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Zoo Official In India Is Punished For Giving Lions Revered Names


The lions look bemused or even bored in photos but not unhappy. Sita and Akbar had been living together for years. Now in a captive-breeding program in India’s eastern state of West Bengal, they are as married as animals can be.

But many of the humans around them are upset. On Saturday, the authorities suspended a high-ranking forestry official who had overseen the animals for naming the lioness Sita, after a revered Hindu goddess, and her mate Akbar, after a medieval Muslim emperor.

Amid an atmosphere of heightened religious and political tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the country, the lions’ names drew an outcry. Lakshman Bansal, an official of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a far-right group linked to India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, said that when he read the lions’ names in a Bengali newspaper it “felt provocative.”

“It is blasphemy,” Mr. Bansal said by telephone. “And an assault on religious beliefs of millions of Hindus.”

The Asiatic lions, along with other animals like spectacled langurs, two leopards and four Indian antelopes, had been transferred to the Bengal Safari park from the nearby state of Tripura early this month.

Indian zoos have a long tradition of naming animals, particularly tigers and other great cats, after warriors, kings and mythological figures. A cheetah in the central state of Madhya Pradesh is named Agni, for an ancient god of fire. At zoos across the country, wildlife officials said there were many other cats named after Sita and Akbar, who are among the most popular figures in Indian myth and history. Such names help boost the animals’ popularity among children and adults alike.

Heightened sensitivities between Hindus and Muslims are playing a role in the animal-naming dispute. Since Jan. 22, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a vast temple to the god Ram in Ayodhya, members of Mr. Bansal’s V.H.P. organization have been celebrating it as their own victory. In 1992, they led a mob that destroyed a Mughal-era mosque that had stood where the new temple was built.

The real-life Akbar was not only a Muslim but had Central Asian roots and took wives of different religions, including a Hindu princess. Present-day right-wing Hindu activists have campaigned against interreligious marriage, accusing Indian Muslim men of trying to woo, marry and convert Hindu girls.

Mr. Bansal said that after he read the news, he immediately wrote a letter to forestry officials in West Bengal. When he failed to get a response, he went to court to file a petition to demand, on behalf of practicing Hindus around the world, that the name of the female lion be changed.

The case was initially brought before a judge, who expressed surprise and asked the petitioners’ lawyer if he was talking about land.

“No, your lordship, of lion, lion,” the lawyer said with emphasis.

“Lion!” the judge said. “So you have challenged the naming of the lion,” the judge continued. At a certain point, he asked: “But how does it matter?”

Mr. Bansal’s lawyers argued that lions named Akbar and Sita might set a dangerous precedent: “Tomorrow, a donkey may be named after some deity.”

Whether the court was convinced of the risk of a slippery slope, it concluded days later that there was no justification for the big cats’ names and asked officials of the West Bengal government if they would consider changing them.

And the court went a step further. At a hearing, Justice Saugata Bhattacharya said, “Sita is worshiped by a larger section of this country. I also oppose naming the lion after Akbar. He was an efficient, successful and secular Mughal emperor.”

Under pressure, the state government in Tripura, where the animals were named before being transferred to Bengal, decided to investigate how the names came about. Its officers soon found references to Akbar and Sita in records. The official suspended on Saturday, Prabin Lal Agrawal, had denied choosing the names.

Some people took to social media to call the situation absurd. One said it set “a mockable precedent” and another said she at first thought it was “a joke shared from a parody account.”

Shubhankar Dutta, a lawyer representing Mr. Bansal and other petitioners, said the next hearing was scheduled for early March and he would like justices to issue directives to zoo officials to stop naming cats and tigers after religious figures, at least in West Bengal.

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