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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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June 26, 2020

Madhya Pradesh is Declared the 'Tiger State' of India

On 26 June, 1995, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was declared the preeminent ‘Tiger State’ of India. The government of Madhya Pradesh was lauded for its conservation efforts; its tiger population constituted some 10% of all living tigers.

Rulers and states in India have always used animals as a totem of both their people and their power. In Rajasthan, for instance, that position was taken for a time by the wild boar, the hunting of which was forbidden by local kings who sought to embody its resilience and fierceness. It is relatively well known that Independent India’s national animal is the Bengal Tiger, the Indian population of the tiger subspecies Panthera tigris tigris. It is perhaps less well known that the appellation is a new one. In April 1973, the Indian government under Indira Gandhi began the endeavor known as Project Tiger, announcing a national campaign to save India’s dwindling tiger populations - and declaring the tiger the new national animal, s symbol of India’s pride and majesty. The reasons for which this happened reveal much about the Indian state in those days - and the Indian state now.

The tiger itself wasn’t an unusual choice. Countless South Asian rulers and dynasties have tied themselves to the symbol of the tiger. The Indus Valley Civilization featured tigers on their seals, the Cholas on their coins, and Tipu Sultan of Mysore on the crest of his dynasty. At the same time as the British colonial government of India displayed Bengal tigers on their coins, their enemies in the Azad Hind Fauj put a tiger on their flag. The tiger, in brief, had always loomed large in the Indian popular imagination.

Why did Indira Gandhi need such a symbol? The 1970s were a time of change of India. The nation had only recently struggled out of droughts, famines, and unimaginably devastating food crises. The Congress Party that had ruled India since Independence, while still standing strong, was no longer the only player in state-level, or even national, politics; regional parties and dissidents from within the Congress were gaining strength. India’s victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan had brought a wave of popular support for the Congress, but that wave was showing signs of receding by 1973 amidst further droughts, high inflation, and rampant poverty. What was needed was a new national project, an embodiment of a united India and a way for the country to take pride in itself. The tiger became that project. Under the centralized authority of Indira Gandhi’s government, the Indian state descended upon forests all over the country, declaring them ‘national parks’ and ‘reserves’ and setting up conservation measures. The campaign to save the tiger had begun.

What does ‘conservation’ mean, in this context? To the government, it meant protecting the tigers from contact with humans at all. To the people living in and around these various reserves (numbering at least in the hundreds of thousands), it meant being ‘resettled’ - a euphemism for brutal evictions and forced relocations - and deprived of the livelihoods they had practiced for generations. Ever since 1973, there have been periodic evictions of the often tribal inhabitants of these forest regions. The incidents are too numerous to list completely - Morichjhanpi in the Sundarbans, Sariska, in Rajasthan, Kahna in Madhya Pradesh. The enthusiasm for tiger conservation was still riding high in 1995, when Madhya Pradesh was granted the title of ‘Tiger State’. It lost that title to the state of Karnataka in 2010 after a dip in tiger numbers, upon which the state government ramped up conservation activities until it regained the title in 2019.

The history of tiger conservation in India doesn’t just reflect the constant attempts by Indian governments to create grand, national projects. It also reveals the priorities of the Indian state, then and now. The decision was made that the pride, international appeal, and allure of the tiger was more important than the well-being of the lives destroyed by the conservation efforts. Though Save the Tiger is still important, it has since been eclipsed by other, even grander national projects, economic, industrial, and military. Tracking these projects is often the best way to reveal the priorities of governments today, and tomorrow.

Sahaj Sankaran

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