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April 2003
Maneka Gandhi: Political Animal
By Jason Baker 


Maneka Gandhi.
Photo courtesy of the CPCSEA

Maneka Gandhi is a renowned activist who works on behalf of animals, poor people and the environment. Mrs. Gandhi is a born politician—she is the widow of Sanjay Gandhi, the son of Indira Gandhi (former Prime Minister of India). She served as Minister of the Environment from 1989 to 1991 and returned to Parliament in 1998 as the Minister of Welfare and was appointed as chairwoman of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA). Under her direction, unannounced inspections of laboratories where animals are used for scientific research were conducted, and abominable conditions and cruelty were documented and exposed. The CPCSEA imposed restrictions that brought some of the abuse to a stop. Political upheaval caused by vested interests eventually forced her to resign from the position. She continues to serve in Parliament.

After just one conversation with former Union Minister for Animal Welfare Maneka Gandhi, I became convinced of two things: First, she has a sharp mind and quick wit; second, she is fierce and fearless in her quest to protect animals.

When I arrived in India over three years ago to open PETA’s first office in Asia, Maneka Gandhi ‘welcomed’ me by yelling at me over the telephone about my ineptitude. Unaware that I was speaking to a Union Minister, I hollered right back at her. But, since this rocky start, I have come to view her with profound respect as a politician who can get things done because she will settle for no less than the best from everyone, herself included.

Usually, I’m sticking up for and being awe-inspired by some magnificent or humble animal. This time, while my theme has not changed, I offer these thoughts about a member of my own species.

It was with a heavy heart that I watched the January shake-up of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s government and the resignation of a woman who wanted the most from human potential. I have come to know Maneka Gandhi and I can say with certainty that, love her or hate her, if Mrs. Gandhi is not in a position to exert some authority, the poor and the animals of India will be the worse for it. In all my years of working with government officials (including a bizarre stint following former American Vice President Al Gore on the campaign trail that won his support for an end to certain animal tests) I have never seen someone so dedicated to doing the best job possible to bring relief to those with no clout, no matter the personal cost. 

What Maneka Gandhi has accomplished speaks for itself. She has helped seize animals from filth and misery in traveling circuses, zoos and laboratories; passed laws protecting animals neglected by the government for decades; founded an animal protection organization, People for Animals; and written books about animal exploitation. It was she who persuaded the giant Coca Cola company to cancel its sponsorship of bullfights in Mexico; helped win international agreement on the protection of rhinos in Africa; renamed our street dogs ‘Indian dogs’ and convinced rich people, through personal example, that Indian dogs are more desirable than purebreds.

Maneka Gandhi accomplished all this, and more, working from her home office, with every nook and cranny of her own living space filled with staff and papers and the most difficult of her rescued Indian dogs. Her home is filled with the strays rejected by others, including a dog called Nuts, whom no one else could tame, who now eats out of Maneka Gandhi’s hand and snuggles on her lap.

Conversation with Maneka Gandhi is always stimulating. With a razor-sharp mind, she seems incapable of not challenging and provoking whoever is within earshot to live up to their potential. She seems to expect more of humanity than humanity expects of itself. Perhaps she was born that way, or perhaps because she herself has suffered, she will not tolerate suffering that can be alleviated. In this way, perhaps she is misunderstood. What some may see as abrasiveness, I believe is simply her expectation that we must accept the task before us without shirking, that we can and must live up to the Indian ideal of ahimsa and respect for all life.

It will be a tragedy for animals and for India if Mrs. Gandhi is prevented from carrying on her vital work. We need Maneka Gandhi’s leadership, dedication and, yes, even her nagging. 

Jason Baker is the India Representative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Visit to learn more about PETA’s activities in India. To learn more about Maneka Gandhi, see the Satya interview in The Way of Compassion (Stealth Technologies). The CPCSEA released photos of and reports on the animal abuse found in laboratories, which can be seen online at


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