Written jointly with Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee
Elephants in Hinduism and the Indian Culture are a symbol of intellectual strength, and sturdy earthy mental strength. It is a sacred animal and is considered the representation or the living incarnation of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity riding a mouse. Ganesha is thought to be the remover of obstacles, as well as the god of luck, protection and fortune. Elephant was the natural symbol of Kamrupa and King Bhaskarvarma’s gifts to Harshavardhana included paintings of elephant on Assamese silk. In many of the medieval manuscripts such as Hastividyarnava and the Chitra Bhagawata, importance was given to elephants.
Wild elephants in rural Assam, reveal themselves to be more-than-animal. For people living on the fringes of the forest, they are god-like creatures with supernatural powers of perception, able to grasp the hidden intentions and moral character of people. Drawing on ethnographic observations, animist literature, theories of witchcraft, and frameworks that foreground the different perceptual worlds of nonhumans, it can be shown how elephants can be divine agents and beings of wonder. Wonder arises at the limits of our conceptual resources and a deep uncertainty is at the core of divine encounters between human and elephant.
In his famous short story ‘Shooting an Elephant’ George Orwell graphically showed how painful dilemma it was even for a police office of the British Empire to kill an innocent elephant in going to prove that the mask of power is stronger than the real face. In the real wildlife of Assam today elephants are really facing threat of extinction especially in the rainforest like Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve which is known as the ‘Northeast Amazon’ the lung of green Assam.
The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve — of which Saleki is a part — is the largest rainforest in India. It is really painful when elephants stop roaring and in their place the loud cry of the environmentalists is being heard. ’Don’t transform our elephants into coal’ the environmentalists all over Assam are now campaigning. The GU students have started a strong campaign against this attempt of coalmining in the Elephant reserve.
Graydon Carter once said ‘ We admire elephants in part because they demonstrate what we consider the finest human traits ; empathy, self-awareness and social intelligence. But the way we treat them puts on display the very worst of human behaviour’.
Assam is famous for tea rhinos and elephant. Assamese people have a heritage feeling for these and any threat to them becomes a sensitized issue in a very justified way. Elephants love reunions. They recognize one another after years and years of separation and greet each other with wild, boisterous joy. There's bellowing and trumpeting, ear flapping and rubbing. Trunks entwine. After dogs and horses, elephants come next to conquer human heart. From emperors to rank and file, elephant is loved by people in India.
In South India a man is happiest if he is called ‘Elephant’ because it is the most intelligent animal as the crow is among the birds. There is mystery behind that masked gray visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea. Elephant, beyond the fact that their size and conformation are aesthetically more suited to the treading of this earth than our angular informity, have an average intelligence comparable to our own. Memory of elephant is sometimes the theme of many famous stories. Elephants can sense danger. They're able to detect an approaching tsunami or earthquake before it hits. It is absurd for a man to kill an elephant. It is not brutal, it is not heroic, and certainly it is not easy; it is just one of those preposterous things that men do like putting a dam across a great river.
Dehing Patkai rainforest stretches for 575 square kilometres across Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sivasagar districts in Upper Assam. This virgin forestland is also referred to as the 'Amazon of the East'. The biodiversity of this forestland is very rich and unique. Among the varied animal species living here are the hoolock gibbon, slow loris, pig - tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, capped langur, Indian leopard, Asian elephant, Bengal tiger, gaur, Chinese pangolin, Himalayan black bear, Himalayan squirrel, leopard cat, clouded leopard, porcupine, crab-eating mongoose, sambar, sun bear, binturong, barking deer, golden cat, and marbled cat. 30 species of butterflies and over 100 species of orchids thrive in this beautiful tropical vegetation. The Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve hosts around 293 different species of birds as well. Among the common reptiles found here are the rock python, king cobra, Asian leaf turtle, and monitor lizard.
Dehing Patkai region which is already threatened by high polluting industries, such as coal mines, oil refineries, gas drilling, affecting the biodiversity of the region is facing a still graver menace. Recently, NBWL has permitted Coal India Limited to start extraction in 98.59 hectares of land at Dehing Patkai in Saleki-- an Elephant Reserve area. Students of Gauhati University have started an online campaign to stop coal mining in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, Assam. Environmentalists have started their protest against the decision of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) for coal mining in Saleki of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. The protestors have urged the Prime Minister of India, the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India, the Chief Minister of Assam and the NBWL to stop any current and future coal mining project in Saleki and the whole of Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve, stating that legal and illegal coal extraction will endanger the whole ecosystem of the region. A signature collection campaign also started.
According to the environmental activists, illegal mining of coal has been going by the coal mafias in the forest for long affecting the biodiversity of this virgin forestland" although the NBWL has recently allowed the coal mining project on April 7, 2020.. The NBWL's standing committee had discussed the proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of land of Saleki, proposed for a coal mining project by North Eastern Coal Field ( NECF ) — a unit of Coal India Limited— and gave nod to it. Recommendation for coal mining in the forest by the NBWL has been strongly opposed by the nature lovers, environmental activists and NGOs and the cry ‘Don’t turn our elephants into coal’ is getting louder.
Image (c) gettyimages.com