Animal Protection > AR Interviews

FLYING SOLO -- THE MANEKA GANDHI INTERVIEW
By Claudette Vaughan. First published in Vegan Voice.

Maneka Gandhi is doing for the animals of India what Mahatma Gandhi did for the people. Maneka Gandhi is one of India's most forthright and remarkable figures. She is a leading environmentalist, animal activist and a crusader for vegetarianism. She, herself, is vegan, an author, political commentator, columnist, television and radio personality. The media continue to have a love/hate relationship with her yet headlines often refer to her just as "Maneka" and Indians know exactly who they mean. She has been called a foe of corruption and is the energetic founder of India's leading animal advocacy group, People for Animals.

Maneka Gandhi's life has been steeped in politics. She married Indira Gandhi's son who was killed in a plane crash. Her adult son, Varun, recently become involved in politics. Such is his natural charisma and political inclination it has been speculated that he will become Prime Minister of India one day.

During Maneka Gandhi's rein in Parliment she was often quoted thoroughly on subjects that most others in public life dare not address. Her outspokenness in condemning the biomedical industry cost her dearly and she was discharged from her ministry position. Unapologetic and unfazed, she continues her crusade against the biomedical community i.e. "Primates have been pickled in cages here for 18 years". Here this irrepressible woman gives an exclusive interview to Vegan Voice. Her special interests are: writing, animal rights and welfare, environmental protection and the study of law. She loves reading and gardening in her spare time. Her most recent project has been to produce cruelty-free ahimsa peace silk.

Let it not be over-looked that almost by the sheer force of her personality alone, Maneka Gandhi inspired as much by example, as spokesperson, the rise and rise of a dynamic modern-day Indian animal rights movement.

Q1. Last year you traveled around Australia to highlight the plight of the dancing bears of India. Why did you come and why is the need dire?

A. No animals belongs to a country. Animals are a nation in themselves with their own tribes and languages. Therefore , as much as we would seek to intervene in a situation where atrocities are being committed on a defenceless innocent people, the world needs to come to the aid of a species that is being brutally treated in a country.

The bears of India are taken when they are babies, mutilated, their parents shot, starved, beaten, made to dance on hot coals, tortured every single day of their lives and finally sold for dog-bear fights in Pakistan or for their gallbladders, hair for bracelets or pelts in Nepal. Many of them die here of tuberculosis, even rabies. This has happened for several hundred years, started by the Mughal empire which organised animal shows as the Romans did. Now these bears are severely endangered and need to be taken away and put into sanctuaries. However the government has made the peculiar stipulation that they must be " bought" from the poachers at the rate of $2000 a bear! No one in India has the money. Therefore it was imperative that we make people all over the world aware. Mary Hutton of Free the Bears, in Perth wanted me to come to help with the awareness and fundraising which I why I came to Australia.

I am happy to have come. I met so many unselfish giving people. We collected enough money for about 70 bears to be rescued (we need to pick up 1200) and they have gone into a sanctuary near Agra. It was important for Mary also to know how much we in India appreciated her generosity and dedication to a species in another country.

Q2. You have been instrumental in changing the laws of India to make the rehabilitation of these bears possible. Is that correct?

A. There are many laws and practices that I have changed , but I cannot claim credit for this one.

The laws were always against the poaching of these bears and against their dancing. However, because they are poached by a minority community, the Muslims, everyone was reluctant to create a situation where they would respond not as the criminals they are but as " Muslims" being hard done by. In fact all the illegal street entertainment animals - the snakes, monkeys, bears, birds are run by Muslims in India. The ban exists. the question is of being determined enough to implement it. That is where the lacuna lies. The fact that we have to buy a bear is like buying your television back from the thief who stole it.

Q3. You have been for years on a collision course with animal research labs in India. Is it true that you were removed from your position as Minister for animal welfare for that reason?

A. Animal based research in India is basically a scam. Recently an ad came out from the All India Institute of Medical Research, the largest government lab, saying that they had 150 monkeys but they did not have any " projects" to " use them up" so would people write in! We have spent billions on our "research". In 55 years we have not got a single patent for any medical discovery. We use our animals basically for contract research - someone in America gets a research grant, finds that he cannot afford to buy the monkeys, dogs etc there so he " subcontracts " to India for one hundredth of the amount. Our lab goes onto the street and picks up a monkey or dog for free and then does unspeakable things to it because it is " free". Can you imagine that we do not have a single educational course for laboratory attendants. I started something called the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision on Animals. We made rules on labs for the first time. When we started checking the labs, we found them in such terrible condition that there was no way that any research could have gone on in there. Basically it was huge numbers of government scientists ( anyone with a basic degree in science is a scientist) scamming money in the name of research; terrible dingy rusted tiny cages with animals dying of hunger and disease with no electricity or water. All the super specialty labs were no better, thousands of rats in one oil drum breeding with each other and eating each other's bodies. To just give one statistic: the Lancet magazine writing on Indian research said that the premier research laboratory had not written up the research papers of what they did for the last 20 years - and that, after getting billions and killing thousands of animals every year. They simply forgot to write down anything on paper! Many of them get jobs in labs because of nepotism and then they invent projects. Pharmacy colleges - which do not need to test, - still do it because of some archaic laws. Companies that make injections, still have to test each one on a rabbit because of a law made in 1920. We are the only country making anti rabies vaccines from live sheep brains and these is a story of huge torture in itself. So when I started moving , so many vested interests - the scientists who were being exposed, the suppliers of labs and animals to labs , private contract research companies - joined hands with ignorant members of the government to protest against " Maneka Destroys Medical Research in India" No public debate asking them which medical research had been destroyed brought any answers.

In fact on the 19th of March, the Ministry for Environment and Forests which has now taken over the animal Welfare Ministry has knuckled under the Ministry for Health, which is virtually owned by private multinational companies. They are holding a meeting to see whether the CPCSEA cannot be dissolved and scientists who are "responsible people, after all " left to self regulation. The elections are on at the moment so let us see what happens after that.

Q4. While travelling around Northern India a few years ago two images in particular stayed with me. One was an elderly homeless woman, living at the railway station with no where to defecate, sharing all she had---half a chapatti -- with a street dog. The other image was watching a downtrodden donkey, clearly struggling to haul large boulders through the market place, with the family seated on top of the boulders. I remember thinking 'These woman and animals are being worked into the ground until they die of exhaustion'. Can you comment?

A. Of course, it is interlinked. All cruelty starts with the person being cruel to an animal , because he has to demonstrate his power. then it goes on to children and women. Violence becomes all encompassing. If you condone it on animals , then do not expect a peaceful, equitable society.

Q5. Do you think Asia is mindful of western agricultural materialistic values contaminating their world.—Is Asia going down the road of massive intensified farming practices? New farming disasters will be encountered that we in the west are now experiencing due to our lack of foresight and greed. There is nothing proud to emulate but what is the solution to stop it occurring in India?

A. Yes, we are going down the same path. For 50 years our government has put huge stress on teaching the farmers to abandon age old practices and adopt chemicals. When India had only one government channel of TV, that's all it talked about. There are villages in India that have no schools but they know all about the pesticides to be used (not how to use them) - because they have been invaded by chemical pesticide sellers. Now we have Monsanto all over. In 50 years inspite of our switch to these chemicals, we have produced just as much food as we always did but our waters are all polluted and 30,000 people die from direct poisoning by chemical sprays, not to mention the ones that die from the contaminated food. We have lost hundreds of varieties of rice and lentils and vegetables. At one stage we had over 100 varieties of vegetables ( basic varieties, not different forms of potatoes e.g.) No one except a few tribals can even remember their names now. All advice to stop going on this path is seeing as retrograde - going "back to a jungle system that will keep people poor". This is an area where animal welfare activists should be very active in. For instance vultures now are almost extinct and we find it is because of a chemical dichlorofen which gets into the feed fed to animals and then into their carcasses and then kills the vultures that eat the carcass.

Unfortunately we are going through a period of "globalisation" where everything that is intrinsically of value to us is being discarded as old fashioned and unnecessary. We are going to end up being far poorer and more violent and ignorant that we ever were.

For instance, when Bird Flu hit Asia, most Indians stopped eating chicken. The Poultry Industry paid politicians who were vegetarian who come out and say that poultry eating was important because it was part of the national effort for globalization!

Q6. The traditional image of India and her treatment of animals she is often projected as a cow-revering country where the elephant and the monkey are worshipped due to Hindu religious beliefs. Is this a romantic view? Is Indian's respect for animals becoming corroded by western values?

A. Not so much by western values as by overcrowding which always brings in violence and ignorance. And by a belief system now perpetuated by the new fast food market and multinationals in India that eating flesh is " modern" and that animals are "nuisances" that should be removed to make India as clean as Germany or England. We have companies that have come to India to breed ostriches and emus and ducks for pate - all for export. We pride ourselves on being the largest egg, chick, meat and leather exporters in the continent - all multinational companies. We are amazed that we are feeding one seventh of the meat industry in Europe with our soybean. We fail to see how our land, water, forest and rain have so been degraded that in the last 5 years our weather has changed drastically and with that, so many more people are hungry.

If everyone revered the cow, what a lovely world it would be - clear, intelligent and ruled by logic and reverence. The elephant and the monkey need to be revered as well, because they, amongst so many other animals, keep our forests alive and because of the forests we have rain and because of the rain, I am alive.

Q7. Your next big battle is to get animal sacrifices banned in India. How is that going?

A. It really is on the run now. But it will be another 10 years before we are done. One Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu, a state, banned, thanks to our movement, all animal sacrifices in her state. Then, as soon as the election was announced last month, she declared the ban was over. One group of people celebrated by killing 1000 goats and drinking their blood. So it's an uneven process, often marred by politicians. But we are wining this one, godwilling

Q8. What can we do to help you and your organization, People for Animals?

A. Become vegetarian! Write letters to the Prime Minister or to the local embassy when you see something that can be put right in India when you come as tourists - like the bears on the road. Contact scientific organizations and ask them to protest about the conditions of labs. get a ban put on leather items from India. Stop supporting the Tibetan struggle until the Tibetans stop poaching animals from India (go to Tibet and you will see panther and tiger pelts hanging openly in their shops. I know this is a controversial statement but most Tibetans that have taken refuge in India are the couriers to China, Pakistan and Nepal of wild animals)... there are hundreds of things. We could see our website www.peopleforanimals.org and see if you would like to contribute. We run 21 shelters and really, at the end of the day, its money that we need for everything!

Maneka On Vegetarianism in India:

Around 50% of Indians are vegetarians. Vegetarianism is regarded as elegant. All the rich are vegetarian. All the main politicians are vegetarian. The Prime Minister and all the Ministry are vegetarian. The heads of companies are usually vegetarian. It's regarded as an elegant thing to do. Meat-eating is regarded as gross. Even meat eaters will apolise and will say "oh we don't eat meat at home", or "we only eat it twice a week"-always apologising.

Maneka on Australia:

Meat-eating is the reason for Australia's drought. It's the reason why this beautiful Australian continent has been laid to waste and why you lost more species than any other continent has in the shortest amount of time possible.

Maneka on India's Biomedical laboratories:

While millions of animals have been killed in the name of research in India, almost 90% of this research has been useless and has been unnecessary duplication of research done abroad.

Maneka on alternatives to vivisection:

I urge science policy makers to review the use of animals as models of human disease for accountability and scientific rigor in the light of modern medical discovery; particularly knowledge derived from the human genome, current thinking in evolutionary biology and evidence from research data, epidemiology, clinical trials and post-marketing drug surveillance.