Jumbo Exports

India’s history of elephant diplomacy

01 March 2019
Murugan arrived in Amsterdam in November 1954. He was greeted by thousands of schoolchildren.
Courtesy National Archives of the Netherland
Murugan arrived in Amsterdam in November 1954. He was greeted by thousands of schoolchildren.
Courtesy National Archives of the Netherland

In the winter of 1953, the Indian prime minister received an unusual letter, from a five-year-old boy. “Dear Mr Nehru,” it began. “Here in Granby, a small town in Canada, we have a lovely zoo, but we have no elephant.” Peter Marmorek had heard from his father that Jawaharlal Nehru had “lots of elephants and could probably dig up one for us.” Having understood the need to “dig up” quite literally, the child added, “I never knew that elephants lived underground, [but] I hope you can send us one.”

It was an odd letter to merit the attention of a prime minister involved in the whirl of postcolonial nation-building. But it was not altogether surprising to government officials. Since Independence, the Indian government had cultivated an international reputation for generosity when it came to gifting baby elephants—often in response to requests from children. Nehru’s personal fondness for children aside, the highly favourable international publicity that accompanied these gifts advanced the diplomatic interests of a poor, young nation-state looking for international aid, straining to remain non-aligned during the Cold War and aspiring to cultivate a positive image on the global stage.

In the first decade and a half after Independence, India sent numerous elephants—as symbols of the nation and emissaries of its goodwill and friendship—to zoos in Japan, China, the Soviet Union, the United States, Germany, Turkey, Iran, Canada and the Netherlands. The Indian government’s willingness to gift elephants was so well established that the offer was sometimes made by private citizens without official authorisation. In at least two instances, Indians speaking out of turn while abroad eventually led to the government sending elephants as gifts to children overseas.

Nikhil Menon is a historian at the University of Notre Dame. He is writing a book on the history of economic planning and democratic state-building in independent India.

Keywords: Jawaharlal Nehru elephants diplomacy Canada Netherlands
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