When the death penalty was being demanded after every heinous rape or sexual assault in India, a few activists spoke out against it. One would wonder why. Why would those demanding the sternest of punishments shy away from the death penalty? They reasoned that once the rapists knew that any witness could lead them to the gallows, they wouldn’t stop at rape but would murder the victim as well, the objective being elimination of any possible witness to the crime.

That was a few years ago. Criminals feared the law and were afraid of the repercussions. Then, things changed. From one each in 2012 and 2013 to three in 2014, cow-related hate crimes started being reported in India. The numbers grew over the subsequent years. It was like a newly launched government scheme that was seeing increasing adoption – 12 in 2015, 24 in 2016 and 37 in 2017. The terrible sport had caught on.

The perpetrators always came in a mob. The veil of a crowd provided both anonymity and security from prosecution. The only silver lining, if one could see any in these killings, was that the killers still had the fear of the law.

There is no clear timeline of when things changed, but one of the first cow-vigilantism videos to go viral was of four Dalits (members of an oppressed caste who used to be treated as “untouchables”) chained to a car in Gujarat state and beaten mercilessly. The attackers made no effort to hide their faces.

This was July 2016. In October the same year, when someone accused of lynching and murder died a natural death in Uttar Pradesh, his body was wrapped in the Indian national flag. Members of the central government attended his funeral. The lynch mob was already a hero.

In April last year, a video of the brutal torture and murder of Pehlu Khan in the district of Alwar in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan went viral. The state is currently ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The images were circulated in the media for a long time.

A year later, charges against six of the accused were dropped and Alwar police charged the victims with cow smuggling. Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria described the actions of cow vigilantes as “all right.” The president of the Rasthriya Mahila Gau Rakshak Dal (National Women’s Cow Protection Group) declared that the vigilantes of today will “be known as heroes in the future.”

Videos and images of lynching from the eastern states of Jharkhand and Assam as well as Jammu and Kashmir came soon after. The last one showed policemen standing around and doing nothing.

What changed? Why did criminals stop hiding in mobs and start facing the camera? Was there a secret circular that said murderers will now be celebrated as viral video stars? How did an inherently diverse society see these brutal murders so indifferently? How did the videos become an acceptable part of propaganda?

To say that the videos shocked no one would be factually incorrect. There were protests and rallies after each of these videos surfaced. And if the law had taken its course, they would probably have stopped. So what action did law and lawmakers take?

Gujarat passed a law that made cow slaughter punishable with life in prison. It already had a strict law in this regard. Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned cow vigilantes against taking the law into their own hands, a video of a lynching in Assam surfaced. Either the prime minister had lost his authority or the murderers knew that his threats were only eyewash directed at international media.

The Guardian did a story on cow vigilantes in which various Hindutva agents openly displayed their weapons and threatened to murder. The sense of impunity with which they spoke about their plans was frightening. The video opens with a disclaimer, “Warning: This video contains graphics images some people may find distressing.” The number of people who find murder distressing has been reduced to a minority.

The worst came when a Muslim migrant laborer was hacked and burned on film by Shambhu Lal Raigar in BJP-ruled Rajasthan. While the video shocked most, the supporters of Hindutva saw Shambhu Lal Raigar as one who took revenge for “love jihad.” A tableau was taken out to celebrate his “heroism,” and marches and fundraising campaigns were organized to support his legal defense.

A criminal had turned into a hero. It was proved that the videos were targeted at a specific audience – an audience that viewed and circulated such content as markers of its authority. In their convoluted minds, this was a way to get back at the Muslim “oppressors” from medieval times and Dalits who didn’t have a right to rise against them. This was their revenge porn.

But hate crimes rarely follow the script. Soon, a mob in Kerala lynched a tribal man on camera for stealing food. The culprits smiled at the camera and tortured the man to death. How did we come to this point as a society?

What is said about modern warfare is also true of these videos. It dehumanizes a certain section of society and normalizes their killing. It increases even the most reluctant viewers’ tolerance for blood and gore and lowers their resistance. The whole society crosses an unseen threshold and stops reacting to violence and murder with an intensity that it normally evokes.

In 1984, Indonesian president Suharto funded a film, Pengkhianatan G30s/PKI, which showed communists brutally torturing non-communists. Eyes are gouged out, whippings, cigarette burns – the movie had it all and was made mandatory for schoolchildren. Everyone needed to know how horrible the communists were. A whole generation was subjected to this. India seems to be subjected to a similar project that seeks to normalize violence against Dalits and Muslims.

In the latest video that went viral, a Sikh policeman, Sub-Inspector Gagandeep Singh in the hilly state of Uttarakhand, saved a Muslim youth from a mob. Local BJP members of the legislative assembly defended the mob, saying a Muslim youth had no business being in the proximity of a temple and in the company of a Hindu girl. Since then, the hero cop has received death threats and has gone on long leave.

India’s currently polarized society can’t make up its mind on who is a hero – one who kills on film or the one who saves lives.