Why would a politician of Maneka Gandhi’s standing speak without due diligence about an integral part of India and the people there? A senior leader of the BJP, she has been a Member of Parliament for over a quarter century and was minister in Vajpayee’s governments as also in Narendra Modi 1.0. Ms Gandhi is a well-known animal rights activist and author. The fact that neither she nor her son found a berth in Narendra Modi 2.0 doesn’t make her a political lightweight. Her Gandhi family connection commands a formidable ruling class legacy in contemporary Indian politics. However, it is her strident voice as an animal rights advocate and environmentalist that perhaps has greater reach than the political one.
It was Ms Gandhi the animal rights advocate who spoke those unkind words about Kerala’s Malappuram district. She was reacting to the horrendous incident of a pregnant wild elephant biting into a firecracker-filled fruit—an unpardonably cruel bait farmers set up to kill wild boars who attack their crops—and dying a painful death. Details of the gruesome event and the outcry that followed had deluged the national media and need no reiteration. Certainly it was Ms Gandhi’s entry into the scene that gave the incident national prominence.
But her statements about Malappuram district were, to say the least, astonishing. The elephant did not die in Malappuram district but in adjoining Palakkad district. Ms Gandhi, however, in the course of several media interviews, made a series of remarks about the people and administration of Malappuram that went way beyond the issue of the elephant’s death. The allegations she made were startling—call them by whatever name. Some sections of the media did confront her with the actual facts and point out the errors. But several questions remain. For instance, what made her go out of her way to take up cudgels against a district in distant Kerala, which to the best of one’s knowledge, has played no part in her life or political career? One also doubts if she has ever visited Malappuram. It is only fair to give her the benefit of doubt and say she was a victim of misinformation in identifying Malappuram as the location of the crime.
However, from the vehemence with which she superseded the elephant’s death with wide-ranging charges against the people and officials of Malappuram and the government of Kerala, it appeared she was adopting a partisan and political approach to what was essentially an animal/environmental issue. Her comments were certainly not just the outpourings of an animal lover. It is true that Kerala has a shameful record—as Ms Gandhi and other animal lovers have often pointed out—in the management of domesticated elephants that has gone unquestioned and unchecked because of vested interests, especially religious, supported by both LDF and UDF governments. But Malappuram has not played any special part in it. Elephants get ill-treated there just as much or as little as anywhere else in Kerala.
One of her comments was about how violent and criminal the district was. In various press meets/interviews, she said, “... it is murder, Malappuram is famous for such incidents ... it is India’s most violent district ...whether it is people being killed, look at the crime rate in Malappuram ... look at the communal conflict there. Highest in Malappuram ... the situation there is very scary...”. But as a report in a news magazine’s website noted, “... analysis of the National Crime Records Bureau shows that the district does not feature even among the top 300 districts for crimes like murder, attempt to murder, dowry death, theft, attempt to rape, extortion, and abduction and kidnapping.” It also notes that in the matter of several of the above crimes, Ms Gandhi’s own constituency, Sultanpur, is way ahead of Malappuram. The Bureau’s crime chart for all of Kerala’s 14 districts in 2018 shows Malappuram at the 12th position.
Ms Gandhi’s observations on Kerala’s elephants were even more intriguing: “Every year nearly 600 elephants get killed in Kerala. This means an elephant is killed every third day in the state.” She also tweeted, “... elephants are 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...” However, as the news magazine notes, on March 20 this year, the Union government informed Lok Sabha that during 2016-2019, a total of 314 wild elephants were killed all over India, of which Kerala’s share was 21. As for deaths of captive elephants, close to 33 of them died in the state in 2018.
Each of these deaths does matter, but they still don’t add up to Ms Gandhi’s claim of one elephant being killed in Kerala every three days. Her other observations about Malappuram were equally startling. She said: “They have killed so many women ... they create Hindu-Muslim tensions, chop off people’s arms … the weakest people in the administration are sent to Malappuram … children are being sold in orphanages … they throw poison on roads so that 300-400 birds and dogs die at the same time ... hopeless forest department...” These statements are so far removed from reality that one can only think that the politician in Ms Gandhi accepted data from mischievous providers and politicised the elephant incident using the unverified data.
And thereby hangs a tale, not believable but true. Malappuram, India’s first e-literate district, noted for its ingrained pluralism and communal harmony, cultural vibrancy, quick-paced growth in education, health, women’s empowerment and other significant sectors of development, and a determinedly forward-looking young generation that thwarts bigotry, has been at the receiving end of much sectarian onslaught because its population happens to be 70% Muslim! One hopes Ms Gandhi was not indulging in ideological overkill in a tragic situation where the animal lover in her should have shone forth.
Award-winning fiction writer