HINDU GOVERNMENT TO INCLUDE MANEKA
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1998:
NEW DELHI––”Maneka Gandhi was re-elected as
an independent and has joined the Bharatiya Janata Party government,”
Help In Suffering executive director Christine
Townend faxed to ANIMAL PEOPLE on March 14. “It looks
likely she will be given a lesser cabinet ministry,” an analysis
confirmed by the editors of The Hindu, the nationally circulated
newspaper most closely aligned with the BJP.
Founder of People for Animals, the strongest Indian
animal advocacy group, Maneka thus for the third time in her
political career parlayed isolation into strength. Twenty-two
seats short of a majority in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, after
national elections held in stages from February 16 through
March 5, the BJP needs the support of every non-aligned delegate
it can get in order to take office. Previously in power only
once, for just 13 days, the BJP––if it can form a majority––
will represent the ascendency of Hindu nationalism over the
secular Congress Party, which had dominated Indian politics
since India won independence from Britain in 1948.
A member of Lok Sabha, the Indian equivalent of the
U.S. House of Representatives, since 1989, Maneka has
repeatedly reclaimed her New Delhi seat by landslide margins.
First elected as a candidate of the Janata Dal opposition party,
Maneka previously negotiated her way into two different
Congress Party coalition governments as minister for environment
and forests. She lost her ministry and was expelled from
Janata Dal on July 5, 1996, for aggressively attacking corruption
harmful to the environment and animals.
Maneka was more than a decade earlier expelled from
the household of her mother-in-law, the later assassinated
prime minister Indira Gandhi, for much the same reason. Joining
the Nehru-Gandhi family through marriage to Indira
Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, Maneka was widowed in 1980,
at age 22, when Sanjay crashed his private aircraft. Expected
to quietly remain within the family until and unless she remarried,
Maneka instead became a popular crusader for women’s
rights, animal rights, honest politicians, and honest media.
“If animals are respected and treated as equals,” she
often says, “it does not matter that women are treated as animals
because that is how everyone should be treated. It is if
women and animals are treated worse than men and are treated
badly that there is a problem.”
The most nationalistic of the Gandhis, Maneka has
throughout her career sounded the two themes that brought the
BJP to the verge of power: corruption and cow slaughter both
must stop. Indeed they often go together, since cow slaughter
is legal in only two states of India, and most of the cruel practices
associated with exporting cows from one state to another
for slaughter are illegal, but are often overlooked by officials
on the take. Maneka’s presence within the leadership of a BJP
government is expected to help insure that Hindu fundamentalism
won’t trample the rights of women, and that concern for
animal rights and the environment keep a high political profile.
“Wise use” with Indian accent
BJP candidates picked up seats across India at the
expense of the Congress Party partly due to outrage over the
Indian parallel to so-called “wise-use” of public lands.
Prominent politicians have repeatedly weakened the authority
of wildlife reserve managers to fight encroachment by cattle
grazing, logging, mining, and quarrying, and when push
came to shove have even delisted important sanctuaries for
endangered species to allow lucrative development.
“While the threat to India’s wildlife from poaching
has received justifiable attention,” Sanctuary magazine editor
Bitthu Sahgal told the Indian Board for Wildlife in July 1997,
“a more insidious and potentially permanent threat remains virtually
unrecognized. I refer to the dismemberment of contiguous
forests by industrial and commercial projects that have the
Government of India’s tacit approval. These include mines,
dams, canals, polluting industries, new highways, thermal
plants, tourism projects, townships, and resettlement sites.
Add to this clutch of disturbances the orgy of timber industries
that continue their activity surreptitiously in the face of
Supreme Court orders to cease and desist. This is the direct
result of a lack of vigilance and enforcement at the state level,
particularly in Madhya Pradesh, where more than half the
10,000 sawmills in operation are illegal. The same is true in
Tripura, where just 40% of the 86 sawmills are licensed.”
Sahgal published a list of development threats to 52
Indian national wildlife reserves.
One of the most flagrant examples may have been
stopped on January 9, when according to Shailendra Kumar of
The Economic Times, federal minister of environment and
forests Saifuddin Soz, Maneka’s successor, “rejected the
application for the construction of a jetty in Kutch district,
Gujarat state, by Sanghi Industries Ltd., to serve a megacement
plant, highly placed sources said. Similar projects
across the country face a similar fate,” a veiled warning that
the political wind might change with a change of government.
Soz took a public hit in mid-December 1997, when
the Wildlife Protection Society of India accused the New Delhi
branch of the Forest Department of ignoring the illegal sale of
bear bile and pickled deer testicles at a Chinese Commodities
Fair, which was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Trade
and Economic Cooperation of the People’s Republic of China,
and was hosted by the Confederation of Indian Industry.
Soz didn’t order a bust, but reportedly did express
“concern” about such trafficking at the February 23-24 third
general assembly of the Asian Conservation Alliance, hosted in
New Delhi by the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Delegates came from Japan, Taiwan, Russia, and South Korea
to see first hand the impact of wildlife trafficking on Indian elephants
and tigers, both down at least by half since 1979.
At that, India has resisted poaching and illegal trafficking
more effectively than most other nations with elephants
and tigers, and still has from half to 80% of all the Asian elephants
and wild tigers still alive.
An equal threat to species and much greater source of
cruelty because of the high number of animals involved is the
Indian wild-caught bird trade. Ornithologists Brij Kishor Gupta
and B. Rathinasabapathy in 1995-1996 documented the capture
and sale of at least 25 bird species as pets; about 200 species
are believed to be routinely captured and sold, many for ceremonial
release by the devout outside of temples. Hindus,
Buddhists, Jains, and Moslems all regard the release of captive
birds as a holy act. That the capture and sale of birds expressly
for release is blasphemy is less widely perceived. Experts
believe no more than half the birds released actually live long
afterward in usually unfamiliar surroundings, if indeed they
survive capture itself and subsequent transport.
Wild birds are sometimes eaten by the privileged as a
display of ruthlessness. Noting that the public outrage often
stoked by cow slaughter is much less manifest as regards birdeating,
The Hindu on January 3 noted “a vast [moral] difference
between sharing a single animal by 10 families, as in the
case of beef, and 50 birds by a single family,” as occurs when
sparrows are eaten. “The latter are from nature’s stores, and
are not replaced,” The Hindu warned. “Moreover, destroying
a life has been condemned as a great sin by all religions. In
Hinduism, destruction of life is considered to be the reason for
our perils and maladies. Eating meat may help in physical
growth, but spiritual growth can only be accomplished when
one displays compassion toward all forms of life.”
Politically vulnerable because they are relatively few
and come mainly from the Sapera tribe, a Rajasthan minority,
snake charmers organized to defend themselves during the election
campaign, with ecologist Iqbal Malik as their spokesperson.
Catching common snake species and keeping them in
warm baskets is not cruelty, Ms. Malik told Arvinder Kaur of
The Times of India. Rather, she said, “The threat to snakes is
from poachers,” who often pretend to be snake charmers, she
claimed, in order to get snakes whom they skin, “to make wallets,
purses, and brief cases for the wealthy.”
The Sapera, Malik argued, recognize that snakes are
protected by the god Shiva, keep each snake no longer than six
months, and release all their snakes each year in honor of Shiva
during the festival of Nagpanchami.
But snakes are reputedly so depleted in Rajasthan that
snake charmers often go to West Bengal to find replacements.
“Famous persons act”
Earlier, the Indian public was outraged when in
September 1997 Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq
Abdullah and two of his cabinet ministers, his younger brother
Mustafa Kamal and Moulvi Iftikhar Hussain Ansair, led a
hunting party whose members gunned down 200 rare migratory
waterfowl at the Hokerasar wetland reserve outside Srinagar
city––officially off limits to all hunting since 1990. Also
among the hunters were actress Sharmila Tagore and her husband,
cricket star Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi.
According to The Indian Express, “The Wildlife
Department tried to stall the shooting spree, but could not
because of Mr. Abdullah’s prior commitment to his friends.”
Technically it was all legal because Jammu and
Kashmir never got around to 1986 and 1991 amendments to the
Indian Wildlife Act, which forbid sport hunting.
Fumed Maneka, “This Pataudi creature has no business
shooting birds. Around two years ago we threatened to
take him to court for leaning out of his palace and shooting
dogs. They begged us to let the matter rest, promising it would
not happen again. He is back to doing exactly what he wants.”
The incident aggravated ethnic tensions as well as
sensibilities toward animals, since most of the hunters were
members of the Moslem minority.
In ancient times, Islamic moguls intimidated Hindus,
Jains, and Buddhists with public displays of their zest for
bloodshed. Although the large Kali-worshipping sect within
Hinduism also practices blood sacrifice, Hindu historical memories
are still inflamed by the frequent sight of Moslem butchers
slashing the throats of animals on public streets.
No issue in India is more volatile than cow slaughter,
a trade dominated by Moslems, portrayed by Hindu fundamentalists
as a byproduct of the growth of the Indian dairy industry,
which has rendered redundant many wandering cows once fed
and milked by villagers. Some such cows are abandoned when
no longer profitable; others are illicitly sold to be butchered.
Wrapping herself in the sari of God, motherhood,
and patriotism all with one symbolic appeal , All-India
Durgavahini party president Sadvi Rithambara urged Indians to
elect only candidates who would ban cow slaughter outright.
A far-right Hindu militant, Rithambara was among
the most prominent of 41 persons jailed in 1995 for their
alleged role in inciting the mob demolition of the Ram
Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid mosque at Ayodhya on December
6, 1992. Built by Moslem conquerors on the site of a Hindu
temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram,
the mosque was longtime focal point of tensions similar to
those surrounding the Dome of the Rock in Old Jerusalem.
Tearing it down sparked riots that killed at least 1,200 people.
Invoking an often neglected two-cows-per-household
limit, the BJP-dominated New Delhi Municipal Corporation on
the eve of the early March national balloting charged Congress
Party president Sita Ram Kesri and several former cabinet ministers
with keeping more than their quota––”flouting municipal
regulations and virtually turning their homes into illicit dairy
farms,” according to one media statement.
The charges in effect transferred blame for the wandering
cattle who frequently paralyze traffic from tens of thousands
of landless poor cow-keepers, each eligible to vote, to
the landed and wealthy few whose cows cannot wander.
National Dairy Research Institute director Kiran
Singh judiciously waited until after the voting ended to
announce that the institute had cross-bred imported Swiss and
Friesan cattle to obtain record milk yield. The NDRI research
is widely seen as a threat to native Indian “scrub” cattle, noted
for small size and hardiness, and to public cow-keeping, since
only wealthy dairy owners can afford “improved” breeds.
In Bijar, notorious for the ascendency of convicted
criminals to political power, the Hindu elephant god Ganesh
reputedly sent a warning against acceptance of corruption on
February 16 and 17, as rampaging elephants trampled villages
around the forests of Ranchi during the first two days of voting.
There was some substance to the popular interpretation of the
event: elephants trained to help with logging are often addicted
to alcohol by their handlers. As loggers have run out of trees to
cut, many ex-logging elephants have been abandoned, becoming
notorious over the past few years for their frequently
destructive raids on the sites of moonshine stills and other
places where liquor is stored. In India as in the U.S., wooing
voters with an illicit drink is a common rural custom––and
liquor stockpiled by various candidates in proximity to the
polling stations may well have drawn the elephants.