IL Feature

Lion Tamers 

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad moved the Circuit Bench of the Calcutta High Court in Jalpaiguri district, challenging the forest department’s naming of a lioness Sita and a lion Akbar, adding an unnecessary communal angle to a normal process in zoological areas

By Dr Swati Jindal Garg

The legal contention of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is that the practice of keeping the two animals in the same enclosure at the North Bengal Wild Animals Park in Siliguri was “irrational”, “illogical” and “tantamount to blasphemy and sacrilegious”. The state minister has defended the issue, saying: “We did not give the names, maybe they were originally given by Tripura zoo…. Vishwa Hindu Parishad is doing dirty politics.” The two big cats were brought to the Siliguri zoo from Tripura’s Sepahijala Zoo along with eight other animals, as part of an animal exchange programme.

The petition filed by the VHP in the court of Justice Saugata Bhattacharyya stated: “That to the utmost surprise of the petitioners on 14/02/2024 Uttar Banga Sambad carried a news item with the heading ‘Sangir khoje astir Sita’ (Sita restless in search of a partner). Incidentally the male lion was given the name of ‘Akbar’. The said article had indicated in a lewd way and represented the news in a much objectionable manner which was bound to hurt the religious sentiments of all Hindus across the country.”

The petition further mentioned that “On February 8, 2024, Sepahijala Zoological Park handed over one male lion and a lioness along with eight other animals to North Bengal Wildlife Animals Park, Siliguri, for the said animal exchange programme… The Bengal Safari Park has named the female lion as ‘Sita’. By using the name of ‘Sita’ for a lioness, the respondent authority is hurting religious sentiments of Sanatan Dharma…” 

“Such naming of a cat family after a religious deity, namely Sita, is irrational, illogical…The outrageous nomenclature has angered petitioners’ religious sentiments. That it is stated by the petitioner that such naming of animals after the name of religious deities is very much sacrilegious and tantamount to blasphemy…” the petition further stated. 

It is worth mentioning that while Akbar was one of the renowned Mughal emperors of the subcontinent, Sita is a character in Valmiki’s Ramayana, and is considered a deity in the Hindu religion, hence the furore.

The VHP also states that its representatives had met state forest officials multiple times and even protested against the names. “They have named a lioness as Sita and the lion as Akbar. How can this be? Does this not hurt our religious sentiments? We went from one office of the forest department to another. No one paid heed to us, so we had to move Court,” said VHP’s Jalpaiguri unit chief Dulal Chandra Roy.

“In light of the urgency of the situation, the VHP by way of a writ petition has urged the Court to take immediate action, including changing the lioness’s name to a non-religious one and directing authorities to refrain from using religious names for animals in zoological parks. We seek justice and respect for religious sentiments, and stern action against all those involved in such naming of the species,” VHP national spokesperson Vinod Bansal said in a press statement.

West Bengal Forest Minister and TMC MLA Birbaha Hansda on the other hand said: “What they (VHP) are doing is dirty politics. We didn’t name the animals which came to us from Tripura Zoo. It is absolutely wrong to say that we have given the names. It is our chief minister who will formally give names to the animals. The animals came from a zoo in Tripura and maybe they have given some names there.”

The zoo authorities have clarified  that the two animals are currently put in separate enclosures. While Akbar is seven years and eight months old, Sita is five years and six months old and it will take at least two months for the pair to be put in a display area of the safari together. An area of 20 hectares has been set aside for the big cats in the 297-hectare park.

An official from Sepahijala Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary in Tripura has reportedly said: “A pair of lions was sent to the North Bengal Wildlife Park as part of an animal exchange programme. We had sent four black bucks, two lions, two spectacled monkeys and two leopard cats in exchange for two tigers, golden pheasants, silver pheasants and Hill Mynas. We had sent a lion and a lioness named Ram and Sita respectively from Sepahijala. We are not aware of what happened at the destination.” 

The official further said that any animal is identified with a code recognisable in all zoos and sanctuaries of the country. The code is the only authentic identification for the animals, and the official records of lions sent from Tripura were named Ram and Sita along with their identification codes that are IL 26 and IL 27, respectively. It is also being said that the pair is compatible as they have lived together earlier in a single enclosure.

Even though the Sepahijala Zoo and Wildlife Sanctuary is the oldest and the largest zoo and sanctuary of Tripura, it has had an animal exchange programme for the first time in the last 10 years, this year. The fact that this has led to a controversy of this scale may prove to be a deterrent to the programme in the years to come. 

—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practicing in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi