The Telegraph
Calcutta India

Thursday, February 03, 2005

GIFT OF CRUELTY

There is something absurd, rather than grand, about an elephant being sent
as a gift by one modern prime minister to another. Extravagant or bestial
diplomatic gifts are an ancient tradition. Chinese, Byzantine and Moghul
emperors, among others, indulged in it, and important modern museums all
over the world have separate wings to exhibit these gifts, which range from
the exquisite to the bizarre. But Mr Manmohan Singh should definitely think
twice, even several times, before flying an elephant to his counterpart in
Armenia. It is a cruel thing to do (for the elephant), and is avoidable. The
creature will be flown, in some uncomfortable nether region of an aircraft,
to a zoo in Armenia, where temperatures are now well below zero.
Transporting animals in wretched conditions is done every day all over the
world. This is done for the meat, and even with this functional
justification, principled vegetarians remain appalled by what chickens and
pigs have to go through. But when elephants, white tigers and horses are
regularly forced to make hazardous journeys for the sake of international
relations, then the gratuitousness of the whole thing begins to look rather
unacceptable. Elephants are, after all, Schedule 1 animals in India, and
three white tigers once died when Messrs George Fernandes and Jaswant Singh
packed them off as gifts to Japan and Libya.

Most of the feelings that Ms Maneka Gandhi expresses for animals are, quite
understandably, not taken seriously. But her concern in this regard is more
legitimate. Apart from other animal rights groups in Karnataka, Ms Virginia
McKenna of the Born Free Foundation has also appealed to the Indian prime
minister to spare the six-year-old Veda. The question is not really that of
objectifying a living creature by turning it into a gift, but a simpler one
of cruelty and risk ~W especially when the Armenian prime minister will not
really be deprived of one of life's essentials if not presented with an
elephant. Ms J. Jayalalithaa's largesse and religiosity also sometimes
fasten themselves on elephants. But this does not involve physical cruelty
to the animals, making it one of this lady's less culpable excesses,
whatever its political implications. Mr Singh, who likes to be unobtrusive
in public, might wish to reconsider the use of elephants ~W or any other
delicate and exotic animal, for that matter ~W to make polite exchanges with
his peers in other countries.