Zoo zealotry

Published February 21, 2024

IN a bizarre twist of faith and fur, the Indian right-wing Hindu nationalist group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has petitioned a Kolkata court over, of all things, the names of two lions residing in a West Bengal zoo. The pair in question, a lion named Akbar and a lioness named Sita, have unwittingly become the protagonists in a tale that could only be concocted in present-day India. The VHP’s contention: the pairing of lions with these names is “irrational”, “illogical”, and “tantamount to blasphemy”. And while their request to respect their deities’ names is perfectly reasonable, the justification that was given by a VHP leader is absurd: “Sita cannot stay with the Mughal emperor Akbar.” This isn’t the first time such silliness has reared its head. Take, for instance, the multiple times pigeons have been ‘arrested’ and probed after flying over from Pakistan or China into India, accused of espionage. Most recently, a ‘spy’ pigeon, said to be from China, was detained for eight months while, presumably, investigators combed through its feathers in search of something incriminating.

The pattern is unmistakable: a penchant for seeing slights where none exist, and a readiness to leap into the fray, legal briefs at the ready, over perceived insults to religion or threats to national security. While it is easy to dismiss the VHP’s legal battle as another quixotic quest for religious purity, it is emblematic of a broader struggle over identity, history, and the very soul of India. It brings to mind a 1977 Bollywood film, called Amar Akbar Anthony, about three brothers separated in childhood and raised in different faiths. Amar grew up a Hindu; Akbar, a Muslim; and Anthony, a Christian. They united as adults, and their adventures together were a powerful allegory in Indian pluralism. It is likely that if that film were to be made today, a right-wing group would challenge it in court. And that is a tragedy for modern India.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2024

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