Trigger Warning: Animal death/abuse

On May 27, a pregnant elephant died in the South Indian state of Kerala. The manner of the elephant’s death is not certain—officials believe she was either fed or accidentally consumed a pineapple filled with explosives. Farmers often employ fruit packed with explosives around forests, as a trap to prevent wild animals from destroying their crops. The elephant walked around for days after getting hurt by the explosion in her mouth, unable to eat and in pain, before dying in a river in Kerala’s Palakkad district. The incident led to outrage, especially from animal rights activists who claimed that the elephant’s death was part of a larger pattern of animal cruelty in India.

While many people have seen the elephant’s death as a signal to pass legislation to protect wildlife, the incident also spurred a terrifying hate campaign led by Hindu nationalists.

When the elephant’s death was first reported, Maneka Gandhi, a prominent animal rights activist, member of parliament and former Union Minister of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, lied that the attack on the elephant happened in the Malappuram district of Kerala rather than Palakkad. Malappuram, a district approximately 52 miles away from Palakkad, happens to have a 70% population of Muslim people. In an interview with ANI News, Gandhi called Malappuram India’s “most violent district”, although this was also proven false.

Gandhi’s statement came before any location had been specified by the Kerala government. When Kerala’s Wildlife Warden later issued a statement clarifying that the elephant had died in Palakkad, Gandhi did not retract her statement or apologize for her remarks. So with no official evidence to support her claim, why did Gandhi publicly make and maintain this statement? Why did she choose to lie?

The BJP has a long history of violent discrimination against Muslims that has led to numerous attacks and lynchings of Muslims across the country.

The BJP has a long history of violent discrimination against Muslims that has led to numerous attacks and lynchings of Muslims across the country. BJP, the political branch of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is openly and proudly bigoted. The founder of the RSS was infamous for celebrating Nazis and endorsed ethnic cleansing in order to achieve a pure Hindu state. The mission continues to this day. Once the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, took power, the government has taken deliberate steps to disenfranchise and dehumanize religious minorities and lower socioeconomic classes. This includes banning beef in several states, demonetizing various bills with no warning, and most recently, enacting the Citizenship Amendment Act which explicitly excludes immigrant Muslims from automatic citizenship, while also questioning the citizenship of already existing Muslim citizens of India.

Gandhi also used this incident to attack the Kerala government as unresponsive. This claim was made despite the state government immediately opening an investigation into the elephant’s death. Gandhi’s attack on Kerala was not random, it was a strategic blow to an opposing political party. Kerala is one of the few strongholds in India that has rejected the BJP. Governed by the opposing Communist Party of India, Kerala is known for having the highest literacy rates in the country, embracing secular and inclusive values, and prioritizing welfare. Recently Kerala has received international praise for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the national government has been criticized for failing to take appropriate steps. The Kerala government has frequently criticized the BJP for being discriminatory and ineffective, leading the two governments to clash. Kerala’s Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan has since strongly denounced Gandhi’s statements as inflammatory and derogatory. Authorities also registered a First Information Report against her. To these far-right figures, the elephant’s death was simply another opportunity to peddle their hatred.

Gandhi effectively mobilized social media support for her hate campaign. She spread lies and misinformation, and successfully built resentment against Muslims and the Kerala government. Gandhi’s intention was never to simply condemn animal cruelty. It was to perpetuate a dangerous narrative about Muslims in India in an effort to push her party’s hateful political agenda.

It is a true tragedy that this elephant died such a horrific death and that her calf was killed with her. The weaponizing of fruit filled with explosives is illegal and a major perpetuation of animal cruelty in India. But we cannot allow this issue to justify any form of hate, or allow the ostensible championing of animal rights to distract from the BJP’s many and varied crimes.

When propaganda parades around as advocacy, it pulls people under the impression that such views are actually progressive.

Propaganda and hate-mongering techniques employed by figures such as Gandhi not only distract from the issue at hand but breed bigotry and incite violence. Gandhi’s decision to shift the focus to Islamophobic attacks is disrespectful and ultimately prevents important discussions and reforms from taking place. Perhaps the scariest part of Gandhi’s comments is the fact that they were written under the guise of condemning animal cruelty.

Gandhi’s comment teaches us an important message. Radical figures can pounce on any issue and twist it to fit their narratives, even if that means spreading misinformation and completely ignoring the issue at hand. They cannot get away with this. When propaganda parades around as advocacy, it pulls people under the impression that such views are actually progressive. This form of propaganda is especially dangerous because it calls for empathy while advocating hate.

As we veer towards an increasingly polarized world, preventing such hateful manipulation from gaining traction and validity will become more important. We cannot allow violent Islamophobia to masquerade as animal rights. We cannot allow hate to masquerade as love.

  • Apoorva Verghese

    Apoorva Verghese is a Paul Tulane Scholar at Tulane University, studying psychology and anthropology. She serves as an editor for the Intersections section of the Tulane Hullabaloo and her work is forthcoming in the Brown Girl Magazine print anthology. In her free time, she can be found experimenting with her new Nespresso machine with varying degrees of success.