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View: Tragic killing of an elephant in Kerala becomes grist to communal propaganda

View: Tragic killing of an elephant in Kerala becomes grist to communal propaganda 2

All the complexity of being human comes into play in the recent controversy over the killing of a wild elephant in Kerala. To see it merely as an act of animal cruelty is simplistic. To use the incident to carry out communal propaganda is abhorrent.

All other living beings take nature for granted and live with it as its integral parts, while humans seek to transform nature: clear forests for cultivation, kill animals not just for food — other animals do that, too — but to keep them away from their fields and habitat, use ever-more complex technology to kill animals, breed new species, hold animals in captivity for work, entertainment and experimentation, dig up oil and coal, burn them for releasing the energy they store and pollute and warm the air, the land and the water that sustain all forms of life.

At the same time, sections of humans, who have moved away from direct contestation with nature, have tried to put limits on how much and in what manner humans should exercise their power to change nature. Some of these efforts are in aid of self-preservation as a species (climate change will not destroy nature, only make life very nasty for a small component of nature called humans). Some people join these efforts moved by the sense of oneness with nature: their hearts leap with joy at the sight of a rainbow. Yet others, because they see humans as endowed not just with superior intellect but also with the responsibility to bring quintessentially human values of justice, fairness and empathy to bear on human interactions with other living creatures.

Societies came up to prevent cruelty to animals, people rallied for the ethical treatment of animals. Yet, you would have to look really hard to find someone forswearing vaccination against the corona virus on the ground that medical research makes extensive use of rodents and monkeys, injecting them with germs and then with drugs to test their efficacy against the germs they were administered. People are happy to prefer cosmetic companies that shun animal testing but accept animal testing as a necessary evil they can live with when it comes to medical advance.

It is part of human complexity that people can enjoy their chicken tikka masala while abhorring the act of slaughter that produced the flesh they feast on. It is part of human complexity that people who simply exchange money for the black rice of India’s northeast and proceed to make their delicious pudding with it do not spare a thought for the conditions in which the rice is grown, which could well involve methods to keep off wild animals that would affront their fine sensibilities.

Coming to the unfortunate elephant cow in Kerala that died in pain and starving, after serious damage to its mouth and jaws, sustained from biting on presumably explosive laden fruit, it is first necessary to appreciate the conceptual difference between explanation and justification. It is part of human complexity that some humans understand the distinction, some people cannot and some people pretend not to, when it suits them.

Farmers who live near forests often suffer extensive damage to their crops from wildlife that strays on to their properties. Often, farmers would have borrowed money to plant their crops and risk losing their land and livelihood if they lose their crops. They adopt all kinds of measures to keep wild animals away. Explosives — firecrackers do not go off on being chomped — stuffed into things animals eat have been a crude weapon of deterrence.

This is cruel and wanton. The practice should invite strict punishment. However, the sensible solution is to create physical barriers between the forest and the field that animals cannot breach, and to police this barrier. This will cost money. But a society that wants to both sustain its farmers and nurture its humanity must be willing to find the funds. In its absence, crude methods of animal deterrence will continue.

It is part of human complexity that people divide themselves into groups and sects and imagine enmities that have no grounding in biology, and use any instance to seek validation and exacerbation of their hatred. So it has been in the case of the tragic end to the elephant cow in Kerala. A former minister has suggested that the location where the elephant died, a minor river on the Malappuram side of the border between Palakkad and Malappuram districts, meant that the Muslim-majority nature of Malappuram was responsible for the event, ignoring the forest-field frontier in Palakkad. The marginalised politician’s attempt to regain relevance to the politics of Islamophobia deserves contempt, but it is part of human complexity that hordes of social media zealots have blown up her innuendo into a full-fledged campaign.

Could we have some simplicity, for a change?

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