There was a lot of debate about the new form of Ashoka pillar, the national symbol of the country, at the head of the new parliament building. However, this is not the first time that the national importance of the animal has been debated. In 1972, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of the country, the national animal of India was changed from lion to tiger due to the efforts of then Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation Karan Singh. The debate began. The government said in a statement in the Lok Sabha that the change is in view of the dwindling tiger population in India. But, what do the signs of the times say?
Nehru’s commendable gesture
In 1971, India defeated Pakistan supported by the US in the Indo-Pak war, and then India changed the symbol of a self-confident state, was it not the self-presentation of that self-confident state? Almost 2 decades ago, in 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent a baby elephant named ‘Indira’ to the children of war-torn Japan.
In his letter to the children of Japan, Nehru used the elephant as a symbol of India, as he saw it as a calm, yet powerful animal—much like the India he envisioned. Between 1949 and 1955, Nehru sent elephants to America, Turkey, Germany, China, the Netherlands, etc., one by one as gifts and goodwill messages for India. Meanwhile, the Gujarat Natural History Society continued to demand that the lion be recognized as the state animal.
According to that demand, the central government gave the lion the status of national animal in 1948. Political support was given by the then Gujarat Pradesh Congress—the only state in India to have a lion. The Gujarat Pradesh Congress leadership from the time of Vallabhbhai Patel was characteristically conservative, opposed to Nehru’s apparent socialist ideology. The Gujarat Pradesh Congress had provided many areas of support to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Sangh Parivar in order to preserve the local cultural identity. Political pressure from Gujarat was one of the reasons for the 1948 national animal claim.
Tiger as the National Animal
As Nehru’s dominance in Delhi politics grew from 1950 onwards, KM Munshi, VP Menon and even Vallabhbhai Patel’s son Dahiyabhai Patel gradually left the Congress and joined independent parties. During the 1960s and 1970s, Morarji Desai emerged as the main opponent of Nehru and Indira, and became one of the catalysts for the 1969 Congress breakup. In 1971, Morarji’s Congress won 11 of the 16 seats it won against Indira’s Congress in Gujarat. In 1972, after Indira’s landslide victory in the 1971 elections, Gujarat replaced the lion with the tiger as its national animal. This move is a symbolic rejection of the conservative existence of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress; at least the Gujarat leadership thought so.
Shortly after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Parimal Nathwani, one of Gujarat’s industrialists and then Rajya Sabha member from Jharkhand, demanded the Indian Environment Ministry to re-declare the lion as the national animal.