Does Narendra Modi like lions more than tigers?
Reverting to the lion as the national animal is more of political symbolism and has little to do with wildlife conservation
In his Independence Day speech last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged global manufacturers to "Come, Make in India". And the following month, he formally launched the "Make in India" initiative with awalking lion as its logo.
After affixing the lion logo to its flagship programme, the Modi government suggested a far more radical change. At a March meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, it suggested that the Asiatic lion replace the tiger as India's national animal.
Interestingly, before 1972, the lion was the national animal of India. The Indira Gandhi-led Congress government replaced it with the tiger when it launched Project Tiger—the country's first wildlife conservation programme.
Both the lion and tiger are on the endangered list of wild animals and are protected by the laws of the land. There are around 400 lions and 2,000 tigers in the Indian wilderness today.
The proposal to revert to the lion as the national animal has created tumult among tiger conservationists. According to them, the lion doesn't have a national presence like the tiger, whose population is spread over 18 states.
India has 48 tiger reserves. The Indian lion (or the Asiatic lion) is only found in the Gir National Park and its surroundings in Gujarat which, incidentally, happens to be the Prime Minister's home state.
Wildlife conservation in India is species-centric and not landscape-centric. It is largely concentrated on iconic species such as the tiger, lion, elephantand rhinoceros.
Among these four species, the tiger is the superstar when it comes to revenue—for conservation and tourism. The government's proposal to reinstate the lion as the national animal has, not surprisingly, left the tiger conservation fraternity puzzled and worried.
A couple of centuries ago, the lion had an extended range over northern India. In eastern India, it was recorded in Bihar; in the south, by the Narmada river. Widespread hunting at that time was one of the prime reasons for the depletion of the lion population.
But for the timely intervention of the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat Khanji II (1851-1882), who banned hunting, the lion would have been wiped out from the Indian subcontinent.
Sasan Gir in Gujarat, in the erstwhile state of Junagadh, remains the last abode of the lion and the Gujarati community takes immense pride that the last of Asia's lions are on its turf.
The increasing reference to the species as the "Lion of Gir" has branded the Asiatic lion as the "Gir Lion".
Over the past two decades, more than Rs.24 crore has been spent on the Kuno-Palpur sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, billed as the second home for the endangered beasts. But the sanctuary has no lions, because Gujarat does not want to give it any.
The risk here is of keeping all eggs in the same basket. According to conservationists, an epidemic in Gir might exterminate the species. The need for a second gene pool is urgently required to protect the species.
The lion is historically better represented than the tiger—in medieval literature, in coinage, art, artifacts and architecture. The use of the lion in symbols and signage gained importance in India from the second half of the first millennium, with the rise of the great Hindu kingdoms—the Nandas, Mauryas and Guptas. Emperor Ashoka's Lion Pillar gave India its national emblem. In religion, the lion is mentioned in the , the first of the four sacred texts in Hinduism; it is the divine mount of goddess Durga and worshipped as Narasimha, an avatar of Hindu god Vishnu, visualized as half-man and half-lion.
Mahavir and Buddha also used the lion as their symbol. Gautam Buddha's first sermon was called , the lion's roar, and he himself came to be known as , the lion of the Sakyas. The lion was the symbol of royalty in Hindu mythology where the king and his throne—the (the lion's seat)—were inseparable.
In northern India, Singh, meaning lion, has been used as a middle name or surname since the seventh century by Hindus and later by Sikhs. Indeed, it is not surprising to come across Sikhs with both big cats in their name—Sher Singh. It was not only the Hindu kingdoms, the symbol of lion found prominence both in the Mughal and British empires.
Modi, under whom the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2014 became the first party in 30 years to win a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, is surely entitled to his . But as he talks of heralding a new Industrial Revolution, can the lion become the symbol of the Indian economy? And where will the tiger go from here?
The Indian lion is only found in the Gir National Park and its surroundings in Gujarat which, incidentally, happens to be Prime Minister Modi's home state.