Can a ‘Muslin’ lion, ‘Hindu’ lioness live together? An Indian zoo dilemma | Religion


The Calcutta High Court this week told the government of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal to consider renaming two lions in a zoo-cum-animal reserve after a Hindu nationalist organisation called Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) found their names rather catty.

Starting on Tuesday, the court heard the plea requesting a change of name for a lioness called Sita, named after a Hindu deity. Until recently, Sita shared an enclosure at Bengal Safari Park with a lion named Akbar, partly the reason for the outrage. Here’s what it’s all about.

Why did VHP launch a court petition over the name of a lion?

The lion Akbar shares its name with a 16th-century Mughal emperor who is widely seen as having been a beacon of secularism. He had a Hindu wife, and many of his key advisers were Hindu, too. But like all emperors of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent, Akbar, too, is largely a hate figure among Hindu nationalists.

“Sita cannot stay with the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” VHP official Anup Mondal said on Sunday.

Members of the VHP, which is affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also said they received complaints about hurt religious sentiments from all over India, deeming the naming of the big cats blasphemous, in the petition written by VHP’s West Bengal secretary Lakshman Bansal.

The lions arrived in West Bengal under an exchange programme involving Sepahijala Zoological Park in the neighbouring state of Tripura, governed by the BJP. The VHP alleged that Akbar was initially named Ram – a Hindu deity and Sita’s husband – and was renamed by the West Bengal authorities, the opposition Trinamool Congress party.

West Bengal authorities have denied this claim and insisted that the lions came with their names from Tripura.

After the petition was filed, the lions were moved to separate enclosures, apparently to ensure that a “Muslim” lion doesn’t mate with a “Hindu” lioness in a country that has been gripped by Hindu nationalist sentiment in recent years under the BJP.

“What is shocking to me, actually, is the fact that it is a court case now. I find that alarming,” said Moumita Sen, an associate professor of culture studies at the MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

“What is dangerous in this is that this will be setting precedent in a quarter of law,” Sen said, warning caution, citing examples of previous incidents where seemingly trivial matters became punishable offences in India.

Sen talked about how American academic Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus, was said to hurt religious sentiment and set off nationwide incidents of book burning and resulted in the book being banned in India.

Now, it appears that some Hindu majoritarian groups believe lions are susceptible to their conspiratorial concept of “love jihad”.

What is love jihad?

Love jihad is a conspiracy theory mostly pushed by Hindu nationalists in India that accuses Muslim men of trying to woo Hindu women to convert them to Islam.

This theory was on the rise in 2021, when several states in India introduced anti-conversion legislation, and the police started cracking down on Muslim men and interfaith couples.

What does the internet have to say about Akbar and Sita?

Indian cyberspace, particularly X and Instagram, has exploded with memes and AI art commenting and poking fun at the row.

“I do think that when you make a meme, you say a thousand words with one image,” said Sen, who is originally from Calcutta and has researched Islamophobic memes in India. She described memes as a potent form of political communication, breaking away language and literacy barriers.

One meme resembles a film poster with a lineup of hijab-clad panthers on it. This image makes reference to the film, The Kerala Story, which sparked controversy in India in 2023. The film is about women and girls in India’s Kerala state who are converted to Islam to be recruited into the armed group ISIL (ISIS). While the filmmakers said the film was based on real events, fact-checking groups said little evidence was found to back up these claims.

Members of the Muslim Youth League, affiliated with the opposition Indian Union Muslim League party, set up what they call evidence collection counters in all 14 districts of Kerala, offering the reward of 10 million rupees ($122,280) to anyone who would provide evidence of the claims. The film was released in May 2023.

A visual that is surfacing is different renditions of AI art shows a lion, presumably Akbar, in regal, beaded Mughal attire. Next to him is what seems to be Sita, dressed like Hindu royalty against the backdrop of a royal court.

Another visual that surfaced was of a supposed Muslim lion and Hindu lioness behind bars.

The memes about Akbar and Sita have mostly been created by critics of the Hindu nationalist movement. Some supporters of the VHP’s petition have taken offence to the memes too.

This in itself is “an indication of what can be joked about in this country any more,” said Pratiksha Menon, who has worked as a journalist in India and is pursuing her PhD at the University of Michigan. “Political humour is taken very seriously if it is considered to be hurting Hindu religious sentiments”.

Menon has researched and written about how online Islamophobic humour shapes popular memory. She added that the outcry about Akbar and Sita is a regular part of the “very well-oiled Hindutva propaganda system which maintains itself through regular outrage”. Hindutva is the Hindu majoritarian philosophy that the BJP, VHP and their allies subscribe to.

Menon explained that “If any ideology or any group has to make a claim that it’s victimised, then it needs to, on a regular basis, come up with examples of how it’s being victimised”.

What did the Calcutta High Court say about lions Akbar and Sita?

Calcutta High Court Justice Saugata Bhattacharyya questioned the naming of the lions.

He said that animals should not be named after gods, mythological heroes, influential figures or freedom fighters. He added that not only is it problematic to name a lioness Sita, but it is also not ideal to name a lion Akbar after a successful, secular Mughal emperor.

In the New Delhi zoo a white tigress is named Sita and in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno National Park, a cheetah is named Agni after the Hindu deity of fire.

West Bengal advocate Joyjit Choudhury told the court that it was not West Bengal that named the lions, but Tripura, and the zoo authorities were considering renaming them.

The case has been reclassified as public interest litigation, which means the bench will not be hearing the matter any more.

Sen described the spat as the “politics of ridiculousness”. Even the king of the jungle is no longer immune from it.


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