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A ‘Muslim’ Lion Cohabiting With a ‘Hindu’ Lioness Has Got the Goat of India’s Hindutva Activists

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A ‘Muslim’ Lion Cohabiting With a ‘Hindu’ Lioness Has Got the Goat of India’s Hindutva Activists

The VHP’s filing of a court case against a lioness being named Sita is part of its strategy to separate Hindus and Muslims in the imagination of Hindus.

A ‘Muslim’ Lion Cohabiting With a ‘Hindu’ Lioness Has Got the Goat of India’s Hindutva Activists
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Shiv’s Photografia

Hindutva activism has plunged to a new low in India.

On February 17, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), which is affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a petition in the Calcutta High Court requesting a change of name for a lioness called Sita.

In its petition, the VHP said that naming a member of the “cat family after a religious deity, namely Sita, is irrational, illogical… sacrilegious and tantamount to blasphemy.” Naming the lioness Sita “has caused immense hurt to the religious sentiments of the entire Hindu community,” it said.

Sita is the name of a Hindu goddess, the wife of the deity Ram.

The VHP’s claim that naming an animal after a Hindu deity is “sacrilegious” goes against Hindu practice. Hindus see the divine in everything around them — in plants, animals, mountains, and rivers. Naming animals after gods and goddesses is common. Cows are often named Lakshmi, Saraswati, or Nandini. Some of India’s most famous elephants, including Keshavan, Padmanabhan, and Lakshmi, share their names with deities. Animals are vehicles of gods and goddesses — the bull of Shiva, the rat of Ganesha, and the lion of Durga. Certainly, Hindus would not be offended with a lioness being named Sita.

The VHP is thus being disingenuous. Its gripe is not so much with the lioness being named Sita as it is with her male companion having a Muslim name. The lion Akbar, who shares his name with the 16th-century Mughal emperor, was sharing the same enclosure with Sita at the Bengal Safari Park in Siliguri, West Bengal. This raised the VHP’s hackles.

Although Emperor Akbar had a Hindu wife and counted several Hindus among his advisors, he is a hated figure among Hindutva supporters. “Sita cannot stay with the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” VHP official Anup Mondal said.

The flap over a 6-year-old “Hindu” lioness cohabiting with a 7-year-old “Muslim” lion has triggered an avalanche of jokes among Hindutva critics on social media. However, ridiculous as it is, this is no laughing matter.

As Delhi University Professor Apoorvanand pointed out to The Diplomat, “The VHP suit against naming a lioness as Sita and pairing her with a lion named Akbar might amuse us or look absurd, but it is part of a larger campaign to criminalize the coupling or togetherness of Hindus and non-Hindus in all aspects of life.”

The underlying message is that “a Muslim man cannot marry or live with a Hindu woman,” he said, adding that a Muslim and Hindu “cannot even be seen together.”

Any Hindu-Muslim couple is seen as fair game for attacks by Hindutva activists. Attacks on inter-faith relationships and marriages have grown sharply since the BJP came to power in May 2014.

Indeed, Hindutva activists have been peddling Islamophobic conspiracy theories to demonize Muslims. Muslim men are accused of engaging in “love jihad,” i.e., of courting and luring Hindu women with promises of marriage in order to convert them to Islam. In addition to “love jihad,” Muslim men are accused of conspiring against Hindus through waging “land jihad,” “corona jihad,” and “narcotics jihad.”

It is not just Hindu-Muslim couples that are targets of Hindutva hate campaigns. Any interaction between Hindus and Muslims or melding of their cultures is frowned upon by Hindu hardliners.

Schools are not permitted to have “all-faith prayers because the invocation of Allah or Khuda cannot go together with an ode to a Hindu god or goddess, or Hindu children cannot be allowed to even see a mosque,” Apoorvanand said. “Muslims cannot be neighbors of Hindus. Muslim shops cannot have merchandise named after Hindu gods, and Muslims cannot be allowed to do business outside a temple on a Hindu religious occasion.”

According to Apoorvanand, the decision to take the issue of the lioness’ name to court is far from “crazy.” It “is actually a well-thought-out action” by Hindutva activists “to transform or distort the imagination of Hindus.”

As alarming is the response of the state to the ridiculous VHP petition. Instead of throwing it out of the court and rapping the petitioners on the knuckles for wasting the court’s time, a single-judge bench of the High Court not only admitted the plea but also asked authorities to rename the lion and lioness. The case has even claimed a scalp: Senior forest officer Prabin Agrawal, who reportedly entered the names of the lion and lioness as Akbar and Sita in the dispatch register before sending them to West Bengal from Tripura has been suspended.

With general elections around the corner, the possibility that “Hindutva activists are stepping up efforts to polarize society” cannot be ruled out, a Trinamool Congress (TMC) parliamentarian told The Diplomat. The controversy over the names of the lion and lioness must be seen in this context, he said.

The VHP has blamed West Bengal, which is ruled by the TMC, for naming Akbar and Sita. However, it appears that the cat couple was named in BJP-run Tripura. The BJP and the TMC are bitter rivals and are gearing up for a ferocious electoral battle ahead.

Life for an interfaith couple, especially a Hindu-Muslim one in India has become increasingly difficult over the past decade. The recent controversy involving a “Muslim” lion and a “Hindu” lioness indicates that life is not easy for the king of the jungle, either.

Last heard, Akbar and Sita have been separated and put in different enclosures.