Murder of a horse: An elegy

John Dayal
John DayalApr 22, 2016 | 10:27

Murder of a horse: An elegy

They don't shoot horses. Not in India. But they did murder one. Shaktiman.

Shaktiman is the second most famous horse in Indian history. The first is Chetak, "who ran as the wind", as the balladeer sang. The third is a figure on a seal from the Indus Valley Civilisation, whose authenticity is as hotly contested as the cause of death of Shaktiman last week in Uttarakhand.


The two animals and the figure, are now part of the contested political narrative of the Indian landscape in which Hindutva seeks to establish deep roots, seeking legitimacy as the sole voice of nationalism and Hindu-Indian identity.

The Harappan "horse" is being used to "prove" that the Aryans are indigenous people of the Indian landmass, and not invaders from central Asia. Scientists have challenged this thesis, pointing out that the horse is native to central Asia, and the only relative in India is the wild ass of the Rann.

Shaktiman, its gender not clear to newspaper and television reporters who variously called it a mare, a stallion and a gelding, was a victim of this contestation. It is now being mentioned in the same breath as Chetak, the legendary mount of the valiant Rajput warrior Maharana Pratap who fell in battle against a Muslim foe.

Pratap and Chetak, together in a thousand statues or more across the nation, is an important persona, ballads to him a part of folklore, but more important, his use by right-wing political ideologues to retro-construct a religious-nationalist confrontation out of a territorial expansionist military campaign.


Shaktiman, a handsome white specimen of equine strength and grace, was a police horse, one of several thousand employed across the country in mounted squadrons to patrol lonely stretches of the countryside or urban concrete jungles, but more often used to contain and control people during mass protests.

The Mughals used them as the only mobile force, the British used them both for ceremonial show of strength and for controlling civilian populations by brute force without actually firing at the crowds. Indian Police continued with the practise. Delhi police also uses them.

The Uttarakhand Police was trying to control an unruly crowd of the BJP protesters during the recent crisis and dismissal of the Congress government of chief minister Harish Rawat. Television footage now widely available on the internet show Shaktiman and his police constable handler facing the crowd when suddenly BJP legislator Ganesh Joshi attacks him, repeatedly using a thick cane to hit at its legs. The horse rears up in retreat. The MLA continues its assault as another person drags the horse down. Somewhere in the assault, the horse traps its leg in steel railings along the road, and falls. It has suffered multiple fractures, and will never walk again.


But it was not a painless death. Elsewhere in the world, service horses and race horses who are rendered lame or have some other grievous injuries are shot dead, as much to put them humanely out of their pain and misery, as for the understanding that it will never be able to really enjoy the quality of life it deserves, even if pharmacological and surgical procedures restore its limbs in some measure.

Shaktiman's tragedy had caught the nation's attention. There was no question of euthanasia. Veterinary surgeons and policemen waged a losing battle to help the horse. The fractured leg was put in a plaster cast. But gangrene set in, and surgeons amputated the leg, putting a temporary prosthetic to help it balance itself when standing.

Later, a special prosthetic leg was procured from the US, gifted by an animal lover who had been moved by its story. The leg seemed to fit, and the horse was said to be recovering. The political developments overtook its story. Till April 21 when TV channels announced that Shaktiman was dead.

The news stunned the nation. And, revived the political storm.

The Congress, on a winning wicket in the Uttarakhand High Court against the Narendra Modi cabinet's dismissing the Rawat ministry in Dehradun, demanded action against the legislator, Ganesh Joshi. Joshi and his daughter had pleaded innocence. The party had backed them. Central welfare minister, Maneka Gandhi, a well-known animal lover, had asked for a ban on mounted police squadrons. In a last desperate move, the state BJP unit said the horse had died because of medical negligence.

Shaktiman was buried amidst showers of flower petals, and tears of its handlers in the Uttaranchal Police.

Ganesh Joshi says he will amputate his own leg if he is proved guilty.

But in India, they mercifully don't cut the legs of healthy politicians, even if they are guilty of mindless violence which leads to the death of a horse, even one as beautiful as Shaktiman. He was just a horse.

Last updated: April 23, 2016 | 14:03
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