People lined up along the road, their mobile phones ready to record videos as the wail of sirens and blaring of horns neared. Piloted by a jeep, a lorry of the Kerala State Forest Department sped past the cheering crowd, ferrying an unbelievably meek tusker on its platform.
For the past couple of years, until a team of forest department officials shot tranquiliser darts at him, the elephant, codenamed Palakkad Tusker-7 (PT-7), was notorious for wreaking havoc at Dhoni and its neighbourhood on the eastern forest fringes of Kerala’s Palakkad district.
On Monday, 23 January, a day after his capture, the Forest Department christened him Dhoni, after the place where he had a wild run. Incidentally, this is the first time that the department is naming a captured elephant after a place.
Later, as the effect of the tranquilliser wore off, Dhoni became ferocious, trying to break through the specially made kraal, or an enclosure of wooden logs.
PT-7 becomes Dhoni
On Monday, Forest Minister AK Saseendran said that the government was naming PT-7 Dhoni as he was tranquilised and captured near the Dhoni village. “He unleashed terror mainly in Dhoni and made the village famous. Hence we are naming him Dhoni,” the minister announced.
According to environmentalist Bobban Mattumantha, naming the captured elephant after a village marks a departure from the past. Till now, captured elephants were usually named after retired or late forest officials or their immediate family members.
“Shakespeare might have said what’s in a name? But for people living close to the forests, the naming of captured elephants holds multilayered meanings,” he added, while citing the example of Peelandi, another tusker that was captured after it killed at least nine people in Attappadi in Mannarkkad taluk of Palakkad district.
After its capture in 2017, the Forest Department changed its name to Kodanad Chandrasekharan. The rechristening of the animal led to an outcry against the Brahmanical name chosen for the elephant.
The Peelandi agitation
Though a rogue elephant, the tribesmen of Attappadi revered Peelandi as a god.
“Appropriation of identity is one of the key challenges the tribals of Attappadi have been facing for a long time. Indigenous people there can share real-life stories of how they struggle with names imposed on them by outsiders,” Bobban told South First.
“Even in other tribal regions of Kerala, powerful invaders have always attempted to rechristen the underprivileged with names, mainly comprising complex words alien to the local vocabulary. Most such names may sound odd, but on occasion, such attempts are made only to satisfy the casteist and communal sentiments of the powerful elites,” he said.
For the tribals of Attappadi, Peelandi was their all-time favourite, a good omen during adversities, and a powerful presence that grew into divine status over the years.
The Forest Department had captured and shifted the pachyderm to a far away elephant camp at Kodanad near Kochi, ignoring tribal pleas that Peelandi was their god and shifting him would orphan them.
Attappadi started seeing a rare kind of protest by May 2019 when local tribal people disapproved of the Forest Department renaming Peelandi as Chandrasekharan.
Department insiders confirmed that it was a practice to name captured elephants after retired or dead senior officials or their immediate family members.
Complaints piled up at Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office, requesting his intervention to help reclaim “the indigenous identity” of the tusker.
Several protest meetings were held in Attappadi. The tribespeople raised slogans demanding the return of Peelandi to Attappadi with his tribal identity.
The tribals said in their petitions to forest chiefs that they revered the elephant as a divine creature and find little merit in the allegation of local settlers that it had killed nine people. The new name reflected the feudal mindset of the forest officials, they alleged.
“Like tribals everywhere else, we too were being denied the right to choose our names. Each tribal name is a declaration to the world of who we are. In the case of Peelandi, there was an emotional angle to the name,” Rangan, a village elder at the Sambarkod tribal colony where Peelandi once frequented, explained.
“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,” he added.
The residents of Sambarkod, Upper Sambarkod, and Bodi Challa tribal colonies in Attappadi, still miss Peelandi.
On 7 November, 2019, Peelandi grabbed headlines when 65 Attappadi tribespeople, including 11 children, hired a bus to Kodanad to meet and pay respects to Peelandi. According to them, the animal was relocated at the behest of the influential settlers. They bowed before the elephant with folded palms and called him Bhagawan and Swamy.
“We were unfortunate and helpless when he was captured using Kumki elephants. Many of us cried when he was taken to Kodanad,” Rangan recalled.
In harmony with nature
For Attappadi’s tribals, crop-raiding elephants and wild animals are inseparable from their existence. They prefer to live in harmony with nature.
“The settlers were upset because the elephant had destroyed their banana plantations,” S Pazhaniswamy, a tribal folk musician of Attappadi, said.
Bowing partially to the pressure exerted by the tribals, environmentalists, and social workers, the principal chief forest conservator of Kerala (wildlife), also the chief wildlife warden, issued an order on 13 August, 2019, rechristening Peelandi or Chandrasekharan as Peelandi Chandru.
The order said the department would make the required changes in the official records. However, the tribals were unhappy.
“Peelandi got his identity back, but partially. Still, he has to carry the elitist tail, Chandru. Why are they not ready to restore his old name without any additions? It reminds us of the casteism still prevailing among the officials. The authorities had chosen the middle path when the conflict emerged,” Rangan said.
“All captured elephants in Kerala have upper-caste names such as Guruvayur Kesavan, Sankaranarayanan, Gopalakrishnan, Rashmi, and Nandini. Tamil Nadu has many elephants with tribal, Muslim, and Christian names,” Bobban pointed out.
“They have Khaleel and Vasim. Why don’t we have Peelandi, Podichi, Chirutha, Vellachi, and Marutha among the captured elephants as a show of solidarity with the tribal community,” he wondered.
The chairman of the Palakkad District Paristhithi Aikya Vedi, Bobban had helped the tribals mount their protest in Thiruvananthapuram.
“Though going by the records Peelandi is Peelandi Chandru, he is just Peelandi for us. So we decided not to focus more on that issue. Now the department has set a new precedent, and we are happy,” he added.