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Beyond Cruelty And Innocence: What the Death Of An Elephant In Kerala Tells Us About Ourselves

Can conservationists abandon the colonial baggage of the “innocent” animal and the “cruel native”?

On May 30 2020, Mohan Krishnan, a Forest Officer in Kerala, posted images of an elephant standing chest-deep in a pool of clear green water to his Facebook page. The text accompanying the image described how the elephant, who was pregnant, had eaten some fruit that concealed an explosive. She stayed in the water, presumably to find relief for her injuries, until she eventually passed away. Her only fault, he said, was that “she trusted everyone”. Even in her injured state, his post read, “she didn’t harm a single human being… She didn’t crush a single home. This is why I said she is full of goodness.”

Mohan Krishnan’s post soon went viral. Thousands took to social media to decry the “cruelty”, “criminality” and “depravity” of those who had “murdered” an “innocent”, “passive”, and “harmless” animal by lacing fruit with firecrackers. What was striking was the very wide range of actors who trafficked in binary oppositions between “innocence” and “non-innocence” and “cruelty” and “harmlessness” in narrating this event. Right-wing Hindus accused Muslims of “cruelly” murdering an “innocent” and “gentle” sacred animal sacred after Union Minister Maneka Gandhi erroneously declared that the death had taken place in Mallapuram (a Muslim-majority district), a region she said was known for its “intense criminal activity especially with regards to animals”. Secular activists opposed the communalisation of the elephant’s death and expressed sympathy for the predicament of farmers, and yet saw the incident as an example of “horrific but routine” acts of “cruelty” by farmers dealing with “human-wildlife conflict”.

The ubiquity of these terms across diametrically opposed publics is deeply troubling and must be interrogated if we are to move towards more just conservation policies. While the elephant’s death was an unhappy event, the categories of “cruelty” and “innocence” that were deployed to narrate it are not simply descriptive. Instead, they are the legacy of complex histories and politics. For instance, the supposedly intrinsic “cruelty” of the “natives”, a racist caricature, was a favorite theme in the shikar memoirs of many colonial officials. Colonial hunters condemned most “native” shikaris, who belonged largely to Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi communities, for the lack of “sportsmanship” they exhibited in the method they chose when killing animals, whether it was poisoning carcasses or setting snares and traps for animals.

These practices were criminalised as “poaching” under game-protection laws passed by the colonial state in the late nineteenth century. Ironically, these laws were passed to arrest a steep decline in wildlife numbers that was caused not by “native” hunters, but by what could be described as an orgy of hunting by colonial officials bent on eradicating “vermin” animals (which included tigers, lions, leopards, bears, and wolves among others).

The injured 15-year-old pregnant wild elephant standing in Velliyar River moments before it died in Palakkad district of Kerala state, India on May 27, 2020.
The injured 15-year-old pregnant wild elephant standing in Velliyar River moments before it died in Palakkad district of Kerala state, India on May 27, 2020.

In the early twentieth century, when the colonial state’s emphasis shifted from the ‘preservation of game’ to the ‘protection of wildlife’ in keeping with the emergence of a global conservationist discourse, the “natives” were now deemed incapable of appreciating the aesthetic value of ‘Nature’ because of their inherently “utilitarian” philosophy of life. Contemporary critiques of the “cruelty” of those people who live in intimate proximity with wild animals, ‘cruelty’ that is believed to be rooted in an inability to appreciate Nature at best and in natural depravity at worst, echo these racialised colonial discourses in disturbing ways. Indeed, the demand that “problem” animals be “humanely” killed with a clean shot instead of explosives (as if shooting does not often lead to debilitating injury for wild animals) is eerily, even if unintentionally, reminiscent of colonial distinctions between “good” and “bad” hunting.

Narratives that emphasise the intrinsic innocence of animals are also problematic in the ways that they construct the object of activism. As the anthropologist Miriam Ticktin notes, figures of innocence – whether the child or the animal – play a key role in driving modern humanitarian projects because they promise a space of purity in an impure world. Much animal-welfare activism, for example, relies heavily on the claim that it is morally good to protect innocent animals, who cannot protect themselves, from human depravity. However, as Ticktin argues, innocence always implies its opposite: non-innocence. Establishing the innocence of the pregnant elephant thus relied on highlighting the ‘conscious, criminal cruelty’ of those who killed her. The danger of these categories, then, is that they create a purity that makes it difficult to understand the complex history of human-animal relationships in everyday contexts where humans are as much at risk from wild animals as the other way around.

My research on human-animal relationships in Uttarakhand has revealed the paucity of such categories when it comes to understanding how people co-exist with wild animals in the most difficult of circumstances. Instead of treating animals as “passive” objects, farmers in Kumaon understood wild animals as intentional beings with agency, that is, as beings possessed of the ability to act on and intervene in social worlds in deliberate ways. For example, villagers widely believed that the rise in monkey populations in rural areas was due to the translocation of monkeys from cities to mountain villages. These outsider monkeys were seen as inherently more violent and destructive than mountain monkeys. They attacked people regularly, often leaving them severely wounded; stripped fruit orchards bare in a few hours while also destroying precious fruit trees; and entered people’s homes to steal their food, leaving children and even adults in a state of terror. As far as farmers were concerned, these outsider monkeys were willful, non-innocent figures who were culpable for the destruction of agrarian lives and livelihoods. The worst part, many farmers told me, was that the monkeys seemed to wreak havoc for kicks, not to survive. “Woh kar ke karte hain (they do it for the sake of doing it), unko mazaa aata hai (they enjoy it)” were common refrains.

Living under what felt like a siege, farmers saw themselves as victims of cruelty: by monkeys, who enjoyed tormenting them; by a state that did not control their tormentors nor adequately compensate their losses; and by conservationists, who insisted that it was humans who were to blame for having encroached on wildlife habitats even though it was clear to most farmers that the outsider monkeys chose to live in and around human-settlements instead of in the forest where local langurs and rhesus macaques did. They rejected ideas of animal innocence/harmlessness and human culpability/cruelty that did not account for the ways in which humans and animals could both engage in acts of willful violence against one another. They were mistrustful of conservation efforts precisely because they understood them as unwilling to recognise this complexity. For them, a just conservation practice was one that would seek justice for multiple non-innocent actors – human and nonhuman – who were all, to varying degrees, capable of and culpable for what was understood as “cruelty”.

What would it mean for conservationists to abandon not only the binary categories of “innocence” and “cruelty”, and the colonial baggage that comes with them, but also their very belief in the existence of “pure” victims and aggressors on the ground? This would, I think, be a first step towards environmental and social justice for a wide range of actors who are all partly, if not entirely, innocent and culpable . It might allow us to recognise how human and nonhuman animals can form caring, ethical, and accountable relationships with one another even in contexts of overwhelming mutual suspicion, vulnerability, and violence. To my mind, the possibility of true multispecies justice lies in rejecting purity, and embracing the messiness and contradiction of human-animal relationships in situated contexts, even if what justice looks like and to whom it is owed is not immediately clear.

A farmer I knew in Kumaon, an old man spent the better part of his day flinging stones at the monkeys who feasted on the fruit in his orchard during the monsoon. I did not think of him as capable of feeling any tenderness or accountability towards the outsider monkeys. On one afternoon a young monkey came up to us as we sat together on the low stone wall that marked his orchard’s boundary. I thought he would at least shake his cane at her even if he didn’t have the energy to pick up a stone. Instead, he picked up a fallen pear and handed it to her. When I questioned him, he said that this monkey didn’t seem to have a mother and usually sat by herself, at a distance from the other monkeys who attacked her. “That’s why I give her something every now and then,” he said, a little defensively.

I was touched by that brief glimpse of tenderness in a relationship that was otherwise marked by hostility and resentment. It reminded me that such situated and embodied relationships between individuals can make room, as feminist scholar Sara Ahmed puts it, “for life… for possibility, for chance,” and, perhaps eventually, for justice.

Radhika Govindrajan is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her book Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas was published by Penguin India in 2019.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact