The recent controversy which erupted in Kerala due to Twitter remarks by Maneka Gandhi has multiple political, environmental and communal angles.

The BJP MP from Sultanpur, former environment minister and animal rights activist recently lashed out at Congress leader and Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi over the recent killing of a pregnant elephant in cold blood by miscreants when she reportedly consumed a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers.

The elephant died in the Velliyar river on May 27 after suffering an injury to the lower jaw.

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

I must confess that I sincerely appreciate Maneka Gandhi’s 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 is listed as endangered by the IUCN as its population has declined at least by half over the last three generations, since 1986. There are around 25,000 elephants in India of which around 2,500 are in captivity. Kerala has a few hundred in captivity.

The deaths of 533 wild elephants, including natural and unnatural deaths, were reported in the past five years in the forests of Kerala, which has a population of around 3,000 elephants.

According to state forest department data, 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 it 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 or Tamil wild elephant.

But still, let us go by official figures. Their calculation of captive elephants in Kerala is 500 and they say around 122 reported deaths took place among them. This should mean that Kerala has around 300 captive elephants all over the state.

The purpose of this article is not to justify the living conditions of 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 Maneka Gandhi’s statement.

However, it may be of help if Maneka Gandhi can look into the violence used for taming elephants in Karnataka also.

The truly threatened elephants are those in the forests. Karnataka had the largest number of wild elephants in 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 human activity. It asked the Centre to come out with some “workable solution” in this regard.

It also noted that the population of elephants, which had declined drastically in the southern states due to rampant poaching by Veerappan, had risen following his death, but that now they were being killed “due to other reasons”.

Many development projects have been a threat to the migration of elephants. Their deaths by the loss of elephant corridors, though much more in number, did not catch the attention of Maneka Gandhi, even when she was union environment minister.

In fact, Gandhi never rose to protect the mega destruction of wildlife by the mega projects in India, since it is a conflict between mega profits and the large scale destruction of wildlife and livelihoods of the forest dependent Adivasis.

But Karnataka is ruled by BJP. Gujarat has the largest number of Asiatic lions in the world, but their issues will not be raised since Gujarat is ruled by the BJP. Again, BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh has a large number of tigers, but their destruction at the hands our mega development was not taken seriously by the former environment minister.

In fact, destruction by the Narmada dams also took place when Maneka Gandhi was 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 wildlife in India is taking place due to these mega projects getting cleared at great speed without consideration to the lives of thousands of wild animals.

Gandhi’s love for animals is confined to the urban upper class and the mainstream press. It does not include questioning the destruction of wildlife and habitats by the mega projects in India. This deviates public attention from the real causes of destruction of wildlife in India.

If Gandhi had a genuine track record of love for animals, she would not have remained a silent spectator to the large scale destruction of forests by the Modi government.

It was in the protected days of the Covid-19 lockdown period that the National Board for Wildlife held a meeting on April 7, to recommend government approval for coal mining inside the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam.

Similarly, approval for the maintenance works for a road inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, drilling of boreholes for the Sharavathi pumped storage and underground 2000 MW hydropower station inside the Sharavathi Lion Tailed Macaque sanctuary in Karnataka, and construction and the commissioning of the Lakhwar Multipurpose Project (300 MW) in the Dehradun and Tehri Garhwal districts by the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited also took place in recent times.

Anybody can imagine the scale of destruction wildlife in these large scale efforts. But Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand 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 livelihood concerns of the Adivasis.

Around 40 mines expired on March 31 after they had completed 50 years of operations. Activists have posed serious questions on environmental violations by these mines.

Another 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 involves diverting 1,150 hectares of forest land and felling at least 270,000 trees in the biodiversity-rich rainforests there.

The concerned sections working in the Dibang Valley have observed how the project will spell doom for the region’s biodiversity and the Idu Mishmi people.

However, environment lover Maneka Gandhi’s voice is nowhere in this picture either, since the decisions were taken by the central government controlled by her own party.

It is not my concern to defend the CPM-dominated Kerala government. However, any sensible person who understands the political scenario today would understand that it has become a priority for the BJP to attack the LDF government, because of a certain degree of functioning evidenced in the state government, as well as the national and international recognition it has received for its efforts combating Covid-19.

The status of functioning of the Gujarat model of the BJP government in that state has also been widely recognised as a major failure.

At a time of decreasing popularity of the BJP at the Centre, it was evidently decided by the party to invest resources in the social and mainstream media to regain the trust of the people. But the investing of money need not build up the trust of the people. Work does.

BJP leaders are also asked to speak in every state to work for building the confidence of the people. But confidence cannot be built by attacking others and that too, without sufficient substance.

Maneka Gandhi’s Twitter remark says: “Malappuram is know for its intense criminal activity”. Let us assume she meant Malappuram, and known. Such an 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% of the population of Malappuram district. This explains the BJP MP’s hatred for Malappuram.

Right from the formation of the district in 1969, the Hindu fundamentalists have been trying their level best to create the image of Malappuram as a violent district. In this they have been successful to a certain extent, even in the mainstream media.

The Uniqueness of Malappuram
It is in in the above context that Maneka Gandhi has been trying to communalise 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?”

Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau for the year 2018 disprove the BJP leader's claims. This 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 her 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 Gandhi’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 a long tradition of communal harmony which is still not recognised properly.

To know about a region, its culture, its environment, its traditions and history, it is not necessary that one should have been born or have lived in that region. 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 in the people of Malappuram, before pointing fingers at them.

The former minister also questioned Rahul Gandhi for not “taking action” despite being an MP from the region. These geographical mistakes can be forgiven. Rahul Gandhi is the MP from Wayanad and not from Malappuram district. Secondly, the incident took place in Palakkad district and not Malappuram.

Now, everybody need not know everything in this world. But as a former environment minister and incumbent 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?

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 cleanliness and health by the state government in 2011, and second prize for Swachhata Excellence Awards in 2019 by the Government of India.

Please note that it was the Modi government which 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 Swachh Bharat.

Malappuram has one the earliest traditions of freedom struggle, right from the beginning of the Portuguese colonial invasion. Most of the heroes of these struggles were Muslims. The contribution of Malappuram to the freedom struggle against the British and its people’s 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 that Maneka Gandhi watch a documentary to understand the notions of harmony among the people of Malappuram in Kerala.

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 has been 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. The Muslim lotus farmers of Shobhaparambu grow 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 the 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. The masjid (mosque) provides 16kg rice every week to the people of this region and around 8 to 12kg rice for outsiders. There is no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion in such a distribution.

Many decades back, P.S.Warrier, who started the Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala, asked the Muslim authorities of the 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 symbolised 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 the involvement of the 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 the 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.

These traditions have been going on for centuries.

Thoppil Shajahan’s no-budget documentary film on communal harmony in Malappuram will remain as an answer to the hate propaganda unleashed by the communal fascists in Kerala for a long time to come.

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, can watch it here:

Maneka Gandhi 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 of discussion among activists for a long time. There is enough documentation of the ill treatment of elephants used for festivals by 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, 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, if in addition to these charges 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.

Gandhi must also realise that many prominent members of these temple authorities belong to her own party. So what she is raising here could also be seen as an ‘internal party problem’ for discussion within the BJP also to find a proper solution.

Another question raised by her statements is, when there is a major reduction of wildlife all over India, how many forest secretaries and how many wildlife 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’ is concerned, 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.

For example, Sultanpur, the constituency of Maneka Gandhi, has a ratio of 22 dowry related deaths while Malappuram has only two. The ratio of registered murder cases is 55 in Sultanpur while it is only 18 in Malappuram. Hit and run cases in Sultanpur were 2,016 while it is only 8 in Malappuram.

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.