WHEN MOST PEOPLE first read of the death online, the picture that jumped into their mind was of the pregnant elephant ambling into the village, a villager holding out a pineapple, the trunk coming to gently take and eat it, the firecracker within the fruit exploding inside and the animal stoically enduring the pain as life silently ebbed out of it. Man had done what he always did—needlessly killed a mute powerless animal because he could. Social media erupted in anger and agony. Then the question marks appeared.
The elephant, 15 years old, died on May 27th. The man responsible for making the death national news was a forest officer who first responded to assist it. He put up a Facebook post written in Malayalam on May 30th which began with ‘Forgive, sister, forgive’. It would take a few more days before the English translation would go viral. His graphic narrative, which humanised the animal, plus the fact of a foetus found inside her, was the tipping point. His translated post, as published in the online magazine, Newsminute, read: ‘She was frail and weak when I saw her.
Her stomach was shrunk. She kept her wounded mouth immersed in water to probably keep away flies and other worms…Without letting us save her, she died, in a standing position, at 4 pm on May 27. We stood there, shocked…The doctor who performed her post-mortem told me, ‘she was not alone’. His voice was cracking when he told me that. Since he had worn a mask, I could not see his expression but I understood the emotion in that voice.’
But as the media began reporting, it turned out that the elephant may not have been the intended target of the pineapple at all. She resided in the Silent Valley national park and had entered human environs, drifting to a border village. These fruit-laden firecrackers were a common feature in the region but to fend off wild boars, a real threat to both lives and property there. Another Newsminute article, after an FIR was registered, quoted a divisional forest officer saying, ‘We are suspecting that the elephant fell prey to the explosive snare used to fend off wild boars.’
It is however in the nature of public sentiment that once unleashed, it remains anchored . Indirect responsibility for a death is a lesser crime than murder among humans, but in the world of social media, there is usually only one brush to tar an event with. That it wasn’t a deliberate killing did little to temper responses. If anything, now another phenomenon raised its head—the politics of right versus left. In the span of a couple of days this week, a number of BJP leaders and Union ministers have used the death to target the CPM-led Kerala government and also to give it a Hindu-Muslim colour.
BJP MP and former minister Maneka Gandhi called it murder and said Mallapuram is known for such killings. Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani told a news channel that elephants have been associated with temples. Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar brought in Indian culture and also reiterated the ‘feeding’ theory with a tweet that said: ‘Central Government has taken a very serious note of the killing of an elephant in Mallapuram, #Kerala. We will not leave any stone unturned to investigate properly and nab the culprit(s). This is not an Indian culture to feed fire crackers and kill.’ On Twitter, the right wing started a campaign with vocal pro-left tweeters refuting them.
The political tactic to communalise it was underpinned by a comedy of errors. It was based on initial reports that said the village was in Mallapuram, a Muslim-dominated district. Later, it turned out to be in Palakkad district. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan emphasised it in a tweet of his own that promised justice while also saying: ‘In a tragic incident in Palakkad dist, a pregnant elephant has lost its life.’ It hasn’t reduced the acrimony. The real facts, as with everything else in the death, had ceased to matter.