In Kerala’s tribal heartland of Attappadi, the indigenous people are waging a long battle on behalf of an elephant. The wild tusker was captured, tranquilised and shifted to another location based on complaints from local settlers – ranging from killing people to destroying cash crops. But, as far as the tribals of Attappadi are concerned, the elephant Peelandi is their favourite, a good omen during adversities and a powerful presence that has grown into divine status over the years.
The Forest department captured and shifted the pachyderm to the faraway elephant camp at Kodanad near Kochi, ignoring the pleas of the tribals that Peelandi was their god and that shifting him would make them orphans.
And it’s not just Peelandi’s capture. Since May last year, Attappadi has witnessed a rare kind of protest - the tribal people disapproved of the Forest department renaming Peelandi as Chandrasekharan, a Brahminical name which is not in the Adivasi vocabulary. Department insiders confirmed that it was a longstanding albeit odd practice to name captured elephants after retired or dead senior officials or their immediate family members.
Complaints started piling up at Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office, soliciting his intervention to reclaim ‘the indigenous identity’ of the tusker. Several protest meetings were held in Attappadi, in which tribals shouted slogans demanding Peelandi back in Attappadi with his tribal identity. The tribals said in their petitions to Forest department chiefs that they venerate the elephant as a divine creature and find little merit in the allegations of local settlers that he killed nine people. The new name reflected the feudal mindset of forest officials, they alleged.
The people of Attapadi are not alone in their grouse. The appropriation of identity by the privileged is among the key challenges that aborigine communities across the world have been facing. Indigenous people, irrespective of their geographical and national boundaries, can tell you any number of real life stories of how they are struggling with names imposed on them by outsiders. Tribal regions across India are not an exception, with powerful, casteist and communal invaders always attempting to rechristen the underprivileged with wordings alien to their vocabulary.
“Like tribals everywhere else, we too are being denied the right to choose names for ourselves. Each tribal name is a declaration to the world of who we are. In the case of Peelandi, there is an emotional angle to the name. He was named Peelandi as a mark of respect for tribal elder Peelandi, who was among the people of the locality killed in elephant attacks,” says Rangan, the village elder of Sambarkod tribal colony where Peelandi once roamed.
For residents of Sambarkod, Upper Sambarkod and Bodi Challa tribal colonies in Attappadi, Peelandi’s relocation has left a big void in their lives. On November 7 last year, Peelandi made headlines when 54 elders and 11 children from Attappadi travelled on a special bus to Kodanad to pay respects to the tusker, who, according to them, was relocated at the behest of the powerful settler community. They bowed before the elephant with folded palms and called him Bhagawan and Swamy.
“We were extremely sad when he was captured last year using Kumki elephants. Many of us cried when he was taken to Kodanad,” recalls Rangan.
For tribals in Attappadi, crop raids by elephants have a divine touch to them. Elephants and wild animals are inseparable from their earthly existence and they prefer to live in harmony with nature. “The settler community was upset because the elephant had destroyed their banana plantations,” says S Pazhaniswamy, a tribal folk musician from Attappadi.
Now, the Peelandi struggle has taken a curious turn. Bowing at least partially to the pressure exerted by tribals and the environmentalists and social workers who supported them, the Principal Chief Forest Conservator of Kerala (Wildlife), who is also the Chief Wildlife Warden, issued an order dated August 13 rechristening Peelandi or Chandrasekharan as Peelandi Chandru. The order said that the department will make the required changes in the official records related to the elephant.
The tribals are not happy. “Peelandi got his identity back but partially. Still he has to carry the elitist tail ‘Chandru’ with him. Why are they not ready to restore his old name fully without any addition? It reminds us of the casteism still prevailing among the officials. The authorities have chosen the middle path when the conflict emerged,” says Rangan.
“All the captured elephants in Kerala have Brahminical names such as Guruvayur Kesavan, Sankaranarayanan, Gopalakrishnan, Rashmi and Nandini. In Tamil Nadu, there are many elephants with tribal, Muslim and Christian names. They have Khaleel and Vasim. Why can’t we have Peelandi, Podichi, Chirutha, Vellachi and Marutha among the captured elephants as a show of solidarity with the tribal community?” asks Boban Mattumantha, Chairman, Palakkad district Paristhithi Aikya Vedi, who helped the tribals in taking up the matter at higher levels.
(The author is Thiruvananthapuram-based freelance writer.)