The recent controversy which erupted in Kerala due to the twitter remarks by Maneka Gandhi has multiple political, environmental and communal angles. The controversy started on the manner in which the former Environment Minister chose to make the statement.

Bharatiya Janata MP and animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi recently lashed out at Congress leader and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi over the recent killing of a pregnant elephant in cold blood by miscreants who reportedly consumed a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers. The elephant died in the Velliyar river on May 27 after suffering an injury in the lower jaw.

The BJP leader demanded the dismissal of the state forest secretary and resignation of the wildlife protection minister and questioned Rahul Gandhi on why he hasn’t taken any action against the culprits in Kerala’s Malappuram district.

The Environmental Side of the Argument

With all respect to the concerns for the elephant issue in Kerala, I must confess that I sincerely appreciate Maneka Gandhi for raising the issue of elephants for a wider discussion. Let us begin the discussion by looking into the elephant population in India;

The Asian Elephant has been listed as endangered by IUCN as the population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations since 1986. India has around 25,000 elephants out of which around 2,500 are in captivity. Kerala has a few hundred in captivity.

The death of 533 wild elephants, including natural and unnatural deaths, was reported in the past five years in the forests of Kerala, which has a population of around 3000 elephants. According to the data with Forest Department, among the 533 tuskers who died in Kerala in the past five years, 44 elephants died due to poaching, electrocution, collision with vehicles and explosives. These figures do have a lot of loopholes taking into consideration that wild elephants keep moving from one state to another and hence it is difficult to say much about the population of wild elephants in one state alone. These figures relate to the time in which the recording of the numbers has taken place. There is nothing called Kerala wild elephant and Tamil wild elephant. The state and national boundaries are inventions of the human species and not by the migratory species.  But still, let us go by the official figures. As per the official figures itself, the calculation of the captive elephants in Kerala has been 500 and they say around 122 reported deaths took pace among them also. It means that Kerala has around 300 and odd captive elephants all over the state. The purpose of this article is not to justify the problems faced by the captive elephants in Kerala. There have been a wide range of discussions initiated by the environment lovers of Kerala on this issue in public and in the mainstream press and TV channels for a long time, much before the statement of Maneka Gandhi. However, it may be of similar concern, if  Maneka Gandhi can look into the violence used for taming the elephants in Karnataka also.

The real threat to the number of elephants are among those in the forests. Karnataka has the largest number of wild elephants as per the 2017 census. The main area of operation for the elephant poacher and smuggler Veerappan was in Karnataka. Veerappan shifted from elephants to sandalwood and other areas since the number of poachers in Karnataka increased during his time itself. On April 7, 2018, the Supreme Court stressed on the need to protect elephant corridors across the country to reduce animal fatalities due to accidents and other reasons. The Supreme Court had asked the Centre to come out with some `workable solution’ in this regard. The court also noted that the population of elephants, which had declined drastically in southern states due to rampant poaching by Veerappan, had risen following his death but now they were being killed `due to other reasons’. Many development projects have been a threat to the migration of elephants. The reduction of elephants by the loss of elephant corridors, though much more in number, has not caught the attention of Maneka Gandhi, even when she was the environment minister. In fact, she never rose to protect the `mega destruction of wild life’ by the `mega projects’ in India, since it is a conflict between `mega profits’ and `large scale destruction of wild life and livelihood of `the forest dependent Adivasi population’. The real threat to the decline of the number of elephants in Karnataka itself is more than Kerala. However, Maneka Gandhi would not raise this issue of the larger number of elephants from the forests in this state, since Karnataka is ruled by BJP.

Gujarat has the largest number of Asiatic lions in the world. But this issue will not be raised since Gujarat is ruled by BJP. Again, the BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh has a large number of tigers in India. The destruction of tigers in Madhya Pradesh by our mega development, including the construction of Narmada dams was not taken seriously by the former environment minister. In fact, the destruction by Narmada dams also took place when Maneka Gandhi was the Environment Minister at the Centre.

The National Board for Wildlife met once on April 7, but considered as many as 34 infrastructure, mining and commercial projects linked or inside wildlife sanctuaries and reserves. The wild life lover Maneka Gandhi was silent on this issue despite the fact that a huge threat to wild life in India is taking place due to mega projects getting cleared in great speed without consideration to the lives of thousands of wild animals. Mrs. Gandhi’s love for animals are reduced to the urban middle class attention as well as the mainstream press only and it does not include questioning the mega destruction of wild animals by the mega projects in India. This in fact, is deviating the public attention from the real destruction wild animals. If Mrs. Gandhi had a genuine track record for her love for animals, she would not have remained as a silent spectator to the large scale destruction of forests by the Modi Government.

It was under the protected days of COVID-19 lock down period that the National Board for Wildlife held a meeting on April 7, where approval was recommended for coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam. Similarly, the approval for the  maintenance works for a road inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, drilling of boreholes for Sharavathi pumped storage and underground 2000 MW hydropower station inside Sharavathi Lion Tailed Macaque sanctuary in Karnataka and construction and the commissioning of Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) in Dehradun and Tehri Garhwal districts by Uttarakhand Jal Vidhyut Nigam Limited also took place in recent times. Anybody can imagine the scale of destruction wild life in these large scale efforts. However, the environment lover and Maneka Gandhi’s voice is nowhere heard in this picture. Because Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarkhand are ruled by the BJP and Kerala is not.

Many activists in India today are concerned about Mining leases and permission for mining without looking into the environmental aspects or the concerns of the livelihood of the Adivasis. Around 40 mines expired on March 31, after they completed 50 years of operations. The activists pose serious questions on environmental violations by these mines. An upcoming destruction of wild life is the forest clearance given to the Etalin hydropower project in one of India’s most biodiversity rich zones in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley. The project will divert 1,150.08 ha of forest land and felling of at least 270,000 trees in the bio-diversity rich rain forests. The concerned sections working in Dibang Valley have observed on how the project will spell doom for the region’s biodiversity and the Idu Mishmi people. However, the environment lover and Maneka Gandhi’s voice is nowhere in this picture also, since the decisions are by the Central Government controlled by her own party.

It is not my concern to defend the left dominated Kerala Government. However, any sensible person who understands the political scenario today would understand that it has become a priority for BJP to attack the LDF Governement, because of a certain degree of functioning of the State Government as well as the national and international recognition that Kerala Govt. received for its efforts during the COVID-19 days. The status of functioning of the Gujarat model of the BJP Government in Gujarat on this issue has also been widely recognised as a major failure. At a time of decreasing popularity of BJP at the centre, it was decided by the party to invest resources on the social media and the mainstream media to regain the trust of the people. But the investment of money need not build up the trust of the people. Work does. The BJP leaders are also asked to speak in every state to work for building the confidence of the people. But confidence can not be built by attacking others and that too, without sufficient substance.

Raising Communal Sentiments in the Name of Environment

The twitter remark of Mrs. Gandhi says: `Mallapuram is know (not `known’) for its intense criminal activity’. She did not say `Malappuram’. She said `Mallapuram’. Anyway, let us assume that she meant Malappuram. But such allegation on Malappuram is nothing new. People from Malappuram have heard this Sangh Parivar propaganda right from the formation of Malappuram as a district. As a district in Kerala, Malappuram has one of the largest population of Muslims in India. Muslims constitute 70 per cent of the population of Malappuram district. This explains the BJP MP’s hatred for Malappuram region. Right from the formation of the district, the Hindu fundamentalists have been trying their level best to bring down the image of Malappuram, as a violent district. They have been successful to a certain extent to cultivate such a public image even in the mainstream media.

The Uniqueness of Malappuram District – Facts against Myths

It is in in the above context that Maneka Gandhi has been trying to communalize the death of an elephant. It is not just that her facts were wrong about where the incident happened, she had also called Malappuram the ‘most violent district’ in the country, and made several baseless comments in her interview to ANI:

`This Malappuram, it is such a district, which is perhaps the most disturbed in the whole of India. Every day there is some incident which comes from Malappuram. These people beat animals like anything. The panchayat people there not only abuse elephants, they throw poison on the ground, killing thousands of animals, they kill birds, they kill dogs. Every day there is some killing happening there,” she said

“They kill so many women there,” she further claimed, “They have these Hindu-Muslim fights and cut the hands of people. It is a scary situation in Malappuram. It looks like the Kerala government is scared of them. Because no sort of action is taken over there. The weakest administrative people are sent to Malappuram. Now the question is, what is the Kerala government going to do?” she further said.

Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for the year 2018 disprove the BJP leader’s claims. The central Kerala district does not rank high in crimes such as murder, dowry deaths, attempt to rape, attempt to murder, extortion, abduction or kidnapping.

Kerala police have registered a case against BJP MP Maneka Gandhi, after she made false statements based on the killing of a pregnant elephant in the state, which has turned into a communal issue.

The pregnant elephant that died in Mannarkkad taluk in Palakkad had eaten an explosive snare and passed away on May 27 inside the Velliyur river which runs through Palakkad and Malappuram. The elephant died in an area within Kottopadam panchayat in Mannarkkad taluk in Palakkad.

While one person named Wilson who works in an estate in Palakkad has been arrested, two others are absconding.

Kerala Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala slammed Maneka’s statement. “Social media is now full of hate speeches against a particular community,” he said, in a letter, demanding that she withdraw her statement and apologise.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had also condemned the attempts to communalise the killing of the pregnant elephant. “We are saddened by the fact that some have used this tragedy to unleash a hate campaign. Lies built upon inaccurate descriptions and half-truths were employed to obliterate the truth. Some even tried to import bigotry into the narrative. Wrong priorities,” he said in a statement.

The beauty of Malappuram can be experienced only by those who try to relate with the people of Malappuram. This district has long tradition of communal harmony which is still not recognized properly.

To know about a region, its culture, its environment, its traditions and history, it is not necessary that one should belong to that region by birth. What is most important is to have a certain degree of openness to understand. It is not the limitation of the people of Malappuram that our former Environment Minister, Maneka Gandhi has not taken sufficient interest on the people of Malappuram, before pointing fingers at them.

Maneka Gandhi has also questioned Rahul Gandhi for not `taking action’ despite being an MP from the region.  The geographical mistakes of the former environment minister can be forgiven. First of all, Rahul Gandhi is a Member of Parliament from Waynad and not from Malappuram district. Secondly, the incident took place in Palakkad district and not Malappuram. Everybody need not know everything in this world. However, it is important to mention that as a former environment minister and as a present MP from the ruling party, Maneka Gandhi has more power than Rahul Gandhi on issues like these. So, the question is also what she has been doing all along on such issues apart from blaming others?

Now, assuming that the district meant by Mrs. Gandhi is Malappuram and not Mallapuram as claimed by her twitter remark, there are a few facts about this region that Maneka Gandhi should know, before claiming that this district is a violent district.

Malappuram is one of the few municipalities in the state with a tremendous track record of keeping the city clean. It received the recognition as the second best municipality in keeping the cleanliness and health by state government in 2011 and Second prize for Swachhata Excellence Awards in 2019 by Government of India. Please note that it was the Modi Government that gave Malappuram the Award for Swachhata Excellence. Such acknowledgements  describe the sincere efforts of the municipality. In the same year, there were reports on how Modi could not keep even his own constituency in Gujarat clean,  despite appropriating taxes in the name of Swatch Bharat.

Malappuram has one the earliest tradition of freedom struggle, right from the beginning of colonial invasion of Portuguese. Most of the heroes of these struggles were Muslims. The contribution of Malappuram to the freedom struggle against the British and the contributions to poetry, music, literature and various shades of culture are many. Above all, this region has a strong tradition of communal harmony, unlike the BJP controlled regions in India.

However, this district has been a target of attack by the Hindutva forces for a long time. The only reason is that Malappuram has the largest concentration of Muslims. Therefore, the Hindutva forces have even called this region as mini-Pakistan, forgetting the heroes of Malappuram who fought selflessly against colonialism, which their parent organisation RSS could not do.

I would strongly recommend Maneka Gandhi to watch one documentary to understand the notions of harmony among the people of Malappuram in Kerala. It may or it may not make much of difference, but I would not lose anything by making this request.

Thoppil Shajahan’s documentary film called: `Malappuram – Beyond the Tales’, travels through various segments of communal harmony in Malappuram district. The film unravels the traditions of communal harmony in Thunjanparambu where Muslims  and Hindus cooperate with each other for the literacy of their children. It documents Shobhaparambu in Tanoor where the Chief Priest of the Hindu Bhagawati Temple is appointed by the Muslim elders for generations. Close to Shobhaparambu is Thirunavaya where the lotuses to the temples are brought from the fields of by the Muslims. Muslim lotus farmers of Shobhaparambu produce lotuses for temples all over Kerala even for the famous Guruvayoor temple. While there are conscious attempts to divide people using religion, the Juma Masjid in Moonakkal near Valanchery has proved that hunger has no caste or religion. Since Juma Masjid provides rice every week to both Hindus and Muslims in the region, the poor people here never run short of rice. Both Muslims and Hindus contribute rice to Juma Masjid to see to it that people in this region do not go hungry. This Masjid provides 16 kg rice every week to the people of this region and around 8 to 12 kg rice for outsiders. There is no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion in such a distribution. Many decades back, PS Warrier, who started Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala, asked the Muslim authorities of Kottakkal Palappura Juma Masjid, whether their Mosque needed anything. When he found out that there was a shortage of Minambra (space for public speaking), he went with the Muslim leaders to Ponnani to reproduce a model of Minambra for the mosque in Kottakkal. This minambra from the initiative of a Hindu Ayurvedic doctor is still being used in the mosque. Beyond communal harmony, Shajahan’s documentary also speaks of the everlasting tradition of love, symbolized by the tomb of Sufi Saint Yahoom Thangal in Tirur. Both Hindus and Muslims cooperate with each other to see to it that his memory of love remains even when the politics of hatred is being spread consciously for political gains outside. As a traditional participation of the rituals here, the bananas and coconut oil are brought from Pullunni temple nearby and involvement of Hindu ancestral family of Ambat to begin the rituals can be considered as a unique moment of expression love, peace and harmony between the two communities. In Mooniyur Kaliyattakkavu Bhagavati temple the Hindu believers begin their ritual of Kaliyattam after paying respect to Mamburam Thangal’s shrine by singing and dancing for the memory of the Muslim spiritual leader. The traditions have been going on for centuries.

The voice over of KV Shaji and the script of Mustafa Desamangalam are added attractions to Thoppil Shajahan’s documentary film on communal harmony in Malappuram. This no-budgeted film will remain as an answer to the hate propaganda unleashed by the communal fascists in Kerala for long time to come. The above documentary film must be seen by all those who wish to know about the traditions of communal harmony, peace and love of the people of Malappuram as signs of dissent against communal hatred. What Maneka Gandhi characterized as `violent tradition of Malappuram’ is certainly not just an insult to the people of Malappuram, but also to the people of Kerala.

Those who wish to watch this film and share it with your friends in order to contribute your bit to the tradition of communal harmony of the people of Malappuram, may go to the following link:

Anecdotes

The confusing part of Maneka Gandhi’s statements may be when she also lashed out on the ill treatment of the tamed elephants. She says: `About 600 elephants are being killed by the temples by breaking their legs, beating, and starving them and otherwise by private owners by insuring them and then deliberately drowning them or giving them gangrene by putting rusted nails on them.’ The confusion may appear why a BJP MP is raising the ill treatment of elephants by the temples in Kerala. The issue of ill treatment of captive elephants in Kerala has been an important subject for discussion among activists for a long time. There is enough documentation of the ill treatment of elephants used for festivals by the temple authorities. Raising the issue about the ill treatment of captive elephants in Kerala by Maneka Gandhi may appear to be an error in her political agenda. But the overall idea was to hit at Kerala. The information she has supplied on how the tamed elephants are treated is nothing new. For a long time, the environmental activists in Kerala  by raising the issue of ill-treatment of elephants, especially by the temple authorities have already brought in many changes due to their consistent pressures. Now, in addition to these changes if Maneka Gandhi can also bring out a positive plan, I assume that it would be considered positively by the environmental activists. But producing false data attached with emotional exaggeration and communal politicisation may not be a solution. Unfortunately, she must also realise that many of prominent members of these temple authorities belong to her own party. Therefore, what Maneka Gandhi is raising here could also be seen as an `internal party problem’ for discussion within BJP also to find a proper solution.

Further, the BJP MP has also demanded the dismissal of the state forest secretary and resignation of the wildlife protection minister in connection with the death of an elephant. The question is also, under these premises, when there is a major reduction of wild life all over India, how many forest secretaries and how many wild life protection ministers should be dismissed under the BJP controlled states?

Finally, as far as her portrayal of Malappuram as `the most violent district in India’, she should perhaps look into the facts with some concern for truth. The rate of crimes like cruelty by husbands or his relatives, sexual harassment and molestation of women, dowry deaths, rape, arson, auto theft, burglary, dacoity, other theft, robbery, cheating, counterfeiting, criminal breach of trust and forgery in Malappuram is far less than the national average. This includes the crime records in Sultanpur also which is the constituency of Maneka Gandhi. For example, Sultanpur, the constituency of Maneka Gandhi has 22 dowry related deaths while Malappuram has only 2 as per ratio. The ratio of registered murder cases are 55 in Sultanpur while it is only 18 in Malappuram. Hit and run cases in Sultanpur are 2016  while it is only 8 in Malappuram. Therefore, it would be more appropriate for Maneka Gandhi to look into her own constituency regarding violence and crime rather than speaking about Malappuram in Kerala.

K.P. Sasi is a film maker, cartoonist and writer


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2 Comments

  1. Communalised politicisation of the issue has been very well analysed. Kudos!

  2. Avatar Sumanta Banerjee says:

    If she’s such a great lover of animals, why doesn’t Maneka Gandhi spend a few hours among rogue elephants and rabid dogs ?