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September 1995
Ahimsa with Attitude: An Interview with Maneka Gandhi

By Mia MacDonald



Maneka Gandhi is a member of one of the most famous families in the world. But it’s her work — not her name — that makes her remarkable. Gandhi is an animal rights and environmental activist who sees no difference between the two. Based in New Delhi, India, she spoke recently with Satya about solar energy, animal rights vs. animal welfare, the wrath of Kali, and love when she visited New York en route to Chicago, where she addressed a biannual gathering of Jains.

Q: How did you get interested in animals and the environment?
A: I actually started by losing an election. Until then I was a common-or-garden person. I fought an election and lost at the age of 28 [in 1984]. So when I lost, I started thinking to myself, suppose I’d won? What would I have given to India? Why was I fighting this election to begin with? To give something, not take something. I came to the thought that I should do what was important for me, and what was important for me was my son. What was I doing for him? I was putting away all the material possessions for him, his cutlery, his crockery, his linen, his school, his education, his marital life, his jewelry. But, the essentials: if I couldn’t leave him a glass of water, what was the point of all this? Or if I couldn’t let him cross the street, or if he never saw a park to play in, or if he couldn’t breathe without wheezing, or if he was ill every second day: I thought that I must do something. So I started traveling in India, and I said: “Let me not impose my views.” I started seeing: what is it that people want? How have they developed? What should happen? And from there I came into the environment. I discovered the word ‘environment’ for myself, and studied and learned and read a lot, traveled a lot. Then I became the Minister for Environment (1989-91), and found that the word ‘environment’ was misspelled on the Ministry’s letterhead! When I became Minister, India had no laws for the environment — none.

Q: How did animals become central to your ideas about environment?
A: I’d always been an animal person, and when my husband died, I opened an [animal] hospital in the same year in his memory. But, I’d never thought of fitting it into an agenda. For me it was something I did because I loved animals. But the more I studied in the environment movement, the more I thought: “Why should animals be separate, and especially in a country where animals run the country?” If I remove the cow, we’re all dead. It’s a cow dung economy; it’s not an open or closed or democratic or communist economy. If you remove the cattle from it, you might as well pack it all in, because there’s nothing else. If you remove the cow, you need buses to bring things to market, and you don’t have them. If you remove the cow, you need gas cylinders to cook on, which you don’t have. If you remove the cow, you need pesticide and fertilizer. If you remove the cow you need something other than milk. Everything ties in right back to the cow, the buffalo, the bullock, the horse, the camel, the elephant, the dog — which is one of the biggest scavengers of the city — the vulture, another big scavenger. Everything has its place, except man. So then I thought that since nobody else is going to do it, I must bring animals into the environment movement.

Q: Can you describe the scope of the work you do?
A: I run an NGO [non-governmental organization] called People for Animals, which is an umbrella organization for practically all the animal work in India. We make shelters ourselves and fund other shelters. I also go around India and set up shelters. I get land from state governments and try and arrange money; I get animal groups organized to run the shelters. We have shelters coming up in lots of parts of India. We also put cases in court against animal cruelties. For instance, I have a case in court now against using animals in the circus, which is coming up for a hearing next month. And I have another one for zoos selling animals to the circus. We just won a case against the slaughterhouse in Delhi which had to shut down because it was perpetuating so much cruelty. I’m the chairperson of the SPCA, and that involves inspections. I have 75 inspectors who patrol Delhi and have the power to give summonses. We prevent cruelties. We catch trucks which are overloading meat animals. And I run a hospital of my own in Delhi, a shelter, called the Sanjay Gandhi Animal Care Center. I’m setting up another one for People for Animals which is the biggest goshala, or cow shelter, in India. It will have about 10,000 cows. It’s already got about 600 cows, the stray cows of Delhi.

Q: What are some of your current campaigns?
A: We are working on something called “Artists for Animals” where we’re making every film star sign a pledge that they won’t work with animals. It’s getting to be too much: they’re shooting pigeons on screen, tripping horses, and they have tigers with their mouths sewn up, fighting with these macho stars. Then I have taken on the stopping of dog killing. About two to three million dogs are being killed every year in India because they are strays, supposedly to stop rabies. It has no effect whatsoever. So now we are trying to stop that program and replace it with sterilization and vaccination.

Q: You are a very well-known person in India. How do you use that notoriety to further your causes?
A: I do a column called “Heads & Tails” every week for about 30 newspapers, and that’s been collected into a book. I have two TV shows. One is called “Heads & Tails”. It’s the ahimsa show, in the sense that it shows animal cruelties, and shows people who are doing good work. It shows what you can do. I have another TV show on environment, a six-minute show every week after the news on Sunday, which says that, for instance, when you use aluminum foil, you kill the tiger. The bauxite is mined in the Bihar forest. The Bihar forest houses the tigers; the big cat is killed first when mining starts. It shows you the inter-relationships, the house of cards effect; how the aluminum was mined and where.

Q: Was it hard to start work on these issues in a developing country, where there are so many pressing human needs?
A: For me, it wasn’t a decision that was made looking at anything except the need — whose need was greater? And then who would take it up? You know, it’s very easy to do [work with] children, because that’s politically correct. If I hadn’t come into it, quite honestly, nobody would have. It has to be one person who’s confident enough to say, “I don’t care what you say, it has to be what I know to be true.” People in politics say: “You don’t do for people, you do for animals? Where will your votes come from?” Really, it [the work] has a vote multiplier effect, because you’re seen as good.

Q: You are the most visible person in India, in all of the developing world, doing work like this. How much support do you find for your work?
A: Well, I have a great deal of support. What kind of support it is, I don’t know, because I have no idea what to do with the support! I’m only learning very painfully, and it’s taking a long time, to be an organization person. I have about 30,000 members in People for Animals. I get about 80 letters a day, and those are work letters: “Can we donate land? Can we help?” But the point is, how does it translate? [The setting up] of bureaus and units is coming, but it’s coming very painfully. State governments are very supportive, in the sense that if I want something, I get it. I don’t know whether it’s the work I do or who I am, but if I want land, I get it; if I want the government to stop something, it’s done.

Q: How important is vegetarianism to you and the work you do?
A: I came to environment, then took up animals, and then from there I decided that it is not just “animals’ work” — you had to be vegetarian. I couldn’t go around saving the one cat and one dog, which is what people mean when they say ‘animals’, it had to be saving the meat animals, or rather preventing them from being born. So, I had to do vegetarianism. I had to do ahimsa which fitted the whole thing, the whole catchall phrase of environment, animals, vegetarianism. Everything comes into ahimsa.

Q: What do you think about the term ‘animal rights’?
A: I think it’s very important. But it shouldn’t be separated from animal welfare. In America, because you’re so rich, and you’re so bored, you invent debates, for instance the debate about abortion. It’s so non-sensical. We’re amazed that you people should be burning abortion clinics and killing abortion people. The debate is so irrelevant to the rest of the world. If you want to have an abortion, have it. If you don’t want to have it, don’t have it. Why do you make a thing about it? And why lobby, and why go to Congress? The right of a person to their own body is the first right, before anything else. So, the same way, now you’ve invented the debate between animal rights and animal welfare. How can we separate the two? My child’s right is to live, therefore I must look after the child. So, welfare is tied into rights. If I were to leave a one-day old baby and say: “Right, now it’s your life’s right to live, bye, bye”— it doesn’t mean anything. So, welfare is tied into rights. What I’m trying to do in India is start from a position of welfare: first welfare, then rights. If I look at a donkey on the road and it’s been run down, I can’t take it home. If I don’t have an animal shelter, the next time I won’t even look; I’ll just turn my eyes away because I’m ashamed. And the third time, I won’t even be ashamed. So, if I’m to further nurture it, then I must have first the shelter, then I have the rights. I see no debate.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about sustainable development, particularly in poor or developing countries. Can you talk about that?
A: Sustainable development is only possible with environmentalism. You could have, for instance, solar energy roofing, which may cost a little amount to begin with but will not put a strain on the city system. That would be sustainable. You could have no pesticides. If you didn’t have pesticides, you wouldn’t need hospitals. So you would be saving money on the hospitals, and saving money on the pesticides. There are a lot of ways to do it quite simply and easily. But we have to realize that there is no difference between development and environment. Environmentalism is everything. All of economics should be environmentally sound first. If it’s environmentally sound, it’s every-which-way sound. But, there’s no attempt to tie this into the economics which is taught in a university. You have to tie it into what you use; it should be taught as micro-economics. Teach me environmental economics. Teach me the science of inter-related crisis. In India, [environment] is taught in schools as singing and dancing.

Q: How do you see the consequences of ignoring the environment/development connection?
A: Anything that is not correctly done is going to kill us. It’s Kali, the goddess, who is the ultimate revenge-taker. You hurt her [and] she hurts you back. It’s not some big-bosomed cow-like creature sitting around being the Earth, you know. Our main economics are going awry the minute we kill all the animals and export them. Now India is Asia’s largest meat exporter. We’re feeding the rest of the world, but we’re not feeding them meat. We’re feeding them our water, our hillsides, our land. One slaughterhouse is using 16 million liters of water a day to clean its carcasses, and the meat is all exported to the Middle East. The slaughterhouse is next to the city of Hyderabad, which only gets water for half an hour a day. One of the things that’s underemphasized in the environmental thought process is our right to health, whereas that should be the basis of environmental work. If you create the greenhouse effect, I’m going to go down. In the Seychelles now, 50 percent of their money is going in building barricades, because sea levels are rising.

Q: Did you feel you could do more for animals and the environment when you were Minister for Environment?
A: Yes, I did. I felt that I could do a lot. I feel I can do exactly the same amount now, but in a different way — and by working much harder. Politics is ability to call change. When I was Minister, we shut down the circuses with animals. And when I stopped being Minister, the Circus Federation went to court and got a stay in court, and the case has dragged on for four years now.

Q: So, do you plan to run for parliament again?
A: Elections are next year, and I have no idea. I may, I may not. I’m technically in a party [the Janata Dal], but the party doesn’t exist.

Q: What’s needed to get people to make the connection between animals and human beings, to see an animal not as dinner, but as a living, feeling being?
A: What we need is not love. Love is such a stupid word. I keep getting called ‘animal-lover’ and I keep saying: “If I were working with old people, would you say ‘old people lover’? If I was working with AIDS patients, would it be ‘AIDS lover’?” It’s not ‘animal lover.’ It’s somebody who respects life. That’s all. I just respect the right of this animal to be. And not to be interfered with, not to be genetically impaired, not to be used, not to be forcibly made pregnant like the cow is, not to be herded up and down. Just let it be.

Q: But for so many people, that’s such a leap.
A: But that’s where we begin from. If you begin from respect, then you go everywhere. Love is so trivial. People say to me when they come and visit (I’ve got 12 dogs): “Oh, you must love dogs.” I say: “Absolutely I hate them, hate them. They occupy the whole house. I’m a guest in this wretched house.” But the point is, I respect their right to be. I make no demands on them at all. And they don’t make any demands on me. We kind of coexist.

Mia MacDonald is an animal activist and writer, who is trying to achieve sustainability and veganism in Brooklyn.


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