put up by well-meaning urban kids in Mumbai which followed the global #BlackLivesMatter trending message. Initially, it bothered me that so many desi celebrities had jumped into the social media race to show solidarity with the protests across USA. I noticed how promptly a counter narrative was aggressively thrown at this lot with people asking them to put up #MigrantLivesMatter posters and rejig their priorities. I fell into the trap myself and added to the #AllLivesMatter campaign. The point is — does any of this matter? And nobody can dictate to anybody what should matter more — an elephant or a human being. To each his/her own way of expressing concern at a time when we are all dealing with personal fragility. Why act judgmental about one another’s causes and commitments? As if there is an arbitrary, socially approved, politically correct hierarchy, and one message of support cancels out the other. How ‘inclusive’ is ‘inclusive’? Surely, we are all free to feel what we feel?
One big difference though: Floyd’s heart-rending words — “I can’t breathe” rang out across the US and may provide the last nail in President Trump’s satin-lined coffin. When even the police chief of Houston says that if the President has nothing constructive to say, he should “keep his mouth shut”, you know things are getting serious. This sort of an outburst is unprecedented, and a sure sign that America is done with the man who was brazen enough to stage a photo-op outside a church, clutching a Bible, while his country was burning. The heat is also on when a former service chief condemns Trump and he still doesn’t take back his outrageous remark, “When the looting starts, shooting starts.” The world has rudely woken up and is reading the writing on the wall. Salman Rushdie echoed the popular sentiment when he wrote, “This November, America needs to take out its garbage.”
Not sure who will take out India’s garbage and when. We take brutality for granted. We have numbed ourselves to accepting injustice across the board and have stopped reacting to daily atrocities. India is a country in denial. Evil acts can stare us in the face, and we can go on pretending nothing has happened. So many citizens are suffocating, but why is nobody crying out, “I can’t breathe” and make it a rallying cry here? As has been said often enough, lives come cheap in India. Whether it’s the life of a pregnant elephant or a dead migrant.
Original Headline: 'I can’t breathe’ – words that’ve hit US and must impact us too
Source: The Times of India
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