Maneka Gandhi's rage at Avni's killing inconsistent with her reluctance to speak up against alarming rise in lynchings

On the face of it, Union minister Maneka Gandhi seems to have a strange moral imagination. It has had her express indignation at the shooting of a man-eating tigress in Maharashtra, and rail against the state government, which her own outfit, the Bharatiya Janata Party, heads. Yet, it is the same Maneka who seldom expressed her disquiet at the alarming rise in the lynching of Muslims and Dalits over the past four years and more.

 Maneka Gandhis rage at Avnis killing inconsistent with her reluctance to speak up against alarming rise in lynchings

File image of Maneka Gandhi. AFP

On the rare occasions that Maneka voiced her concern at the emerging culture of lynching, she has been seemingly shy of condemning it outright. The disjunction between her extreme sensitivity to animals and her relative silence on the killing of human beings in the name of cows is baffling. This, more so because the context in which the tigress was shot in Maharashtra bears resemblance to that in which humans have been battered to death.

Here, then is the background to fathom Maneka’s rage. The villagers living in and around the forests of Yavatmal district, Maharashtra, were said to have been traumatised by Avni, or T1, who they claimed was responsible for mauling 13 people to death. They wanted T1 removed from the vicinity of their habitat.

After the Chief Wildlife Warden declared T1 a man-eater, a team was deputed to tranquilise, capture and quarantine it. The state forest department claims one of the trackers shot a tranquilising dart at T1, but it turned around and aggressively charged them. A sharpshooter in the team brought down T1 with a single bullet fired from 8 to 10 meters.

Media reports claim the villagers burst firecrackers at the death of T1. Maneka has dubbed the shooting of T1 as “murder”, largely because wildlife conservationists disbelieve the version of the forest department. They claim the tranquilising dart was inserted into T1 after she had been shot dead by the shooter, Asghar Ali Khan, son of Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, who, in an interview to The Times of India, claimed to have shot or tranquillised 50 problematic animals in and outside India.

Expressing her doubts about the forest department’s version, Maneka gratuitously advised Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to remove Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar from his post. It is hard to recall another instance of a Union Cabinet member asking for the scalp of a minister in any of the states in which the BJP is in power.

Now, take the context common to several lynchings in the recent past. Muslims and Dalits ferrying cows are waylaid and beaten to death. Their assailants have often justified their criminal action on the grounds that their victims planned to slaughter the cows or sell them to butchers. Few among those lynched were apprehended with beef, although even that cannot be a justification for the ghastly treatment meted out to them.

Maneka hasn’t been known to have questioned the narrative of bloodthirsty cow-protectionists, as she has the Maharashtra forest department’s version of the shooting of T1. Nor did she advise Prime Minister Narendra Modi to remove Jayant Sinha from the Union ministry after he feted eight men convicted of pummeling to death a Muslim suspected to be carrying beef in his vehicle. It can be argued that lynching and cow vigilantism don’t constitute Maneka’s ministerial responsibility. She is, after all, the Cabinet minister for Women and Child Development. But then, her remit does not also include the protection of tigers. She has spoken because of her deep passion to ensure animals are not mistreated and killed wantonly.

Yet, Maneka’s moral imagination is bewildering because it seems to have little space for human beings. Perhaps the most telling example of it was her alleged role behind the demolition of a temple in Pilibhit, her constituency, all because its pujari failed to safeguard a monkey she had given him after confiscating it from a madaari. A comprehensive account of this incident was provided to this writer by Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan convener VM Singh, who is Maneka’s first cousin. She appointed Singh special secretary to the Minister of Environment and Forest in 1989-1990, which was when she was first given a ministerial berth at the Centre. Maneka and Singh later fell out.

In 1999, when Maneka was a minister in the Vajpayee government, she came upon a madaari with a monkey somewhere on her drive from Delhi to Pilibhit. She is said to have taken away the monkey, gave it to the pujari of the 125-year-old Garrah temple in Pilibhit, asked him to keep it chained and look after it until the date of her return to Delhi. Neither Maneka nor the pujari had anticipated the fury of other monkeys at the plight of one of theirs being chained.

Singh recalled, “When you chain a monkey, all other monkeys will come and kill you. So when all the monkeys got together to have Maneka’s monkey released...the baba [pujari] had no choice but to unchain Maneka’s monkey. Two days later, she returned and asked the Baba for her monkey. The Baba said that other monkeys had forcibly released her monkey.”

It enraged Maneka no end. “Maneka is said to have remarked that one who can’t look after a monkey, how can he look after a temple? Maneka had the temple demolished… It was reported by all major newspapers,” Singh said.

For her part, Maneka denied she ever ordered district officials to demolish the temple and blamed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP for spreading the canard against her, all because they had lost heavily in local elections. “This is like a ‘Chinese whisper’- the accusations keep growing. In any case, what do I gain by ordering the pulling down of a temple?” she told journalist Smita Gupta.

Several of Pilibhit’s residents, however, retold the story of Gandhi’s monkey and the pulling down of the temple to Sharat Pradhan, the well-known, Lucknow-based journalist who toured her constituency in 2009. Among them was Rajesh Giri, the temple’s pujari, who said he had not forgotten trauma he had to go through because of Maneka’s monkey.

Giri told Pradhan, “Had it not been for violent reaction to the demolition provoking hundreds of villagers to stage a road-block, followed by a court petition, the temple would not have been there and I would have been behind bars.” It was because of Singh’s petition that the high court ordered the restoration of the temple.

Regardless of whom you believe—Maneka or Pilibhit’s residents—a young farm labourer, Ganga Ram, aptly articulated the popular perception of Gandhi when he told Pradhan, “Maneka remains more concerned about animals than she is about human beings.” This impression of her has been repeatedly reinforced over the years.

For instance, when stray dogs began to fatally attack people in Kerala, the state government decided to kill canines identified as dangerous. Maneka opposed the policy, saying: “You say kill, kill, kill. You keep killing and they keep biting. The dog becomes hostile.” She said killing dogs was unlawful, and described the Kerala government’s policy as an “excuse to kill any dog.” She rightly advocated the policy of sterilising dogs as the most efficient, non-violent method of checking their rapid growth.

By contrast, Maneka has seldom interrogated the emerging culture of lynching. When she has chosen to break her silence, she seems to tacitly condemn meat eating. While speaking at a seminar on Future of Protein Summit in Hyderabad in August, she was quoted as saying that meat grown in a laboratory from animal cells, or “clean meat”, could help solve the problem of lynching by cow protectionists. Maneka said, “It is the most important thing to create alternative sources of meat. We must have clean meat… People are being lynched for taking cows for slaughter. Why this terror?”

From her remarks, it seems she is willing to buy the vigilantes’ claims that every person who was lynched was indeed taking cows to the slaughter-house. Her credulity is in sharp contrast to the disbelief she has expressed over the Maharashtra government’s version of the shooting of T1. Or take her response to the 2015 lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Noida, on the suspicion of stocking beef. She accused the then Akhilesh Yadav government of politicising the incident. Compare her outrage over the killing of T1 to her comments on the murder of Akhlaq. Maneka said, “I know two youth, the names of whom are being dragged into this. They have nothing to do with the issue… Whoever is involved in the incident should be punished and the law of the land should prevail.”

There are many in India who justify or rationalise the killing of both animals and humans. Perhaps there is iron in their soul, disabling them to empathise with the pain of others. Maneka is better than them. Yet, India could indeed be a different place to live in if animal lovers like her could expand their moral imagination to fight on behalf of those who are as powerless before vigilantes as animals are before sharpshooters.

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Updated Date: Nov 06, 2018 21:33:31 IST