The death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala after she ate explosives suspected to have been mixed with food horrified a nation. Alongside shock and grief on social media, the heartbreaking incident has not been spared political wrangling.
The elephant walked for days with severe mouth injuries after the firecrackers exploded in her mouth, before wading into a river and dipping its trunk, as if for relief from the agony. It died standing in the river Velliyar in Palakkad.
Initial reports, including NDTV's, incorrectly said the incident took place in Malappuram. The error was corrected as soon as it was pointed out and subsequent reports said the elephant died in Palakkad.
Forest officer Mohan Krishnan wrote on his Facebook page: "When we saw her she was standing in the river, with her head dipped in the water. She had a sixth sense that she was going to die…She didn't harm a single human being even when she ran in searing pain in the streets of the village."
However, in a parallel track to the overwhelming emotional response to the post, the error in reports naming Malappuram, a Muslim-dominated district, was given a communal twist. What also fueled a row were reports that the elephant "was fed" explosives, which, officials asserted, was not true.
The Malappuram misinformation continued as Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted that the centre would investigate the elephant's killing. His tweet incorrectly claimed that the incident happened in Malappuram.
Senior BJP leader Maneka Gandhi, an animal rights activist, tweeted: "Malappuram is known for its intense criminal activity specially with regards to animals. No action has ever been taken against a single poacher or wildlife killer so they keep doing it."
The former union minister also described Malappuram as "India's most violent district" in a comment to news agency ANI and even targeted Rahul Gandhi, who is a Congress MP from Wayanad, questioning why he hadn't acted.
A case has been filed against Maneka Gandhi over her remarks against the district.
Shashi Tharoor, who is also a Congress MP from Kerala, rebutted her in a tweet.
"The death of the pregnant elephant moved me terribly, but the disinformation being circulated around it by motivated people needs to be spiked immediately. The incident did not happen in Muslim-majority Malappuram district, but in Palakkad. @RahulGandhi is not MP from there," Mr Tharoor tweeted.
The death of the pregnant elephant moved me terribly, but the disinformation being circulated around it by motivated people needs to be spiked immediately. The incident did not happen in Muslim-majority Malappuram district, but in Palakkad. @RahulGandhi is not MP from there. pic.twitter.com/oYowa1dNqy— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) June 4, 2020
Villagers in the region often use firecracker or explosives mixed with food - fruit or animal fat - to protect their fields from wild animals like boar and the cruel practice has been widely condemned.
Photos shared on social media showed the elephant standing in the river with her mouth and trunk in water, perhaps for some relief from what can only be imagined as excruciating pain. She had not eaten anything since the substance exploded in her mouth.
The autopsy report said she drowned.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, promising action, condemned what he called a targeted campaign against Kerala and Malappuram. "In spite of having clarified that the incident took place in Palakkad and not in Malappuram as being propagated, people including central ministers are still not willing to correct the mistake. It now looks like they are doing it deliberately. This is not acceptable and any efforts to spread hatred using this incident will not be tolerated," he said.
The Chief Minister also tweeted that he was "saddened" by the fact some have used this tragedy to unleash a hate campaign. "Lies built upon inaccurate descriptions and half truths were employed to obliterate the truth. Some even tried to import bigotry into the narrative. Wrong priorities," Mr Vijayan wrote.
Some tweets alleged that the elephant was killed because it is considered sacred by Hindus.
The communal narrative was condemned by celebrities like actor Parvathy Thiruvothu.
Just how you jump at an opportunity to make this an anti-Muslim, hate campaign is astonishing. Focus on the problem. ANIMALS ARE IN DANGER BECAUSE OF CRUEL EXPLOSIVE SNARES. Talk about the actual issue here!- Parvathy Thiruvothu (@parvatweets) June 3, 2020
A man who reportedly handled explosives has been arrested for his alleged involvement in the elephant's death.