Maneka, as in “manic, eh?”
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1998:
NEW DELHI––Maneka, pronounced
“manic-eh,” is in India quite a common
first name. Yet headlines often refer just
to “Maneka,” and Indians know exactly who
they mean: Maneka Gandhi, the maniacally
energetic founder of India’s leading animal
advocacy group, People For Animals; foe of
corruption; fearless newspaper columnist; and
member of Parliament. She is lampooned
almost daily by cartoonists and fellow columnists,
but is also quoted thoroughly on subjects
that most others in public life dare not address.
“It was pyrotechnics,” the Indian
Express opened on November 1, describing a
typical Maneka speech to a local Rotary Club.
“Maneka had everyone scurrying for cover, as
she launched a loaded attack on policy makers,
parliamentarians, seminar organizers, and ‘all
those who make a big show of environmental
conservation without even understanding what
they are saying.’”
A rival female politician who spoke
before Maneka derided her as “‘a specialist in
stray dogs,’ much to everyone’s amusement,”
the Express recounted.
But, “Palpably impatient with the
excessive formality, where detailed introductions
preceded every speaker, Maneka lost no
time in getting back,” the Express continued.
“She narrated the foolishness of the then-Surat
municipal commissioner who [in 1994] ordered the total killing of strays.” That
allowed rats to proliferate, touching off the
world’s deadliest outbreak of bubonic plague
in at least 40 years.
By the end of the impromptu ecology
lesson, Maneka had clearly won both the
debate and the audience.
Maneka’s affection for dogs, birds,
trees, and indeed all living creatures is routinely
ridiculed. Her face appears on editorial
pages grafted to the heads of all sorts of
strange beasts. One of her own favorites,
recurring in cartoons clipped and hung along a
corridor of her house, shows her with the
claws and stripes of a tiger, but the general
configuration and tail of a jackass. Other cartoonists
show her being pooped upon by whole
Yet beneath the derision is an evident
streak of respect. Among the flock of
birds and dogs defecating and urinating on her
as she makes a speech in one drawing are
political foes who have disguised themselves
as animals in order to approach. Plainly
Maneka is not really the cartoonist’s target.
Maneka’s many enemies have been
trying to catch her with political dirt on her
hands for most of her life. The worst they
have found has been animal dirt, from the animals
she has personally rescued and attended,
in a nation where millions of Indians still pick
up and shape cow patties with their bare hands
to fuel their cookstoves. She lives self-evidently
more simply, in a much more modest
neighborhood, than most Indian politicians.
The People For Animals headquarters, about
the same size as the ANIMAL PEOPLE
office, occupies the largest room of her house,
with an office staff of three. The four-acre
PFA sanctuary and animal hospital is at a separate
site. The whole neighborhood is witness
that Maneka and her household used the seeds
from the fruit they personally ate to plant most
of the trees and shrubbery that now make the
neighborhood the only part of Delhi with
decreasing air pollution.
Birdwatching and sketching in
Maneka’s now jungle-like garden, ANIMAL
P E O P L E artist Wolf Clifton, age 7, was
shocked by the appearance of men in camouflage,
carrying rifles, and ran inside to warn
Maneka of the encroachment of “hunters.”
“They are just my guards,” Maneka
reassured Wolf. “There is no hunting here,
and the only shooting came once when one of
them accidentally shot himself through the
hand. The bullet lodged in a tree. I ran out
and told him, ‘I don’t care if you want to shoot
yourself, but please do not hurt the trees.’”
The guards, provided by the government
because so many members of the Gandhi
family have been assassinated, attend Maneka
and her household at all times.
Paradoxically, in view of her notoriety,
Maneka may be the only prominent
Gandhi whom no one––yet––has ever tried to
kill or kidnap. It may be that she is protected
to some extent by her very willingness to
expose herself to public denunciation, and her
ability to turn most of it into sympathetic
laughter. And whatever else Maneka may say
or do, she is respected for her honesty.
Because her critics cannot attack her
for the corruption that otherwise permeates
Indian (and U.S.) political life, and because
they can only go so far in ridiculing her animal
work without seeming to endorse cruelty, they
mostly attack Maneka for alleged impropriety
in denouncing the corruption of others.
Though most of her charges are upheld, she is
often accused of defaming people unjustly, of
being a spoiled brat, of throwing tantrums,
and even of insanity.
Despite the attacks, Maneka at age
42 is probably the best-known and best loved
Gandhi since the founder of modern India,
known to Indians as Gandhi-ji––and since the
Indian population has tripled since Gandhi-ji’s
death, which came well before electronic communications
and mass literacy reached most of
India, she reaches far more Indians than
Gandhi-ji ever did in his lifetime. Indeed,
Maneka probably enjoys a bigger audience
than any other living animal advocate, ever.
Searching on the Gandhi surname on
the Internet actually produces more references
for other members of her family, yet when
self-promotional publicity materials are deleted,
Maneka is the most discussed, most
charismatic, most provocative, and most
problematic Gandhi, to many. Both supporters
and detractors question why Maneka didn’t
make the political compromises years ago that
could have made her prime minister, and perhaps
still might. Further, in a nation where
family ties are extremely important, her selfestrangement
from many other family members
causes consternation and head-shaking.
Married to Sanjay Gandhi, the
younger son and generally recognized political
heir of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi,
Maneka was abruptly widowed in 1980, at age
21, when Sanjay crashed his private airplane.
She was expected to quietly raise their twoyear-old
son Feroze within the Gandhi household,
until and unless she remarried. Instead,
Indira banished her within two years, in consequence
of her outspoken statements on
behalf of animals, ecological consciousness,
and women’s rights. These were among
Indira’s favorite causes, too, inherited from
her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister
of India 1947-1964, who had taken them up
under the influence of Gandhi-ji, his longtime
mentor––but Maneka had a way of colorfully
upstaging Indira that Indira didn’t like.
After Indira was assassinated in
October 1984, Maneka’s brother-in-law Rajiv
Gandhi became prime minister. Accusing him
of corruption, Maneka helped oust him in
1989 by capturing the Parliamentary seat she
has held ever since as––then––a leader of the
opposition Janata Dal party. Trying to regain
power, Rajiv was assassinated during the 1991
election campaign. His widow Sonia, Rajiv’s
son Rahul, and his daughter Priyanka now all
prominently represent the Nehru-Gandhi
dynasty. Maneka meanwhile served two separate
stormy terms as environment minister,
helped revitalize the long moribund Animal
Welfare Board of India, and inspired––as
much by example as by preaching––the rise of
a dynamic Indian animal rights movement.
In July 1996 she also got herself
kicked out of her party for at least six years,
for denouncing deals the executives cut to site
a new power plant.
Observers often liken Maneka to
Brigitte Bardot, the former film star who catalyzed
the French animal rights movement,
and Ingrid Newkirk, the often caustic founder
of People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, whose upbringing––though Newkirk
and Maneka did not know each other until
many years later––was in essentially the same
Indian milieu. Both Bardot and Newkirk also
founded influential animal rights organizations.
Both also favor incendiary rhetoric.
Both are also prolific writers and speakers.
The comparison with Bardot is especially
tempting, since as with Bardot,
p a p a r a z z i photograph virtually every moment
that Maneka spends outside her home. Bardot,
too, married into a politically prominent family.
But Maneka was never a glamor figure.
Her hair and dress are simple.
Nor does Maneka share Newkirk’s
misanthropy. Maneka provocatively scolds
India with every other breath, yet between
scoldings proclaims her passionate love for the
nation and her people. Few Indian politicians
make themselves more accessible, while
Maneka’s political record shows enduring concern
for alleviating human as well as animal
suffering. Both, Maneka argues, come from
the same remediable failures of Indian society,
and contrary to the common argument that
halting animal suffering must follow development
that may relieve poverty, Maneka
holds––as did Gandhi-ji––that the abolition of
human and animal suffering can be accomplished
only by means that do both together.
Neither Bardot nor Newkirk have
ever had children. Maneka, however, speaks
often and affectionately of her son Feroze,
now 19, who clearly admires his mother,
shares her values, and yet has a naturally more
diplomatic style. He smiles as Maneka rages.
His way is to use a relatively few well-chosen
words, and to listen more than speak.
Maneka on Maneka
Then there is Maneka on Maneka.
According to Maneka, her volubility and abrasiveness
are developed, not instinctive. She
forces herself to speak out because someone
must, but sometimes speaks too soon because
she is afraid that if she hesitates, shyness will
overcome her and she will be silent, like too
many other Indian women.
One of her favorite accomplishments
is having persuaded Nafisa Joseph, Miss India
‘97 and now Miss World, to write an animal
rights column of her own. Even Joseph, who
is also an MTV disc jockey, expressed trepidation
about offering opinions in public. A
leading Indian moral critic had already assailed
her, saying “A woman without modesty is like
“That’s why you must speak out,”
Maneka told her.
“‘But you can speak out because
you’re a Gandhi,’” Maneka recounts Joseph
“I was thrown out of the Gandhi
household,” Maneka responded. “I gained the
right to speak because I spoke, and would not
Joseph took the lesson to heart.
But Maneka also remembers failures.
At lunch in her home with ANIMAL PEOP
L E and longtime friend Christine Townend
of Help In Suffering, Maneka unexpectedly
delivered a shockingly forthright and clearly
considered self-critique. She acknowledged
offending allies whom she should not have
offended, generously praised those who continue
to put up with her, acknowledged a need
to make amends toward several, admitted tactical
blunders as environment minister, and
confessed to having difficulty with apologizing,
especially to older men, because of her
phobia about an apology being mistaken for a
sign of weakness. She wished it was in her
nature to cultivate wisdom, instead of to
always be the firebrand. She described how
she often cries herself to sleep with the realization
that a misdirected “shouting” may have
done more harm than good, and how she has
begun to sometimes make herself get back out
of bed and call people whom she may have
shouted at to ill effect––like some of those who
call her about finding homeless dogs, or
injured birds, seeking someone else who will
take responsibility for completing the rescue.
It was the sort of self-deflation that
Gandhi-ji was known for. But at age 42,
Gandhi-ji was only four years into his adoption
of the philosophy of nonviolence and his political
struggle against anti-Indian discrimination
in South Africa. Virtually everything for
which he is remembered was said and done
during the latter half of his 79-year life.
Gandhi-ji would not come under the scrutiny
that has characterized Maneka’s career for at
least another decade––and if he had, in an era
of mass communications, his reputation by
midlife might have been similar.