Sunday, 16 July, was a little different for Berliners. On that day, they were treated to a rare spectacle at Hoppegarten, one that animal lovers said was fit for the 'Roman circus'. About 15 elephants raced along a 200-metre track for the Maharaja Cup, a first-of-its-kind event in Europe, organised to celebrate India's 50 years of Independence. The idea was the brainchild of the only non-white mayor in Germany, Ravindra Gujjala. An India-born doctor, Gujjala created history when he won the mayoral elections in Altlandsberg in Brandenburg, in 1993 and 1998. He thought of the elephant race as simply "a good opportunity to promote Indian culture".
But it also became an opportunity for Maneka Gandhi and animal rights activists to voice their displeasure. In an interview to Der Spiegel (published in its July 3 issue), Maneka said she had written to Dr Gujjala how sad it was for the animals, already under pressure, to run such a race. The animals were mostly of Indian origin working in German circuses. She claimed that the mayor was insensitive and had said that India had a long tradition of elephant race.
"She is lying," fumed the angry mayor. "Maneka Gandhi did not get in touch with me officially or unofficially. Can she show any letter? Or my reply?" But the social justice and animal welfare minister wasn't the only one protesting. There were protests in Germany too. The organisation of zoo directors and Nabu (Naturschutzbund) or the Nature Protection Group published joint statements asking people to boycott the race. They were joined by German rock star and India-lover, Nina Hagen, and French actress Brigitte Bardot, now an animal rights activist. Rumours were that Bardot would chain herself on the track to stop the race, though it did not happen eventually.
But they did write to the Indian embassy. As did the animal protection groups. On the day of the race itself, there were a few Nabu protesters and some from the Tierschutzpartei (animal protection party). But the police managed to clear them from the scene before any disruption could occur.
"Such a spectacle is not fit for our times," said the Berlin Zoo director, Dr Bernhard Blaszkiewitz. "Circus elephants can't run. They're not used to it." When one of the event organisers, Frank Brenneke, told Berliner Zeitung that zoos and animal parks use the animals commercially round the year, the zoo director said that the animals there are given proper care. "In zoos they walk at their own leisure. They're not forced to run." On his part, Gujjala said, "they at least got a chance to walk during practice, which they normally don't." A German resident for 42 years, Sirtaj Sarup, said animals go against their nature to perform tricks in a circus. Here it was just a gentle walk at a speed of nine km per hour. The word "race" was just used to attract people since a march wouldn't have sounded popular.
Unconvinced, Wolfgang Rodes, in charge of species protection at Nabu, averred: "Wild animals should not be made into cartoons. That's what happens in circuses and happened at Hoppegarten on Sunday." His organisation was also worried about the possibility of the elephants running amok. "Though they are circus elephants, they are not used to performing with other elephants they don't know or running in front of a 40,000-strong crowd."
Nothing of the sort happened. And Gujjala considers the event as another mark of his success. It generated a lot of interest in India, just as the infotech professionals controversy had a while ago. "The Kinder statt Inder was politics. But people came to know that India is doing well and has brilliant experts. As an Indian, I feel proud."
Asked if the event did not reinforce the stereotype of India being an exotic land, where elephants roam its streets, and fakirs and snake-charmers inhabit its corners, Gujjala disagreed. "Our intention was not to project India as a progressive country or a backward state. Our aim was to make people interested. And that we did successfully. This was a major event and more than 40,000 people turned up."
Bolstering his claim was Sarup, who was in charge of the Indian bazaar and cultural programme at the event. He too saw nothing wrong with projecting India as a land of fakirs, elephants and maharajas. They're a part of Indian tradition, he felt. "People naturally associate these with India."
In fact, the event was attended by a maharaja, Gaj Singh of Marwar-Jodhpur, and the Princess of Gwalior, Yashodhara Raje Scindia, even though Maneka Gandhi had tried to dissuade them from doing so. Says Gujjala: "I managed to make them understand that no animal was being hurt and measures were being taken to see that they were safe." As for the royal presence, Gujjala thought they added the fairy-tale allure to the event. "After all you associate elephants with kings. Besides, the maharaja has elephants in his state and plays polo riding them. So who else should be here?"
Sarup's in full agreement with the mayor. He doesn't see any harm either in inviting a maharaja or a princess to represent India before the Western world. "Don't the subjects still pay respect to their maharajas even today?" he asks.
Gujjala's happy with the outcome of the programme. "It has boosted tourism," he says. "There were travel agents at the fest. And people flocked to know more about trips to India. There was also a lottery which entitled the winner to a trip to India and a stay at an Indian palace."
Conspicuously absent at the event were people from the Indian embassy. Was it because of the furore created by Maneka Gandhi and other animal lovers? "No," clarified Gujjala hastily. "The ambassador said he couldn't come because of personal reasons. He didn't stay away." Defiantly, he added: "Anyway I am happy that the programme was attended by Germans instead of the other way round where only the embassy people attended and no Germans came."
Explaining the embassy's stand, Punit Agarwal, second secretary (political) at the Indian embassy in Berlin, said: "The Mayor of Altlandsberg is a German citizen and the programme is sponsored by a private company. The embassy has no role to play, even though the occasion was India's 50 years of independence." He denied that it was under pressure from Maneka Gandhi, and said they had received no letter from her asking them to stay away or stop the race. "It (the race) was attended by 40,000 Germans. Whereas we organise functions mainly for the Indians here. Of course Germans too are invited but our main target is our people." Besides, clarified Agarwal, ambassador Ronen Sen had personal work while the rest of the embassy people abstained because the programme was held about an hour's drive from the embassy, which was a bit far.
In the end, for the crowds, it was an exotic feast too tempting to resist. The entire German and foreign press was present. And that leaves Ravindra Gujjala a satisfied man. The mayor, who has won the confidence of German voters with his work, has proved again that he can pull crowds. "I wanted people to get over their negative attitude towards India," he says even as he admits that "with one or two functions such as these you can't change things. More understanding is needed and more tolerance." The cultural exchange, he hopes, will be an auspicious beginning.