Kolkata, April 18, Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi on Wednesday termed West Bengal as the only place in the country where illegal killing of wild animals is "allowed and encouraged", prompting an angry reaction from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who demanded an apology from the minister for "insulting adivasis" (tribals).
Days after a Royal Bengal tiger was gruesomely killed in Lalgarh forest of West Midnapore district, Gandhi took a dig at Banerjee, accusing her of not taking action against the culprits to save her vote bank.
Referring to the hunting festival known as 'Shikar Utsav' in the Ayodhya Hill area in Purulia district during Buddha Purnima, Gandhi claimed that thousands of animals are killed every year and said the festival should be banned immediately.
"Thousands of so-called tribals come to the forests around Lalgarh and kill thousands of animals every year. This year was no exception. They do not kill the animal for themselves. They are being used by smugglers and poachers and the state forest department has done nothing about this," said Gandhi, also an animal activist.
"West Bengal is the only place in India where such illegality is allowed and encouraged. It is extremely important to stop the 'Shikar Utsav' here," she said.
"The point is that, if the Chief Minister was interested she could have stopped it in two minutes. But it is all about the vote bank. If 10,000-15,000 animals die for the sake of securing the vote bank, what can you do?" the minister said.
On April 13, the tiger, that had strayed into the forest, was found dead with multiple wounds, including a spear thrust into its body. There are allegations that the big cat was killed by hunters.
Soon after Gandhi's comments were aired by television channels, Banerjee came up with a hard-hitting statement, calling the minister's remarks "unwarranted".
"I am saddened that a Union Minister has made unwarranted comments about a community. She said that Adivasis are poachers and they torture animals. I feel she should apologise to the Adivasi community.
"With people like them in the Cabinet, the government as well as the nation is in a precarious situation. I completely condemn the comment made by her. Adivasi brothers and sisters are our assets. Is she aware how many forests and deep forests we have in Bengal? Does she know how many tigers, elephants, rhinos, bisons or deer are there in Bengal?" she asked.
Banerjee wondered how the minister came to know the animal was killed by the Adivasis.
"Many people have different theories about the death of the tiger... The Union Minister is commenting without knowing anything about Bengal's culture,' she said.
"She must apologise to the nation. Bengal has a rich culture and heritage. She has no right to insult Bengal and Adivasis. We will not tolerate it. People of Bengal will give a befitting reply," she added.
Banerjee claimed that curious people had come to see the tiger after it had died.
"Even when people die, relatives and others come to pay their respects. How can she compare this with Shikar Utsav? She cannot ridicule a tradition of the Adivasi community?
"In her bid to insult Bengal, she has insulted Adivasis. I am the last person to tolerate it. People of all communities, religions and cultural backgrounds live together in harminy in Bengal. She does not understand this culture. Their culture is creating divisions among people," Banerjee added.