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Burying Corbett, reviving Saraswati : A question of priorities

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
18 Oct 2021
Burying Corbett, reviving Saraswati : A question of priorities by A.J. Philip of Indian Currents

Once my wife and I passed by the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. For want of time, we could not stop there. We thought of returning to the area, staying at the Park for a couple of days, going on a Safari, taking photographs and writing a column in this magazine after some time. Alas, that wish has not been fulfilled. Now that the Park has been renamed by dropping Corbett’s name, I am no longer that keen to visit the place.

I had a chapter from his masterpiece, ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon’, to study while I was at college. The lesson was so fascinating that I borrowed the original two-volume book from the local Panchayat Library and read it in one go. It also had the pictures of the various man-eaters he had killed. He saved hundreds from falling prey to the wild cats. Nobody understood the mind of a tiger or a leopard better than Edward James Corbett (1875-1955), known popularly as Jim Corbett.

To call him just a hunter is to expose one’s ignorance about him. He was one of India’s first wildlife photographers, a naturalist, tracker and author of several books which continue to be sold and read. Anybody who is born in India is an Indian citizen by birth. Corbett was not a foreigner, as he was born at Nainital in Uttarakhand, though his parents were British in origin. He loved India like no one else loved the country.

There was a time when hunting was a passion for the rich and the powerful. Maharajas of yore went on long hunting expeditions. Once, I stayed at Maharaja Martand Singh of Rewa’s palace and visited the exact spot from where he caught Mohan, the first white tiger in the country. All the white tigers in the zoos anywhere in the world are the descendants of Mohan. 

Corbett was also a hunter. He would also have killed several tigers and leopards as was the practice those days. However, he loved the people so much that he started hunting only the man-eaters and that, too, on the request of the villagers who lost their kith and kin to the wild beasts. He studied the man-eaters so much that he could reach certain conclusions about them which can only be described as incontrovertible. First, the animals do not see man as their prey.

He described how villagers collecting wood from the forests would just stand still as a tiger or a leopard crossed their path. Neither the people nor the animals saw each other as their adversaries. Then, how did some become man-eaters? In the lesson I studied, the man-eater was a female tiger.

The tiger was no longer healthy. It could not hunt deers, wild boars, antelopes and baby elephants, the meat of which it relished. So she began to look for easy food like goats and cows owned by the villagers. Sooner than later, she picked up some children. Once she got a taste of human flesh, she looked for men and women whom she could easily attack and kill. Hundreds of people were killed before Jim Corbett’s services were requisitioned.

It was not an easy job. Identifying the man-eater was the first job. And, then, tracking the animal so that she alone was killed. That was a great service he did to the people of Uttarakhand. To understand the scenario better, recently the Kerala Government allowed those with licensed guns to kill wild pigs that destroy the crops of farmers. And among those licensed to kill was a Catholic nun, if a report I read is anything to go by. 

Corbett was not a very well-educated person, let alone a scholar. He learnt everything from nature. He tried to popularise the idea of conservation. He believed in the live-and-let-live concept. He feared that if tigers were allowed to be killed, they would become extinct like the Dodo in Mauritius. The animals had every right to live as homo sapiens have. He was the first to conceive the idea of developing a National Game Sanctuary.

He took steps to set up India’s first national park in the Kumaon Hills. Initially, it was known as the Hailey National Park in honour of Lord Malcolm Hailey. Corbett was not interested in any such honours. However in 1957, two years after his death, the Government of India renamed the Park after Jim Corbett. How much he loved India and Indians is obvious from the dedication of his book, My India. 

He dedicated it to "...my friends, the poor of India”. He writes, "It is of these people, who are admittedly poor, and who are often described as 'India's starving millions', among whom I have lived and whom I love, that I shall endeavour to tell in the pages of this book, which I humbly dedicate to my friends, the poor of India." Profits from the publication of "Man-Eaters of Kumaon" were donated to St. Dunstan's, a training school for blinded veterans.

Since rewriting history to project clemency-seekers as the really brave and falsifying truth has become a national pastime, I was not surprised to read someone with a particular political orientation claiming that Jim Corbett ran away from the country when it got Independence. Such persons do not realise that Corbett was a bachelor and he depended on his sister. He was 72 in 1947, no longer in the pink of health.

Two and a half years after India attained Independence, Corbett and his sister left for Nyeri in Kenya where he died in 1955. There, he had an unforgettable experience. He was staying at a hotel, originally built for Baden-Powell, the person who started the Scouts and Guides movement. Corbett was at the Treetops, a hut built on the branches of a giant ficus tree, as the bodyguard of Princess Elizabeth when she stayed there on February 5-6, 1952. That night, her father, King George VI died, and Elizabeth ascended to the throne. Corbett wrote in the hotel's visitors' register: 

“For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day as a Princess, and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree the next day as a Queen—God bless her”. She is still the Queen! 
How would Jim Corbett have reacted to the decision to drop his name from the Park’s name? Ranjit Lal, an author, environmentalist and bird-watcher, had an imaginary conversation with Jim Corbett (Indian Express, October 13). 

The writer presented a present-day picture of the Park. After listening to him, Corbett says, “I would never rest in peace knowing that a Park of the kind you have just described is associated with my name”. It won’t matter to him whether the Park is called Sri Ramganga National Park or Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Udyan or whatever.

It is a measure of the priority of the Narendra Modi government that renaming roads, parks, towns and villages is accorded so much importance. It took only a few hours for the death of former President Abdul Kalam to rename Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi after him. Taking a cue from the idea, some Hindutva activists took the law into their own hands and renamed Akbar Road in the Capital after some imaginary or real person.

Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar, who takes pride in renaming Gurgaon as Gurugram, after Guru Dronacharya, who sought and obtained the thumb of Eklavya, is now busy spending hundreds of crores of rupees on an esoteric religious project at state cost. It is believed that there was a river called Saraswati which, over thousands of years ago, dried up. It joins with the Ganga and the Jamuna at Allahabad to create what is known as the Sangam!

When the first BJP government under AB Vajpayee came to power at the Centre, the then HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi took upon himself the job of proving to the world that the river Saraswati was not the figment of imagination but a real river like the Mandakini and the Cauvery. He sanctioned crores of rupees to conduct excavations in certain areas of Haryana. Except for finding rock and sand, nothing of any consequence was found.

That did not prevent some organisations associated with the Sangh Parivar from claiming that conclusive evidence was found about the existence of the Saraswati. It was as laughable as the Prime Minister’s claim at a meeting of scientists in Mumbai that the recreation of Ganapati with the head of an elephant and the body of a human being proved that plastic surgery originated in India.

These are matters of belief. I was a child when I saw the film Ten Commandments. What impressed me the most was the depiction of what is contained in the Bible, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” The Israelites were allowed to cross the sea but when the Egyptians followed them, the sea got united again, devouring the pursuers. I found the scene absolutely fascinating.

Today, I am free to believe or disbelieve that the incident happened. Imagine the government of Israel spending a huge sum of money to prove that what Moses did had indeed happened. The fact is that it does not matter to a true believer that whatever is described in the Bible is true or not.

To return to Haryana, Adi Badri is a place in Yamunanagar district. It is situated at the slope of the Aravalli Ranges. Under the project, a Saraswati Dam, a Saraswati Barrage and a Saraswati Reservoir will be constructed at Adi Badri. Besides this, the Markanda and Saraswati rivers will be interlinked. On completion, around 894 hectare metres of flood water will be diverted to the Saraswati reservoir. The dam is being designed by the Central Water Commission.

At a seminar on Saraswati, this is what the Chief Minister said: “The credit of the progress that is being made in the work related to the discovery of river Saraswati today, goes to the late Mr Darshan Lal Jain. Though he is not with us today, his thoughts are still with us and reviving the Saraswati River while following the path shown by him will be a true tribute to him. 

“All the doubts regarding the existence of the Saraswati river have been resolved and scientific evidence has been found for its flow. Haryana is globally known as the cradle of Vedic culture. On the sacred bank of Saraswati, our saints and sages had written Vedas and other religious texts.

“The historic war of Mahabharata, also took place in Dharmakshetra-Kurukshetra, which is situated on the banks of the Saraswati. Lord Krishna also gave the immortal message of Srimad Bhagavad Gita comprising knowledge, devotion and deed on this holy land.” My friend, Mr K. Madhavankutty is not a scientist of the late DL Jain’s calibre but he worked in the Science and Technology Department of the Government of India.

He wrote on his Facebook Timeline that there were only 33 Gods as mentioned in the Vedic Texts. All the Gods whose names we hear today were created afterwards. Of course, the Khattars can spend public money to prove that all of them really existed.

Meanwhile, the Global Hunger Index report has come. It ranks India at 101 out of 116 countries. India is behind Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, not to mention China. None of the leaders of these countries have two state-of-the-art Boeing aircraft to travel all over the world like Prime Minister Narendra Modi. None of the countries spends precious and scarce resources to prove that mythology is science and science is mythology. They are more interested in filling the bellies of their people. 

When a majority of the people do not have two square meals a day, we have a chief minister who is ready to spend hundreds of crores of rupees to revive a river that existed in the minds of some and a prime minister who can part with Rs 20,000 crore to rebuild the Central Vista in New Delhi. Look at the priorities of those in power!


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