The Elephant in the Room

Peelandi, the tusker that has been renamed Chandrasekharan
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Complaints have flooded Kerala CM’s office against the ‘tribal identity’ of an elephant being stamped out

ACCORDING TO THE website of the Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department, there are 702 captive elephants belonging to private owners and temple committees across all districts in the state. It also lists the names of these animals and you find that there is not a single one without a Hindu name. Most of them happen to be typically upper caste ones. Many of them were earlier nameless or had a different name but have since been co-opted into ‘Brahminism’, apparently. An elephant, Peelandi, revered by tribals, is the latest example of this happening in the state. This time, however, the rechristening is being questioned.

For the tribal communities in Attappady in Palakkad, Peelandi is more than an animal. Despite having killed seven people, Peelandi is loved and worshipped by them. He was captured by the Wildlife Department and sent to an elephant sanctuary in Kodanadu, Ernakulam district, where he was trained to be obedient. He was also renamed Chandrasekharan by forest officials, an act that has stirred up a protest. Complaints have flooded the Chief Minister’s office against the elephant’s ‘tribal identity’ being stamped out.

Peelandi was named after a tribal he had allegedly killed. “This happened years ago,” says KA Ramu, a social activist who belongs to the Muthuva community in Attappady. “Elephants do not usually kill. Such incidents happen when people provoke them. The settlers are not kind to elephants and do not respect them; instead, they try to scare them by using firecrackers. Tribal people have had a very cordial relationship with wild elephants. I have seen my father talking to them. When we ask them to clear the way, they silently obey,” he says. According to Ramu, the entire tribal community in Attappady is unhappy with the Department for caging Peelandi far away from Attappady and also for changing his name.

“Why are these elephants given only savarna Hindu names?” asks Bobban Mattumantha, an environmental activist in Palakkad who has filed a petition with the Chief Minister requesting him to retain its name as Peelandi. In the complaint filed on June 17th, he reminds the government that referring to elephants with such names is a reflection of casteism. “In Tamil Nadu, you can see elephants with Muslim and Christian names,” says Mattumantha.

The database of Tamil Nadu’s captive elephants would seem to ratify this argument. They have names like Fathima Beevi, Syed Ali Fathima, Khaleem and Vaseem. The justification for Hindu names for captive elephants in Kerala is their relationship with temples. These animals are mostly used for festivals, and a Muslim or Christian name is viewed as ‘inappropriate’. “Even if we can buy this argument, it offers no justification for renaming Peelandi as Chandrasekharan,” says Mattumantha. “Peelandi is trained to be a kunki elephant [those who tame other wild tuskers after their capture] and was not used for temple processions. We can’t insist [that] private owners be ‘secular’ in naming their elephants, but the government has a duty to be so in naming the tuskers under their custody,” says Mattumantha.

A group of 54 tribals, including women and children, boarded a bus to Kodanadu a few months after Peelandi’s capture to meet their beloved ‘god’. They took his favourite fruits and vegetables along. “It shows how deeply we love him,” says Palaniswamy, a tribal from Kottathara in Attappady. He also refutes the allegations that Peelandi killed seven people. “These are all unconfirmed stories. I think the settlers who violate the rules of forest are killed in multiple incidents of attack by wild tuskers. All such incidents are easily connected to Peelandi.”

Even in the case of the first tribal killed, Peelandi, after whom the tusker was named, the animal was absolved of all charges. Sixty-year-old Peelandi was reportedly drunk when he went deep into the forest and blocked the tusker’s path. “Wild animals kill only if we disturb them. If we don’t do any harm, they would not attack human beings,” says Ramu. Tribals in Attappady keep idols of Peelandi at home and they simply cannot understand why his name had to be changed.

Those who love Peelandi expect the government to reverse its decision. Mattumantha received a reply from the Chief Minister’s office that the administration had given instructions to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests to take appropriate action on the complaint.

Peelandi alias Chandrasekharan has spent more than a year in the Kodanad elephant sanctuary and is yet to get friendly with strangers. Forest officials denied Open permission to visit the centre and take photographs of the tusker. “It appears to be upset and irritated in the presence of strangers; it is docile only with its mahouts,” says a forest range officer.