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A statue of an elephant is seen in a tribal’s house. Photo: Rahul Chandran
A statue of an elephant is seen in a tribal’s house. Photo: Rahul Chandran

The tribals and the elephant

In the forests of Kerala's Attapady, a killer elephant is bringing long-running social fractures to the fore

The animal in the stockade in Kodanad—in Kerala’s Ernakulam district—cannot possibly know this, but it symbolizes the simmering differences between two communities.

The communities in question are the three major tribes in Kerala’s Attappady region on the one side, and the people these tribes call generals on the other. The generals are the settlers: the Malayalees and the Tamil people who live there, drawn to Attappady’s rich soils and fine weather. Indigenous tribes, which accounted for 90% of local population in the 1951 Census, have seen their numbers dwindle to around 34% in several recent studies, including one by the Cochin University of Science and Technology.

The animal in the stockade is a wild elephant forest department officials call Chandru (apparently after an employee of the department), but the tribals know as Peelandi. Chandru/Peelandi was captured in May this year, from the fields that lay between two tribal hamlets known as Sambarkod and Mele Sambarkod, in the Attappady region of Kerala’s Palakkad district.

The tribals venerate elephants, along with many other local fauna, as divinities. For the settlers, wild elephants are widely considered a danger to crop and person. 

Thus, when an elephant that local tribespeople referred to as Peelandi started raiding crops and killing people in the area, settlers had it caught by the forest department, who then transported it to an elephant camp in Kodanad, several hours away by road.

The elephant camp in Kodanad. Photo: Rahul Chandran
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The elephant camp in Kodanad. Photo: Rahul Chandran

The villagers petitioned the forest department to be allowed to see Peelandi. On 7 November, a group of tribals from Attappady left for Kodanad in a bus. After a journey of some six hours, they assembled in front of the elephant. The pilgrims bowed with clasped palms, cries of “bhagawane" and “swamiye" rending the air. The last action appeared to be a bit of grandstanding for the television news cameras eagerly drinking in the scene. This, after all, was the latest chapter in a story of settler-tribal conflict in Attappady that dates back several decades. 

***

U.C. Kunjan, chairman of the Girijan Sevak Samiti, a tribal welfare organization, and an adivasi himself, says the first hints of trouble started in 1960-61, when people started moving into adivasi areas in Attappady. These original settlers, he says, were usually the dregs of their respective societies seeking to make a new life in a new land.

Once here, the settlers found in the adivasis a people who were easy to dupe, he said.

They would welcome settlers into their homes, Kunjan said, and part with land for as little as “one piece of tobacco and one gunny bag". But in these transactions conducted in bad faith lay the roots of today’s disquiet. There have been periodic protests by the tribals, including, in 2014, a novel “nilpu samaram", where the adivasis took turns to fast standing up.

“The coming of development was a bad thing for the adivasis," Kunjan said. Development, Kunjan further explains, is one of four things that has plunged the community in a spiral. “Second, land acquisition, third alcohol and four markets." The advent of markets enabled many tribals to sell their goats for money to drink, Kunjan said.

To be sure, the adivasis have reason to be angry. In February 2003, the Kerala police opened fire against a group of tribals who had occupied a plot of land that they said had been theirs originally. The firing left as many as five people dead. That was in Muthanga, in Kerala’s Wayanad district, north of Attappady.

In 2010, the news magazine Tehelka had reported that a global renewable energy company had acquired land from the tribespeople in Attappady to build windmills.

Yet, little has been done to address problems. Barring the occasional vindictive word by tribal about settler, and the occasional protest, tensions have rarely escalated beyond a simmer. Yet it remains a fault line that lies unexposed, in a country of many such fault lines waiting to be exploited by the right people.

And now, into the fault line, has stepped an elephant the villagers call Peelandi. 

***

There are 30,451 tribals in the three gram panchayats in the Attappady region. Of these, the Irulas are the most numerous community, representing about 83% of the population. The Mudugars, variously called the Muthuvan or the Muduvan, are about 10%, and the Kurumbas the rest.

The bus leaves Sambarkod in Attappady just before 7am. It is a cool, crisp morning and the scrubbed faces of kids boarding the bus belie the early hour. Even what little traffic there is in Attappady is missing in the early hour, and the tribals of the two Sambarkods and another hamlet named Bodhichala are bussed away. They are on their way to see an elephant with a record of killing both tribals and settlers. An elephant some of them have barely seen, but hold in high regard, in a part of Kerala that is worlds away from their little hamlets.

There are 52 passengers. There is excited chattering, and the forest officer on board, Mohanakrishnan, tries to get some of the children to dance. It might be early but the departure from everyday routine and the excitement of a free trip away from everyday chores makes everybody disregard the time. There is talk of a stop at a beach on their way back.

The bus will slowly descend the hills of Attappady into Mannarkad, the town that houses a local forest office. There, the bus is met by photographers, some local journalists and the divisional forest officer (DFO). A breakfast of upma is had and the bus departs on the longer journey to Kodanad, this time through the lowland heat and humidity that Kerala is famous for.

The way from Agali in Attappady to Mannarkad. Photo: Rahul Chandran
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The way from Agali in Attappady to Mannarkad. Photo: Rahul Chandran

Enroute, Ajitha Kalidas, a 26-year old tribeswoman who is a teacher in a nearby town, tells me of her encounter with Peelandi the elephant.

Like most people in Sambarkod, she had witnessed the drama of Peelandi’s tranquilization and eventual capture by forest rangers. The rangers used four trained elephants, called Kumkis in the local parlance, to help them corner the killer.

Kalidas tells me that she has seen the elephant once before. Perhaps. The story goes like this:

She said she and her husband were driving home from the temple at Palani in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, and on the way back, stopped off at her relative’s house in Sambarkod. After leaving, she and her husband got into her car (her husband in the front seat, she in the back).

Kalidas says she did not see the elephant, but a sound made her glance out the window. 

The elephant was chewing a papaya it had just plucked. 

When they saw the elephant behind their car, Kalidas recounts, she and her husband froze. They stayed in the apparent safety of their car for the next fifteen minutes, until somebody outside screamed at them to get out and run.

The car was between them and Peelandi, so they got away just fine. Afterwards, the elephant charged their car and drove its tusks through the rear windshield, she said.

Nanjan, Ajitha Kalidas’ grandfather, claims that he has run into the elephant thrice. Not once has it harmed him, he says. 

Other Malayalees in Agali, a town in Attapady, say the same thing. Muhammad, a maker of various electronic goods including electrified fencing—called “earth" in the local parlance—narrates how the elephant would pick its way through drunk villagers lying on the roadside, on its way to the river from the hills.

It is a story that Pappal, a resident of Sambarkod, has been telling me for the last two days. The elephant never harmed the tribals of Sambarkode, she maintains, although it may have killed tribals in other hamlets.

***

Attappady is an area of 745 square kilometres in the north-eastern corner of the district of Palakkad, bordering Tamil Nadu on the east. It comprises of 192 tribal hamlets and a large population of settlers. Palakkad is the state’s largest district by geographical area.

Come nightfall, Attappady, in the Western Ghats, is a place of almost total, all-enveloping darkness. When the mists roll in, which is often, little beyond one’s nose is easily visible.

The three tribes mostly live in separate insular hamlets. Marriages between members of different tribes are frowned upon.

The people of the three tribes practise rain-fed agriculture, growing millets, maize and some plantation crops like plantain. They grow their crops in little fields that surround and lay just beyond their hamlets. They supplement this income with physical labour, mostly through wages given to them for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. They speak languages that have no script but sounds like a mix of Tamil and Malayalam with the occasional word which is not part of either thrown in.

Sambarkod and Mele Sambarkod, both a stone’s throw from the river Siruvani, lie amidst thick forest. These are the forests that wild elephants call their home and it is the river from which they draw sustenance. It is the Siruvani, and the millets and maize that settlers grew by its banks, that drew Chandru/Peelandi’s attention.

The river Siruvani. Photo: Rahul Chandran
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The river Siruvani. Photo: Rahul Chandran

Sambarkod is a small hamlet of some 50 houses, built on either side of a walking path. Chickens peck at the path, goats bleat nearby, children play with marbles. The nearest road—no more than a couple of metres wide—skirts the hamlet without actually passing through it. 

Every day, wild elephants descend from the high forest and amble by Sambarkod on their way to the river. For the better part of two years, the elephant named Peelandi was one of these beasts.

Villagers told me they saw Peelandi almost everyday on its way to or from the river banks. They claim that the elephant never caused them any harm. But local forest officials say that Peelandi has killed at least seven people in the hamlets surrounding Sambarkod. One such hamlet is Nellipathi, where it killed a man named Peelandi and, in so doing, gained both a name and infamy.

***

The deceased Peelandi lived in a small bamboo and straw house in Nellipathi, on a cliff above a bend in the road. There are just two houses there—Peelandi’s and one belonging to a Malayali couple. Peelandi lived with his daughter, said his neighbour. 

The house was bound on one side by the cliff. On the other side, past a tamarind tree under whose shade the house was built, was a clearing that gradually merged with the tree line of the forest, about a kilometre away.

Nobody knows why Peelandi went into the forest that night in March. Pappal, a villager from Sambarkod, surmises it may have been to see an old woman who lived in a house on the other side of the forest. The old woman, whose own house had recently been damaged by wild elephants, was now living with her son across the trees.

The man Peelandi’s house is a ramshackle affair. Photo: Rahul Chandran
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The man Peelandi’s house is a ramshackle affair. Photo: Rahul Chandran

Whatever may have been reason, Peelandi crossed the glade to the tree line, where Pappal says he may have stumbled over some shrubs and fallen.

When they found his body the next day, one limb had been torn apart by the elephant, the villagers say. They had to spread a straw mat to collect his organs, which were strewn over the grass in the violence of the attack. They collected his organs in a plastic bag. His head had been flattened “like a chappathi", Pappal said.

***

In the year 2015-16, 12 humans have been reported killed by elephants in Kerala, while a further 18 have been reported injured. Elephants have been held responsible for killing 31 heads of cattle. There were 6,177 wild elephants in the state in 2012, the last year that an elephant census was taken. Separately, the state has 578 captive elephants, of which 560 are privately-owned and the rest are owned by the government.

Forest department officials say the elephant now known as Chandru was captured after complaints of it raiding inhabited areas. The elephant is attributed with some seven kills, although villagers stress that none of these deaths took place in Sambarkod. 

Which is not completely true. In the past, a woman named Meenakshi died after falling heavily to the floor as she tried to run into her house. She was being chased by Peelandi after the elephant had been provoked by Meenakshi’s granddaughter. The girl, I was told, tried to photograph the elephant.

The flash probably hurt its eyes, Pappal said. In any case, she said, why bother the animal by trying to photograph it?

***

Yet, despite all these stories, the tribals remain entirely sanguine about the elephants in general and Peelandi in particular. Sure, the elephants raid and trample their crops, the tribals admit. But they also believe that yield will subsequently increase in areas trampled under elephants. 

“This has happened also. The next year, the yield in areas destroyed by elephants has improve," Pappal claimed.

Pappal leads to way from Sambarkod to Mele Sambarkod. Photo: Rahul Chandran
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Pappal leads to way from Sambarkod to Mele Sambarkod. Photo: Rahul Chandran

Pappal attributes facilities to the elephant that seem somewhat far-fetched. She claims that some elephants drop produce in front of some houses because they want to share the bounty: “There is no difference between us and them." 

“When we see them, we should avoid them. They will harm us (only) if we disturb them. The adivasis never do that."

But other communities are not like that, Pappal says. When an elephant enters a field, they throw burning tyres at it.

***

In the bus to Kodanad to see the elephant, the tribals of the three hamlets are dressed in their best: silk sarees, well-creased shirts, spotless mundus (dhotis).

There is a general air of gaiety. A forest ranger with an unusually deep voice exhorts the kids in the bus to dance. It is a long drive to Kodanad.

On the television in the bus, a recent Malayalam blockbuster is playing. The hero of the movie is a man that hunts man-eating tigers with a spear. The forest rangers are inept and are frequently beaten—both literally and metaphorically—by the hero. It seemed like a strange choice of movie to be played in a bus arranged by the Kerala forest department and carrying forest officers.

On the way back, the bus was supposed to stop by a beach for a short while, before driving the tribals back to their homes (it didn’t eventually, there was not enough time).

Peelandi/Chandru will have no such luck.

The forest officer with the deep voice said the beast will likely remain at this camp in Kodanad till death. The smell of humans was upon the beast.

Nidheesh M. K. in Bengaluru contributed to this article.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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