The tragic death of a pregnant wild elephant in Kerala’s Silent Valley Forest has taken a communal turn after a former Union minister and right-wing trolls used the incident to stoke Islamophobia.
While the elephant died on May 27, after days of excruciating pain, the incident only gained attention this week after a forest official’s emotional Facebook post went viral.
Initially, news reports indicated that the elephant was deliberately fed a pineapple filled with crackers, which exploded in her mouth. However, this was later contradicted by forest officials, who said that she may have eaten food that was set as a trap by farmers to prevent wild boars from destroying crops.
In a bid to relieve the pain and stave off flies, the elephant immersed herself in the Velliyar river, where she died despite efforts to bring her to land for treatment. The Malayala Manorama newspaper reported that she died after water entered her lungs. The post-mortem report revealed that the elephant was pregnant.
The incident, which was reported from the fringe areas of the Silent Valley in Attappadi, Palakkad, understandably provoked widespread outrage within the state and outside. Several celebrities—including Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli and industrialist Ratan Tata—politicians and animal welfare organisations posted about the incident and called for the government to take action. The state government has announced a probe into the incident.
However, Twitter user @Ra_shmi_Tweets noted on Wednesday that large numbers of people had begun to copy and post Kohli’s tweet. A search on the platform showed hundreds of tweets with the same text.
On Thursday, BJP workers and supporters were trending #KeralaElephantMurder on Twitter.
This came just a day after BJP leader and former Union minister Maneka Gandhi, an animal rights activist, made several wild accusations about the people of Malappuram without substantiating them with evidence. Malappuram is a Muslim-majority district bordering Palakkad.
She said: “It’s murder. Malappuram is famous for such incidents, it’s India’s most violent district. For instance, they throw poison on roads so that 300-400 birds & dogs die at one time.”
Gandhi also claimed “an elephant is killed every 3 days in Kerala” and said Rahul Gandhi should have taken action since he is “from that area”. Rahul is an MP from Wayanad, which is one of the four districts that border Malappuram.
Livemint journalist Nidheesh MK pointed out that Gandhi’s claims were false, as her calculations would imply that over 100 elephants were killed in just Kerala every year.
According to government figures from a reply to Parliament in 2019, the mean number of elephant deaths per year in India was 56.6, The Hindu reported in February 2019. According to the last Elephant Census conducted by the government, 75 elephants died in 2018, far less than Gandhi’s claims.
While Gandhi also accused the Kerala government of taking no action, the state government had announced on Wednesday that a wildlife crime investigation team would probe the killing and and the police had been directed to take stringent action against those responsible for the act.
The News Minute editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran tweete that the incident had not taken place in Malappuram, but in Kottopadam panchayat in Mannarkad in Palakkad district.
As more and more people pointed this out on social media, Palakkad trended on Twitter.
But BJP leaders, including Union ministers Prakash Javadekar and Smriti Irani, had already jumped in to express outrage over the tragic incident.
Javadekar said on Wednesday the Centre had sought a complete report on the incident.
The next day he took it up to a notch to say: “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.”
Meanwhile Union minister Smriti Irani appeared on Republic TV and Times Now to comment on the case. On Times Now, she said “I think what needs to be ascertained is if this is a trend, one needs to break that chain right away. And if this a trend specific to that particular area then it should have been concern that some kind of solution was brought forth by the state government.”
Twitter user Vivek Nambiar posted a thread on how the narrative on animal cruelty was being communalised.
Many were using the incident to propagate anti-Muslim hate and vilify the community.
As polarisation of the incident continued, Malayalam writer KR Meera wrote:
Nidheesh reported in Livemint that the elephant’s death was a symptom of Kerala’s larger problem with encroachment and shrinking of natural habitats for the state’s wildlife.
On Wednesday, a top forest officer told PTI that another female elephant had died in a similar incident in April in Pathanapuram forest range area under Punalur division in Kollam district.
“It was very weak. When the forest officials approached, the elephant ran into the forest and joined the herd of elephants waiting there. But the next day, the elephant was again found alienated from its herd. Proper treatment was given but unfortunately it succumbed to its wounds,” he said.
While there is no doubt that elephants are often mistreated in Kerala—there are multiple reports on the abuse of captive elephants in the state—twisting the facts of a case to aid Islamophobia is a dangerous move.
UPDATE: Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan responds.