The Fall of Shaktiman Mirrors Our Inevitable Death of Innocence

Shaktiman, the Uttarakhand police horse that was attacked during a BJP rally in March, died in Dehradun on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, a few things were explained when the horse Shaktiman died. And none of it had to do with the gangrene the animal died of.

No matter how much one swears by the Vedas, and how long one holds forth on nationalism, the point of respect for life, animal or human, is missing from the grand narrative of this country.

Shaktiman was a horse on duty — it was from the Uttarakhand mounted police. The Opposition in the state, BJP, had staged a “rally in protest against corruption” of the Congress-government in power on March 14.

BJP MLA Ganesh Joshi, accused of assaulting the horse was arrested after national outrage over the incident.“Shaktiman was injured on March 14 after which we had to operate on him. He was later fitted with an artificial leg. But he was unable to fully recover from an infection,” SSP Dehradun Sadanand Date told PTI.

You will note that already the debate has deteriorated. What’s being scored are brownies, that abiding passion of a whole noise-loving people.

What does it say of India?

It explains the hadal depth of our political discourse. In any civilised country, say, Norway or Finland, the man responsible for abusing an animal would not continue to hold a public office. Joshi is still a MLA.

Ironically, the sacrifice of the horse is in keeping with the Vedic tradition. So in that respect, Hindu India has been faithful to its customs.

Most profoundly, Shaktiman was attacked because she was a symbol. As the one who carried a policeman, seen as an emblem of the then-ruling Congress party, the horse herself became an extension of the ruling state. In fact, having been carrying an officer as part of her duties, Shaktiman was as good as a police officer herself, as described by retired Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi. Contrast this with the fact that Shaktiman is actually a hapless, mute animal, who would suffer an attack or a beating, bleed and starve, but not actually be able to speak the name of her attacker. The irony that Shaktiman, seen as an active agent of the government, can neither utter a word of eloquence nor present a defence is rich and disturbing. It reminds us of a wide-eyed footsoldier taking a bullet for wars he has no hope of controlling or understanding. It shows us avarice in a naked form.

Many citizens also saw this incident as a politically significant one. In a charged atmosphere, with BJP leaders talking continuously about proving one’s nationalism – by stating love for the “holy cow”, uttering “Bharat Mata ki jai” among others – the attack on Shaktiman was read as evidence of the hollowness of all the sanctimonious slogan shouting. “Was the horse anti-national?” asked many voices on social media. Would such an attack be tolerated if the horse was a cow, asked others. Significantly, Joshi offered no apologies for himself or his followers, stating he was not even “point one percent guilty.” Joshi’s lack of even a general apology led many others to ask if the BJP, ruling at the Centre, was getting too arrogant. The Congress took up the issue in the state assembly and the horse led to many sessions being disrupted.

The BJP appeared to lose face for awhile, but then rebounded. Following a set of simultaneous political events, the Congress government was dissolved. Meanwhile, following her own tragic leg amputation, the spread of gangrene and infection Shaktiman died, a month after being endlessly feted by politicians, who posed for selfies with her, photogenically feeding her leaves for the camera. She had been fitted with a prosthetic leg which was flown in by a kind volunteer from the US. An assorted team of veterinarians and a handler named Ravindra Singh had been taking care of her.

Shaktiman’s death reduces the livestock population of Indian by just one. But according to the census figures, there has been a 24% drop (6.25 lakh) in India’s livestock population from 1992, recorded at 8.17 lakh. The large number of cattle left to die of starvation in the drought stricken hinterlands is a partial explanation for this state of affairs.

The real explanation perhaps lies closer to the bone. We are just a cruel people. For instance, the state of our orphanages and the homes of the poor run both by the government and private individuals represent horrid tales of callousness. According to one study, close to 18 million children wander the Indian streets, in a state not much better than unclaimed cattle. It would be revealing to know how many related questions – and actionable answers – have been raised in Parliament over the years.

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse,” says Richard the Third in the battlefield. That line from Shakespeare might well be written as an epitaph for Shaktiman, and the country that clipped first its wings, and then broke its legs.

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