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Human Animal Conflict

On Saumya’s Death

As elephant Saumya’s brutal death is communalised, what does it say about India’s animal policies?
Policemen and onlookers on the banks of the Velliyar River in Kerala’s Palakkad district as a dead wild elephant is pulled out of the water. It died after eating a fruit stuffed with a firecracker. | AFP

This article was first published in Scroll

From what we know, the elephant that has come to be known as Saumya was killed by eating a fruit with firecrackers fitted in it, which burst in her mouth, causing both burn injuries as well as spreading poison. The horrific incident has revealed that the practice of using fruit with firecrackers and light ammunition to kill wild boar in Kerala and other parts of India (there are reports from Maharashtra as well) is very common. The violence is legal as long as it is inflicted upon animals declared vermin.

The use of what can at best be called “terrorist” or “military” tactics against marginal animals – that is, animals that are considered vermin, alien or economically useless – has a long history. For example, in Australia, rabbit warrens are destroyed through a practice known as “ripping” that uses bulldozers to bury rabbits alive.

More recently, there are many reports of chicken, pigs and other species being buried alive or suffocated en masse since the Covid-19 crisis has made them unfit for slaughter.

Coming back to vermin species, human-animal conflict is a real issue and we understand that many farmers who suffer losses due to animals are themselves marginal. We must protect the farmers and their crops from any kind of devastation.

However, the root cause of the violence is two-fold:

  1. The vermin category, because it delegates the law in the hands of the farmers to kill and destroy vermin animals at sight. The very use of the word “destroy’”takes away any discussion for humane methods and people choose whatever brutal method at free will.
  2. Government policies that fail to address farmer discontent, deepening an agrarian crisis that has made farming unviable for millions.

Though the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act applies to all animals, the vermin exception to animals protected under the Indian Wildlife Act keeps a culture of violent and often brutal killing of animals alive. We need to resolve the issue of “vermin” animals versus farmer crops through policy change, reform and a deep investment in humane methods. As long as people are legally free to kill animals as vermin by installing pineapple bomb snares, or shooting them like they do nilgai in Rajasthan and Haryana, other protected species like elephant Saumya will die horrific deaths.

To honour Saumya correctly, we need to challenge and amend our ways of handling the “vermin” situation with humane policy changes.

Communal colour

We also recognise that Saumya’s death is increasingly taking on communal terms. There are baseless accusations that it took place in a Muslim-majority district, insinuating that Muslims are particularly liable to animal abuse.

Even more dangerously, the fact that Soumya was pregnant is being weaponised: images that accentuate her “motherhood” are being circulated on social media, making an explicit connection between her death and the slaughter of cows, whose gendered, motherly status is central to communal discourse today.

A devotee in Kolkata performs a prayer to protest against the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala. Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/ AFP

Keeping these disturbing messages in mind, while we welcome the national outrage seeking justice for Saumya, we have remained criminally silent on numerous reported incidents of torture, violence and death of captive elephants, especially by temples.

Hindu traditions have always had a special place for animals but whatever their sacredness in the past, their current treatment has much more to do with the needs of a capitalist system than continuing any historical tradition. For example, the slaughter of cows is protested but there is almost no discussion of the dairy industry that mistreats cows for longer and eventually consigns dairy cows to slaughter.

In the same way, while elephants are worshipped as demi-gods, the actual treatment of elephants is to turn them into “gentle giants”, a sub-caste of benign, obeying, captive elephants that love humans, and giving them blessings, which belies the most brutal form of modern torture.

Contradictory classifications

In contradictory classifications, while the law only protects the elephant as wild, administrative policies allow for an ownership exception. The Indian Wildlife Act of 1972 was enacted to protect all wild animals in the wild, and not permit their taking from the wild for captive use. No other wild animal is allowed to be owned in Indian law, except the elephant.

The artificial administrative dichotomy, wherein some elephants are treated as captive and owned, facilitates the violence against the animal and protects a criminal nexus of demand, trade and greed guided by faith but inconsistent with law. Captive elephants may be revered but they are subjected to a life of forced hard labour and torture.

India has the highest number of captive elephants – 2,675 as per the latest government census in 2019. Elephant captivity in India is shrouded in history, culture, tradition and religion, making the challenge against it much harder. There are three main classes of captive elephants. Elephants that belong to the government through Forest Departments and zoos (the smallest percentage). Elephants used solely for entertainment in circuses and joy rides (increasingly being phased out). Finally, the majority of captive elephants are in private custody around 1,821, which are used for Hindu religious ceremonies and processions.

There is only one kind of elephant recognised in the Wildlife Act: a “free” elephant. A free elephant, protected under Schedule I of the Wild Life Act, has inherent rights to live freely in the forest. The cardinal right for all elephants is the “right to be left alone”. This was recognised in the case of Nitin Singhvi (Chhattisgarh High Court 2017). The purpose of the Wildlife Act is to protect animals in their natural habitat.

A mahout cleans the nails of an elephant before the start of an annual temple festival in Tripunithura in Kerala on November 12, 2012. Credit: Sivaram V/ Reuters

Any interference with a free wild elephant, either for poaching, criminal acts of attacking or killing them, altering their habitats by building railways and roads, and capturing them for captivity – interferes with their inherent right to live freely in the wild. We must protect the right of all elephants to live freely in the wild. We have to say no to any violence against them and also to their illegal capture from the wild. As long as we allow some elephants to be legally owned – by turning a blind eye to their criminal illegal capture from the wild – we facilitate regular violent crimes against them, like with Saumya.

Crimes against charismatic species such as elephants attract our sympathy but we should not stop at condemning those crimes alone. If we are genuinely interested in the welfare of all marginal beings, both human and non-human, we should look at the conditions under which those crimes are more likely to happen.

That means taking a closer look at violent practices against vermin species such as wild boar and the marginalisation of tribal communities so that they are brought into conflict with boars. We should also strongly resist the communalisation of these crimes because the mistreatment of elephants implicates Hindu religious institutions more than anyone else.

An intersectional approach will start with the well-being of the neediest parties – non-human animals – but will not stop there; it will look at the structural injustices that marginalise both non-human species and certain human communities and seek to address all those injustices at once.