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Lecture: Jayachamaraja Wadiyar and the Indian Board of Wild Life

An Asiatic Lioness at Sasan Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat (2018). File photo: Vijay Soneji
At the inaugural meeting of the Indian Board of Wild Life in 1952, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, the first Chairman of Board, had bemoaned that the lion had become endangered, wanted the Government of India to declare it to be in need of special protection, and called for the rehabilitation of the lion in its old haunts. The inaugural meeting of the Board was held between the November 24 and December 1, 1952, at Lalitha Mahal Palace, Mysuru.

Text of a lecture delivered by Jairam Ramesh, MP, at Mysuru as part of the Jayachamaraja Wadiyar Birth Centenary Celebrations, on February 20, 2020.

I

I am delighted to be here in this historic city of Mysuru as part of the centenary celebrations of Jayachamaraja Wadiyar. It is a double privilege for I speak at this famed university which is three years older than the 25th and last Maharajah of Mysore. A number of extremely distinguished men and women have adorned its faculty and been its alumni.

Inheritor of a progressive legacy and himself gifted in different ways, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar became Maharajah at a time of political upheaval and transition. It fell to him to lead his princely state into an independent, democratic and republican India. Subsequently, JCW—as I will refer to him with your permission for the rest of the lecture—carved out a distinctive niche for himself in the new nation’s public life.

His Highness Sri Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, the late Maharajah of Mysore. Photo: Hindu Photo Archives

 

JCW turned 100 last year. On that occasion one unusual dimension of his multi-faceted personality came into public prominence. This relates to his contributions to the world of Western music. I was very well aware of his quite remarkable achievements in the field of Carnatic music and that M.S. Subbalakshmi had sung one of his compositions way back in 1966 at the United Nations in New York. But I have to admit that I had not known of his great fascination for Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Nikolas Medtner and of the fact that he was a trained pianist as well. In his memoirs Walter Legge the well-known English record producer acknowledged his debt to JCW. Another man born in Mysore six years after JCW and who also became very proficient on the piano was Raja Ramanna one of the architects of India’s nuclear programme. He learnt the piano in the palace along with JCW and JCW’s sister Vijaya Devi from the nuns of Good Shepherd Convent. Raja Ramanna has written fondly of this phase of his life and of Nalawadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar in his autobiography.

II

Today, I wish to spend some time on a subject which was very close to JCW’s heart and which has now assumed even greater significance. This relates to the protection of India’s wonderful biodiversity. In March 1952 the Government of India constituted a Central Board for Wild Life and JCW who was then Rajpramukh of Mysore was appointed as its Chairman. I have not been able to establish how precisely this came about but the archival evidence suggests that the-then Minister of Food and Agriculture K.M. Munshi suggested his name which was enthusiastically accepted by Jawaharlal Nehru. The Board had over forty official and non-official members. Amongst those nominated in their personal capacity were K.S. Dharma Kumarsinhji of Bhavnagar, Yashwant Rao Ghorpade of Sandur and Dr. M.H. Mari Gowda, the Superintendent of Lal Bagh. The office order notifying JCW’s appointment referred to him thus:

Major General Highness Maharaja Sir Sri Jaya Chamarajendra Wadiyar Bahadur, G.C.B., G.C.S.I., L.L.D., Maharaja of Mysore, Rajpramukh of Mysore.

I think one reason why JCW was selected was because unlike a number of other royals he was not trigger happy or trophy crazy. Moreover he belonged to a state which had a notable conservation records. The Venugopal Wildlife Park within Bandipur was closed to all timber operations from around 1940. M. Krishnan the eminent naturalist observed how animals in this area were more diurnal than in adjacent Mudumalai where forest operations long continued. The Mysore Game Rules put limits on tiger hunting as early as 1931. Bounties were also not given out. The Mysore zoo had an unrivalled record in Indian zoos of captive bred elephants. And, of course, there was the Ranganthittu Bird Sanctuary created in 1943 thanks to the intervention of the India’s greatest ornithologist, Salim Ali, and the Minister in charge of Forests in JCW’s Council of Ministers, M.A. Sreenivasan.  

On April 18 1952, JCW wrote a three-page letter to M.D. Chaturvedi, the Inspector General of Forests, laying out his views on what the new Board should be doing and how it should be organizing its work. One suggestion he made was revealing and struck me as unusual. He thought aloud of combining, in his own words, ‘the Bandipur State Forest and Sanctuary in Mysore and the Mudumalai Preserve in Madras'. Political boundaries make such an idea even impossible to conceive now but JCW was giving expression to the reality that ecosystems and habitats go beyond narrow geographical boundaries.  

Subsequently, JCW hosted the Board for its inaugural meeting between the 24th of November and the 1st of December, 1952, at Lalitha Mahal Palace in this very city. This all-but-forgotten conclave was a landmark in the history of India’s wild life protection and deserves to be rescued from the oblivion to which it has been consigned. He participated actively and conducted the deliberations with great erudition and sensitivity. The Board split up into four committees for three days for substantive work.  These committees related to (i) national parks; (ii) trophies and trading; (iii) Union and State legislation; and (iv) administrative matters. The committee on national parks dealt with national parks and sanctuaries, zoological parks and gardens and protected animals. JCW himself chaired this committee showing that his presence at Lalitha Mahal Palace was more than that of being a gracious and ceremonial host. Trips were also arranged to the Bandipur Sanctuary, Chamrajnagar, the Mysore Zoo, the Trophy Hall and the Gaja Shala. There was also a visit to the world-famous taxidermist enterprise Van Ingen and Van Ingen which was such a very important feature of Mysore for almost a century till 1999. At Bandipur, which was clearly the high point of the day, the delegates saw bison, chital, elephants and sambhar.

Fortunately, a photograph of those present at this historic meeting has been preserved. Here it is. Some of the best-known names of Indian wild life protection are to be seen in it.

 

III

At its inaugural meeting the Central Board for Wild Life decided to rename itself as the Indian Board for Wild Life. M.D. Chaturvedi welcomed the members and during the course of speech remarked that in His Highness 'the dumb denizens of the forests had at last found a champion worthy of the cause'. Chaturvedi one of the giants of Indian forestry must have realized that he had used the wrong adjective because in his vote of thanks he corrected himself and said that in His Highness the 'voiceless’ denizens of the forest have found a staunch champion’. JCW made two major speeches—the first on the opening day and the second on the closing day. Both were very striking and demonstrated his profound knowledge of our ancient scriptures in the original Sanskrit.

On the first day JCW spoke at some length on India’s fast vanishing wild life. He dealt quite a bit on the intimate nexus of animal life with plant life and called for planning and scientific attention in setting up parks, reserves and sanctuaries. He appealed to the States for their cooperation. He educated his audience on how harmony between humans and nature was maintained in Ancient India and cited significant passages in Kautilya’s Artha Sastra and other books. According to the official record he closed his opening speech with

the Vedic Hymn of Hope the last stanza of which has the striking lines:
Rise up. Living life has come to us. The dark has passed away. The light comes. She has abandoned the path for the Sun to go….

It would be a reasonable assumption to make that JCW quoted this in the original Sanskrit. A little bit of detective work on my part revealed that this was from the Rig Veda, Mandala 1, Hymn 113, Verse 16. This is used in Vedic rituals while offering oblations to Ushas, the Vedic deity governing the time of dawn and which clears the way for the Sun. I think JCW used this to convey the message that it is time to wake up and work in the direction of protecting wild life and since the mantra talks about charity he is asking people to extend their support. At least, this is my interpretation.

In his second speech, JCW made an eloquent case for the protection of all of India's wildlife but made special mention of one particular animal delving into its association with Indian civilization in different ways. He drew attention to the fact that, it is the lion's head that adorns the Asoka pillar which is the motif of the Republic of India. He reminded the Board members that the lion has been the 'vahana'' of the 'Devi' in her fight against forces of darkness and barbarism. He pointed out that the Devi herself is described as 'Mrigapathi skandhasththane'.  Saying that because of this association the lion has become the symbol of 'Dharma', he recalled when the courts of justice met in the days of yore, it was before the ruler or the king of the country who sat on a 'Sinhasana'.

JCW compared how the lion was referred to in English as the King of Beasts with how it was called in Indian literature as the slayer of  the 'Matanga' or elephant  a distinction which not many animals can claim. He called it one of the finest and noblest of the creatures of God that had intimately connected with the cultural life of the Indian people for centuries, JCW bemoaned that it had become endangered. He wanted the Government of India to declare it to be in need of special protection. He went even one step further and called for the rehabilitation of the lion in its old haunts. He didn't say so but his implication was clear—that the lion’s natural home should go beyond the Gir Sanctuary in Gujarat. This idea of his became a reality five years later when a second home for the Asiatic lion was created in the Chandrarprabha Wild Life Sanctuary near Varanasi. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons that experiment did not prove successful. Wild life scientists and ecologists have been arguing for a second home for the lion for the past two decades but a former chief minister of Gujarat made the lion a symbol of Gujarati asmita and refused to allow lions to be relocated to Madhya Pradesh where a second habitat had been developed learning from the earlier failure at Chandraprabha. Actually that failure was not ecological—the lions bred well but were mostly poisoned or shot.

Given JCW’s almost mystical veneration of the lion it was no surprise that the Lalitha Mahal Palace meeting passed a resolution calling for its protection. The resolution added twelve other species to this list needing protection that included the snow leopard, clouded leopard, cheetah, rhinoceros, Indian wild ass, Kashmir stag, musk deer, brow-antlered deer, pygmy hog, Great Indian Bustard, pink-headed duck and white-winged wood duck. The resolution did add though that this list was illustrative and not exhaustive and may have to be expanded from time to time.

It is worthwhile to note that the tiger that would be declared the national animal two decades later did not figure in this list. That generation from naturalists drawn almost predominantly from princely families clearly did not want to give up the privilege of shooting tigers. The moratorium on shooting tigers would be imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1970 and a complete ban would come into force two years later. It is also interesting that the elephant, which was to soon to be confronted with not a crisis of extinction like the tiger but a crisis of attrition of its own, also did not figure in this list.

The Mysore meeting also suggested that a second home be developed for the one-horned rhinoceros which was found only in Kaziranga in Assam. As in the case of the lion, this was done to ensure security of the species which would be at risk in the event of the occurrence of a natural calamity or spread of epidemic. This was a far-reaching recommendation but it took almost three decades to see the light of day. It was only in 1983 that the translocation of the one-horned rhinoceros from Kaziranga to Dudhwa in Uttar Pradesh took place. This was entirely because of Indira Gandhi who pushed for the move purely on scientific and ecological considerations even though the Assam agitation was then at its peak and the one-horned rhinoceros was being claimed as a symbol of Assamese identity.

IV

JCW continued to be the chairman of the Indian Board of Wild Life through the 1950s and 1960s but couldn't devote much time to it because of his illness. But there was one important meeting in February 1961 which recommended that the peacock be declared as the national bird.  However, this recommendation met with opposition instantly from India’s greatest ornithologists, Salim Ali, who wrote in the March 1961 Newsletter for Birdwatchers:

"I submit that the selection of the Peacock by the Indian Board for Wildlife is totally misconceived and meaningless. It was not at all obligatory for India […] to adopt a national bird but if it is conceded that doing so may further the ends for which the step was recommended, then it is obvious that the Great Indian Bustard is a species that merits this distinction. This bustard is a large and spectacular bird, indigenous to India, whose numbers, in spite of the legislative ban on its killing, are dwindling at an alarming rate due to poaching by vandalistic gunners and also encroachment upon its natural habitat. It needs an urgent nation-wide effort to save the bird from its impending doom."

It is not as if the Lalitha Mahal Palace meeting of November 1952 had not taken serious note of the plight of the Great Indian Bustard. Indeed, it had called for special efforts for its protection and preservation in new habitats.  However, Salim Ali’s views on the choice of a national bird were ignored and after a two-year debate the IBWL at its December 1963 meeting finally decided that for compelling historical, mythological, religious and cultural reasons which JCW must have adduced, the peacock would become the national bird.

But after 1965 the IBWL did not meet. It was not surprising, therefore, that Indira Gandhi wanting to revitalize the Board replaced him by a much younger and fitter Dr. Karan Singh in July 1969. One of the very first decisions of the reconstituted Board was to declare the animal that so fascinated JCW as the national animal. Three years later India’s very first conservation initiative Project Lion was launched at Gir. In April 1973, Project Tiger followed with nine sanctuaries identified for protection and preservation. Bandipur was in this initial list of nine. At about the same time the tiger replaced the lion as the national animal—its choice being dictated largely by the fact it was present in over ten states of the country as compared to the lion which was endemic only to a region of just one State. Karan Singh was as much steeped in Hindu culture as JCW. And just as JCW had drawn attention to Vishnu Durga or ‘Durga on the Lion’, the scion of the princely family of Jammu and Kashmir justified the change by drawing attention to Shiv Durga or ‘Durga on the Tiger’ which is also an integral part of our civilizational legacy.

 

Incidentally, there is an earlier history to this tussle between the lion and the tiger for being some sort of national symbol. In February 1935 the newly-established Reserve Bank of India was deciding on its seal which, at a later stage, was to be used as its emblem on currency notes, cheques and publications.  Various seals, medals and coins were examined and finally the East India Company Double Mohur with the sketch of the Lion and Palm Tree was found most suitable. However, the final decision replaced the lion by the tiger on the grounds that it was the more characteristic animal of India. Next time you see a currency note, look for the tiger and the palm tree on it! Here it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, JCW must have been fond of tigers too.  The detailed record of the Lalitha Mahal Palace meeting has this delightful paragraph and I quote:

"The Board re-assembled on December 1, 1952 at Lalitha Mahal Palace at 11 A.M. with His Highness the Maharaja and Rajpramukh of Mysore presiding when the occasion was graced by the presence of Dr. Panjabrao Deshmukh, the Union Minister of Agriculture and Shri K. Hanumanthayya, the Chief Minister of Mysore. Five tiger cubs from the Mysore Zoo represented in the person the dumb denizens of the forest."  (italics mine)

 

From the language used I can only surmise that the five tiger cubs themselves were present at the final session. I have not been able to obtain any photographic evidence of this though. Perhaps the Wadiyar archives may have it. I also think the note taker should have used the word "voiceless" instead of "dumb".

This was not all. At that closing function, M.D. Chaturvedi addressed Dr. Punjabrao Deshmukh, the Union Minister of State of Agriculture saying:

"As a token of their affection, the bisons of Bandipur have sent one of their stockings mounted as a table lamp which His Highness, our Chairman, has directed me to present to you with the hope that it  would act as a beacon light for the cause so dear to us."

Clearly, the delegates were having fun even as they worked. But unfortunately the fate of that uncommon table lamp is not known.

V

At Lalitha Mahal Palace, the IBWL also called upon the Union Government to take a more direct and enlarged role in the protection of wild life even though under the Constitution that had come into force two years earlier, this responsibility was assigned to the States. Nehru’s Cabinet made one effort to give effect to this recommendation but abandoned it because of the opposition from some States. Had Nehru felt passionately about it, the Union government could well have got a new law passed but he was far too much of a democrat to ride roughshod over what his senior colleagues did not want to happen. It was left to Indira Gandhi to push through in Parliament the landmark Wildlife Protection Act in mid-1972 almost twenty years after JCW and other members of the IBWL and first advocated such a law. She used her brute majority, got two States to pass resolutions asking for Parliament to pass a law even though the Constitutional responsibility rested with the States. This, I should hasten to add, is permissible under the Constitution. This 1972 Act has saved our wildlife from both demographic and developmental pressures. Project Tiger and Project Lion are the most visible of our conservation success. But we have been successful across a wide range—rhinoceros, crocodile, gharial, vulture, bustard, blackbuck and pygmy hog to name just a few. That is a tribute undoubtedly to Indira Gandhi’s personal commitment and courage but it is also a testimony to the beginnings made at Lalitha Mahal Palace in the last five weeks of 1952. In 1976, she got the Constitution amended to bring the subject of both forests and wild life from the States List to the Concurrent List thereby ensuring a more active role for the Union government in such matters—something that JCW had all along advocated.

However, one animal identified by JCW and the Board in Mysore as needing urgent protection was to become extinct soon thereafter. The cheetah is the only mammal to have been hunted to extinction in India in modern times.  Its last sighting is a matter of some conjecture: one expert believes that it was last seen in 1964 in what is now Chhattisgarh while another expert thinks it was last seen in 1967 near Hyderabad. I became aware of all this when I took over as Minister of Environment and Forests in May 2009. I was even more enthusiastic about its reintroduction when I realized that the word 'cheetah' was derived from the Sanskrit  "citraka" or spotted. That was enough for me to explore avenues of getting cheetahs from Iran, Namibia or South Africa for reintroduction in grasslands habitats in either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh.  I left the Ministry in July 2011 and thereafter the cheetah reintroduction project went through numerous twists and turns finally landing up in, of all places, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court finally gave its nod a few weeks back and hopefully the reintroduction process would be restarted. We would in this way not only having the cheetah in the wild but also see the rejuvenation of grasslands—for, when we protect animals we also protect ecosystems. Project Tiger, for instance, has not only saved that magnificent animal but also helped save our forests.

I might add  here that Divyabhanusinh of Mansa, India's foremost scholar on the cheetah has this to write in his book The End of  Traial: The Cheetah in India:

"In the early 1950s, Maharaja Brijendra Singh of Bharatpur presented an Indian cheetah to his brother-in-law the late Maharaja Jayachamrajendra Wadiar of Mysore. The cheetah was sent to the Mysore zoo and was photographed with the Maharaja of Mysore, Marshal Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and  M.T. Anantharamaiah, the curator of the zoo at the time, during Marshal Tito’s visit to India in 1957."

I am sure that photograph exists somewhere.

VI

Dr. S. L. Hora a first-rate ichthyologist was elected as the first Honorary Secretary General of IBWL at Mysore. In his speech of thanks he said and I quote:

"Your Highness has laid the Board under a deep debt of gratitude to you by giving us the word 'Abhayaranya' for Sanctuaries within Sanctuaries, for it shows that our ancestors in the far remote ages were fully conscious of the need to protect wild life. This is not a new thing therefore, but is a revival of our ancient cultural trait."

What had JCW said that drew this praise? In the course of his remarks he had remarked:

"You will also notice that provision has been made for the creation of 'Abhayaranyas' or forests where animals live without fear of man. These are really like wild life nurseries. It will enable the fauna of the country to have an undisturbed place where they can breed and propagate their species without interference from any human agency whatsoever. Along with this, recommendations have been made for the formation of sanctuaries for medicinal plants and herbs of botanical value. It is a step in the right direction for it is now a recognized fact that plant life is an invaluable and indispensable link in the Nature protection scheme of a country."

Today, we have "core" zones and "buffer" zones in our national parks and sanctuaries. There is thus a direct link in what JCW had envisaged at the inaugural session of the IBWL.

This is not all. In his exposition, JCW conceived of zoological parks which, in his own words, 

"afford ideal conditions for reserving and nursing rare species of wild life by providing the necessary space and creating environment similar to what obtains in their natural  habitats and for the enclosing of animals in large extends of land which is not possible in zoological gardens. These parks are calculated to offer a sanctuary to and protect species of animals on the verge of extinction."

JCW's assertion was that in such zoological parks animals would live practically in their natural surroundings but the people would be permitted to look at them from behind protecting wires. He put it colourfully saying that ‘perhaps in these zoological parks, the animals would be looking at human being held beyond bars’. He appealed to the state governments to give what he called ‘earnest’ consideration to this method of providing a sanctuary for the vanishing species, simultaneously creating facilities to the public to derive all the delight of seeing rare fauna at close range.

Today, we all agree that such zoological parks are to be preferred to traditional zoos. And indeed they are to be found in some cities.

The IBWL was under constant pressure to remove the ban on the killing and export of certain rare mammals, birds and reptiles of commercial value. However, JCW and his colleagues held firm and did not agree to the exploitation of the natural sources of these species for commercial purposes. Even so, a window was opened to the establishment of breeding farms for crocodiles, pythons and peacocks. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was to close this window as well.

JCW was very keen on public education campaigns on wild life protection.  He spoke about this at least twice at the Lalitha Mahal Palace meeting. Two years earlier K.M. Munshi had launched Vanmahotsav and JCW may well have had this mind. As a result of the IBWL’s advocacy, the observance of an annual wild life week was started in 1956. Since then the first week of October every year is being observed as wild life week. The celebration of this week with great fanfare and the political importance given to it by Nehru first and Indira Gandhi later has played an important role in creating public awareness of and sensitivity to the necessity of preserving wild life.

VII

JCW gave the IBWL a solid start. In early 1953, the first comprehensive treatise on wild life preservation in India was published out of Bangalore. It makes for great reading even after sixty seven years. Not surprisingly, JCW underwrote the publication of this masterly volume.

 

But ill-health dogged him and he spent less and less time on the IBWL. By the early 1960s, it was meeting without his physical presence. Finally, as I have mentioned earlier Indira Gandhi replaced him by Dr. Karan Singh in July 1969. But in reality she took charge and functioned as a Super Chairman very often directing Karan Singh what to do and what not to do. Like JCW’s fascination for the lion, Indira Gandhi was besotted with the tiger. The first time she saw a tiger in the wild was in broad daylight on October 19 1955 not far from here. She was on her way to Jog Falls and that night she wrote to her father:

Here I am after all. And truly it’s a sight worth seeing. The scenery all along the road was very lovely too, although the road itself was deplorable. Just as I was being told that there is no likelihood of seeing any wild animal at that time of the forenoon and in this season when water is plentiful throughout the forest, a tiger, magnificent creature, sauntered across the road just in front of our car.

Twenty three years later on May 28 1978 she would write to her grandchildren from Nagarhole:

Dadi is far from you and from Delhi […] We spent a night at a game sanctuary in Nagarhole. As it was dark we could not see much. Still, we spotted lots of deer and sambhar and bisons. At night the deer were barking […]

I have dealt extensively with this little known aspect of this compelling, charismatic but controversial woman in my book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature  that was published in 2017. On her return to power in January 1980 she took direct charge of a completely revamped National Board of Wild Life. She remains India’s first and last Prime Minister for whom ecological balance, environmental protection, forest conservation and wild life preservation was a daily passion. Unlike others, she summoned the will and courage to walk the talk in such matters.  Had JCW been in better health, he and Indira Gandhi would have formed a formidable duo because their concerns and interests on nature and wild life converged perfectly.

Incidentally, a couple of days back the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi had this wonderful photograph on page 1. It was taken in Nagarhole and is unusual because we have national bird, the national heritage mammal and the national animal all in the same frame.

 

VIII

I had occasion to see JCW in person only once and this was in the late 1960s. I was standing outside the post office in Chikmagalur and he sped by with folded hands in his open limousine as he acknowledged the cheers of those standing on the roadside. Growing up in extraordinary privilege, he achieved much on his own merit but sadly his life was cut short when perhaps the best was yet to come. I would like to conclude by recalling something he had said on November 25 1952 at Lalitha Mahal Palace:

"As the results of the abuse of natural resources take a long time to reveal themselves and as natural recuperative forces are likewise slow in their operation, any plan and programme for protection of Nature, and conservation of natural resources will have necessarily to be based on a long-range policy well above the whims and fancies of party politics. It had to be handed on a National rather than a local footing."

That is a poignantly powerful message we continue to ignore at our individual and collective peril.

Thank you.

Related Link:

Ramesh, J. 2020. Lecture: A Prime Minister and a Naturalist, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, March 5.

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