Maneka is in India quite a common first name. Yet headlines often refer just to "Maneka," and Indians know exactly who they mean:
Maneka Gandhi, the maniacally energetic founder of India's leading animal advocacy group, People For Animals; foe of corruption; fearless newspaper columnist; and member of Parliament. She is lampooned almost daily by cartoonists and fellow columnists, but is also quoted thoroughly on subjects that most others in public life dare not address.
"It was pyrotechnics," the Indian Express opened describing a typical Maneka speech to a local Rotary Club. 'Maneka had everyone scurrying for cover, as she launched a loaded attack on policy makers, parliamentarians, seminar organizers, and 'all those who make a big show of environmental conservation without even understanding what they are saying.'"
Maneka's affection for dogs, birds, trees, and indeed all living creatures is routinely ridiculed. Her face appears on editorial pages grafted to the heads of all sorts of strange beasts.
Yet beneath the derision is an evident streak of respect. Among the flock of birds and dogs defecating and urinating on her as she makes a speech in one drawing are political foes who have disguised themselves as animals in order to approach. Plainly Maneka is not really the cartoonist's target.
Maneka's many enemies have been trying to catch her with political dirt on her hands for most of her life. The worst they have found has been animal dirt, from the animals she has personally rescued and attended, in a nation where millions of Indians still pick up and shape cow patties with their bare hands to fuel their cookstoves. She lives self-evidently more simply, in a much more modest neighborhood, than most Indian politicians. The People For Animals headquarters, about the same size as the ANIMAL PEOPLE office, occupies the largest room of her house, with an office staff of three. The four-acre PFA sanctuary and animal hospital is at a separate site. The whole neighborhood is witness that Maneka and her household used the seeds from the fruit they personally ate to plant most of the trees and shrubbery that now make the neighborhood the only part of Delhi with decreasing air pollution.
Paradoxically, in view of her notoriety, Maneka may be the only prominent Gandhi whom no one -- yet -- has ever tried to kill or kidnap. It may be that she is protected to some extent by her very willingness to expose herself to public denunciation, and her ability to turn most of it into sympathetic laughter. And whatever else Maneka may say or do, she is respected for her honesty.
Because her critics cannot attack her for the corruption that otherwise permeates the political life, and because they can only go so far in ridiculing her animal work without seeming to endorse cruelty, they mostly attack Maneka for alleged impropriety in denouncing the corruption of others. Though most of her charges are upheld, she is often accused of defaming people unjustly, of being a spoiled brat, of throwing tantrums, and even of insanity.
Despite the attacks, Maneka at age 42 is probably the best-known and best loved Gandhi since the founder of modern India, known to Indians as Gandhi-ji -- and since the Indian population has tripled since Gandhi-ji's death, which came well before electronic communications and mass literacy reached most of India, she reaches far more Indians than Gandhi-ji ever did in his lifetime. Indeed, Maneka probably enjoys a bigger audience than any other living animal advocate, ever.
Searching on the Gandhi surname on the Internet actually produces more references for other members of her family, yet when self-promotional publicity materials are deleted, Maneka is the most discussed, most charismatic, most provocative, and most problematic Gandhi, to many. Both supporters and detractors question why Maneka didn't make the political compromises years ago that could have made her prime minister, and perhaps still might. Further, in a nation where family ties are extremely important, her self-estrangement from many other family members causes consternation and head-shaking.
Married to Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son and generally recognized political heir of then-prime minister Indira Gandhi, Maneka was abruptly widowed in 1980, at age 25, when Sanjay crashed his private airplane. She was expected to quietly raise their two-year-old son Feroze within the Gandhi household, until and unless she remarried. Instead, Indira banished her within two years, in consequence of her outspoken statements on behalf of animals, ecological consciousness, and women's rights. These were among Indira's favorite causes, too, inherited from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India 1947-1964, who had taken them up under the influence of Gandhi-ji, his longtime mentor -- but Maneka had a way of colorfully upstaging Indira that Indira didn't like.
After Indira was assassinated in October 1984, Maneka's brother-in-law Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister. Accusing him of corruption, Maneka helped oust him in 1989 by capturing the Parliamentary seat she has held ever since as -- then -- a leader of the opposition Janata Dal party. Trying to regain power, Rajiv was assassinated during the 1991 election campaign. His widow Sonia, Rajiv's son Rahul, and his daughter Priyanka now all prominently represent the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Maneka meanwhile served two separate stormy terms as environment minister, helped revitalize the long moribund Animal Welfare Board of India, and inspired -- as much by example as by preaching -- the rise of a dynamic Indian animal rights movement.
In July 1996 she also got herself kicked out of her party for at least six years, for denouncing deals the executives cut to site a new power plant.
Maneka provocatively scolds India with every other breath, yet between scoldings proclaims her passionate love for the nation and her people. Few Indian politicians make themselves more accessible, while Maneka's political record shows enduring concern for alleviating human as well as animal suffering. Both, Maneka argues, come from the same remediable failures of Indian society, and contrary to the common argument that halting animal suffering must follow development that may relieve poverty, Maneka holds -- as did Gandhi-ji -- that the abolition of human and animal suffering can be accomplished only by means that do both together.
Maneka speaks often and affectionately of her son Feroze, now 19, who clearly admires his mother, shares her values, and yet has a naturally more diplomatic style. He smiles as Maneka rages. His way is to use a relatively few well-chosen words, and to listen more than speak.
Maneka on Maneka
Then there is Maneka on Maneka. According to Maneka, her volubility and abrasiveness are developed, not instinctive. She forces herself to speak out because someone must, but sometimes speaks too soon because she is afraid that if she hesitates, shyness will overcome her and she will be silent, like too many other Indian women.
But Maneka also remembers failures. At lunch in her home with us, she unexpectedly delivered a shockingly forthright and clearly considered self-critique. She acknowledged offending allies whom she should not have offended, generously praised those who continue to put up with her, acknowledged a need to make amends toward several, admitted tactical blunders as environment minister, and confessed to having difficulty with apologizing, especially to older men, because of her phobia about an apology being mistaken for a sign of weakness. She wished it was in her nature to cultivate wisdom, instead of to always be the firebrand. She described how she often cries herself to sleep with the realization that a misdirected "shouting" may have done more harm than good, and how she has begun to sometimes make herself get back out of bed and call people whom she may have shouted at to ill effect -- like some of those who call her about finding homeless dogs, or injured birds, seeking someone else who will take responsibility for completing the rescue.
It was the sort of self-deflation that Gandhi-ji was known for. But at age 42, Gandhi-ji was only four years into his adoption of the philosophy of nonviolence and his political struggle against anti-Indian discrimination in South Africa. Virtually everything for which he is remembered was said and done during the latter half of his 79-year life. Gandhi-ji would not come under the scrutiny that has characterized Maneka's career for at least another decade -- and if he had, in an era of mass communications, his reputation by midlife might have been similar.
-- Merritt Clifton
(From "ANIMAL PEOPLE," January/February 1998 P.O. Box 960, Clinton, WA 98236, USA.)