I am the national animal of India. There rests my pride. Beyond that I am variedly a man-eater, a hunter’s proud trophy, a caged majestic wonder in zoos, an excellent subject for wildlife photography and a tourist attraction.
My name and image is arbitrarily appropriated by armed rebels, politicians who have nine lives like a cat, dog owners and any coward who pretends to be a braveheart. In films, I have been tamed to accept defeat as the bare-handed hero is scripted to epitomise valour. Even a balm has been named after me.
For all this I have never been paid royalty. Neither have I been mean enough to sue anyone for copyright abuse.
I lived in the jungles, my ancestral home, never bothering to visit you. At the turn of the 20th century my Indian family was around one-lakh strong. Since then, your population has grown to such numbers that can’t even be entered in calculators or the ones in-built in an iPhone. During the same period you came uninvited to shrink my numbers to just 1,700-odd and confine my home to sanctuaries which make it easy for poachers to locate us and tourist operators to make money.
Now, citing my dwindling family, conservationists tap global funds. Journalists write about me to win awards.
You hunted the deer and such other herbivores that were my natural prey to starve me like Oliver Twist. What then shall I do except to venture out looking for food in a lost habitat on which you had strayed? Yes, I ate three of you out of hunger. Not out of revenge. For, I am conscious that avenging injustice is the sole right of actors on screen and politicians off screen.
But can you kill me sans an opportunity to defend myself? Has any human being ever been hanged for killing me or my fellow citizens of the Animal Kingdom?
Even Veerappan was shot not for poaching my friends but for abducting and killing your friends. If at all Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan go to jail for hunting my friends, your friends including eminent retired judges will recommend mercy for them. If justice still prevails, they will be in jail on days they are not out on parole.
Just this week the Supreme Court spared the noose for 15 killers. Of them four had killed 22 people, two had killed eight of their own family and one man eliminated his five minor daughters. I ate just three. You could have caged me or pushed me into the wild. I too wanted to live like the 15 condemned prisoners.
What pained me is that even Valmik Thapar, Ullas Karanth and George Schaller, who I believed were my friends, let me down saying I deserved to die for preying on my predators.
Indian gods own animals as vehicles. Lord Ayyappa rides on me. But even they failed to protect me. Was it because I was an atheist? No courts were moved to save me from imminent death in the past fortnight. Was it because I didn’t live by the law of the land but the law of the jungle?
Wait. Don’t rush to sue me for religious sacrilege or contempt of judiciary. For, I am dead. Nay, I was killed. May you rest in peace!