Nehru’s Elephant Envoys:
Animal Modernity, Orientalist
Gaze and India’s Soft Power
The colonial masters classified Indian subjects according to animalistic iconographies of rebel tiger or
docile elephant. Even prior to the colonial imaginings, orientalist gaze associated elephant with the
Indian geographical imagery. After decolonization, due to circumstantial necessities India, one of the
biggest elephant suppliers to Europe, started to gift elephants to war-stricken zoos not as merchandize
but as envoys of peace and goodwill. This subverted the long tradition of environmental domination.
This article argues that Nehru’s elephant gift diplomacy utilized the long-standing orientalist iconog-
raphy to practise India’s soft power. Apart from that he successfully incorporated a colonial icon and
rebranded it as nation’s diplomatic emblem.
Jawaharlal Nehru, soft power, animal diplomacy, orientalism, elephant
Sorry to disturb you, Prime Minister. We know you’re a busy person. But we have never seen a live elephant.
Could you kindly send us one from India? We promise to look after it very carefully.
—Letter from the children of Taito Word, Tokyo (Cariapa, 2021, p. 1)
Everything started with this innocent letter from Japan. Nehru sent elephant and continued to do so when
more letters poured in from different countries. But despite the innovativeness of it, Jawaharlal Nehru’s
usage of the elephant as a cultural icon of India mirrored the colonial masters’ orientalist stereotype.
Nikhil Menon’s article ‘Jambo Exports: India’s History Elephant Diplomacy’ (Menon, 2019) in Caravan
magazine entertained but overlooked the broader question hovering beneath the tale: why did Nehru
continue the same path of promoting a post-colonial state in the way colonists have been portraying for
long? But first of all, this article is not just only about Nehru’s cultural diplomacy, but about representa-
tional legacy which Nehru-like leaders of post-colonies subconsciously embraced as well as practically
utilized to recreate nationhood. This article tries to delve into the continuity of west-invented icons into
the collective and individual imaginings of the colonized subjects which ultimately creates an invented
iconographic past. As a result, although the nation emerging from the colonial past attempts to present
1 Department of History, PhD Student, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, West Bengal, India
Aryama Ghosh, Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, West Bengal 700032, India.
Studies in Indian Politics
10(2) 242–253, 2022
© 2022 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
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