Of Lions and Men: Pakistani Elections and Feline Symbolism

This spring six museums in Copenhagen exhibit collections of art and handicraft depicting flowers. As a visitor to the museum called Davids Samling – which houses the most exquisite collection of Islamic art in Denmark – one learns that in the Indian subcontinent prior to 1707 flowers were often depicted naturalistically. However, when in that year Aurangzeb ascended the Peacock Throne, a more stylistic representation of flowers came into vogue. Thus we are given to understand that when strict Islamic beliefs began to assert themselves, artists moved away from nature and closer to a standardized ideal. The museum also notes the exception that proves the rule: Poisonous plants continued to be depicted naturalistically even in times of Islamic reassertion.

But does this pendulum swings theory of art history set between the stern Islamic renderings of the living world and naturalistic renderings of the same world tell the whole story? Perhaps this generalization should be supplemented to include a third rendering of nature, which is neither stylized, nor naturalistic.  The recent elections in Pakistan would seem to indicate that even in the Land of the Pure, baroque and quasi-naturalistic forms of art asserted themselves in the space between science and religion.

This was evident in the campaign of Nawaz Sharif, the winner of the elections.  Both before and after the elections, Nawaz Sharif was virtually lionized as his party and followers played heavily on royal symbolism equating their chosen leader with the top predator of the natural world, i.e. the lion.  Equipped with the “fair, unused hand[s] of a wealthy Kashmiri-Punjabi” (Sethi 2013), the chubby rotund Nawaz Sharif hardly resembles a clawed feline predator. Nevertheless, in the streets of Pakistan and at party meetings his followers greeted him holding aloft lion toys or they painted themselves and their vehicles in feline stripes to give substance to their collective representation. Those fortunate enough to be invited to Nawaz Sharif’s garish palatial Punjabi home in Raiwind close to Lahore were treated to the sight of two stuffed lions guarding the staircase. The lions (imported from Zimbabwe) serve as the party symbol, and – said the granddaughter – as symbols of Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif, whose term as Chief Minister of Punjab helped Nawaz secure an electoral victory (Sethi 2013).

Lions were not the only predators with which the Sharif brothers were equalized. Tigers and leopards, too, were indiscriminately held forth as the symbol of the brothers and their party. All of this would seem to be an instance of a popular political culture throwing Islamic cautions to the winds by neglecting the call for stylization, while also not heeding the scientific call for the accurate identification and portrayal of the species found in nature. Tigers, lions and leopards are all big cats and top predators. As such they seem to be equally good to think with and hence they are evoked interchangeably in popular political imagination. Tellingly, the word sher is used for two of these species, i.e. for the lion and for the tiger (Madsen 2007). Altogether, the feline symbolism that infused the election campaigns exemplifies the powerful ways in which nature is widely used as a metaphor for human society (Madsen 2004-5).

The Pakistan Muslim League (N) won a resounding victory securing 35% of the votes and winning 45% of the seats in the National Assembly. In Punjab the party gained 49% of the vote securing an impressive 78% of the seats. Had not Imran Khan (the cricketer whose luxuriant mane more obviously entitles him to be considered the true lion of men) been around to challenge Nawaz and Shahbaz, the Muslim League might have won 60% of the votes in Punjab (Dawn.com 2013).

For sure, the lions had it in the worlds of the humans, but that did not mean that the real lions and tigers had a field day. During the election campaign, the Muslim League fielded a striking female white tiger. The animal was securely chained, placed on a vehicle and repeatedly paraded around as part of the election campaign. Nawaz Sharif’s own daughter was one of the persons engaging in this stunt. The party had apparently rented the white tiger from “a former PML(N) MNA, Mian Marghoob, who owns a large farm in Mehmood Booti in Lahore” (Khan 2013). This piece of symbolic politics stretched the natural world to the limit. Just before the election day, the tiger was reported to have died, but soon after this tragic-comic news was broadcast, it was contradicted by reports to the effect that the tiger was alive and well and had only suffered a minor ailment for which it had been successfully treated.  As of May 15, it was still not certain whether the animal had survived, but it seemed certain that a legal case had already been filed in the Lahore High Court by animal rights activist and actor Faryal Gauhar against the Muslim League. Wrote Rina Saeed Khan:

“The first hearing has taken place already and the next hearing will take place at the Green Bench in Lahore headed by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah tomorrow. The complainant would like to see a ban on displaying big cats in rallies and improvements in private facility inspections. The Election Commission of Pakistan will be called as well since they are the ones who agreed to awarding the “sher” as an election symbol in the first place” (Khan 2013).

Pakistani is still home to leopards and snow leopards in small numbers, but both tigers and lions are extinct. The only place on the Indian subcontinent where the Asiatic lion survives is the Gir forest in the state of Gujarat (Madsen 2007). The lion population in Gujarat is currently healthy, but in order to ensure its long-term survival it was proposed years ago to move some of the lions from Gir to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh as a fallback option in case the Gujarat population would come under threat. This plan was resisted by people about to be affected by the proposed translocation. They did not fancy lions in their area. However, resistance proved fruitless and the Madhya Pradesh government has eventually managed to relocate 1,545 families from 24 villages in the Kuno-Palpur wildlife sanctuary to make room for the lions. This human hurdle overcome, one might expect that the translocation of lions would be carried out.  But lo and behold! The Gujarat government did not want to let go of the lions which they consider theirs:

“The Gujarat government argued that the lions in Gir were doing well, they were protected, they had enough food and therefore there was no need for relocation. It went further by arguing that even though it was reasonable to conclude that restricting  an endangered species to one area could lead to its extinction and that the translocation site in MP was a sound choice, the lions of Gujarat were like family and hence decisions had to go beyond ‘scientific reasoning’ . Chief Minister Narendra Modi had personally put his heft behind this argument” (Economic and Political Weekly 2013)

The case came up in the Supreme Court of India which quashed the “anthropocentric” argument in favor of an “eco-centric” argument delinking the protection of lions from the particular site and people who had hitherto allowed them to survive. The court found that the lions were Asiatic lions, not Gujarati lions. The Gujaratis may well claim that they do have a special relation to the lions. After all, nowhere else has the Asiatic lion (which differs only a little from the African subspecies) been allowed to survive (Madsen 2007). But this argument did not persuade the court which ruled in favor of translocation based on scientific and universalistic reasoning, rather than in favor of status quo based on ethnic and historical reasoning.

Now that Nawaz Sharif has already been invited to India in the latest of umpteen attempts to mend the fences between the hostile South Asian neighbors, one might suggest that some lions be relocated to Pakistan, too.  Would it not behoove for India’s likely future Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an act of public diplomacy to let himself be cast in the role of the magnanimous dispenser of symbolic political capital, and would it not be wise for Nawaz Sharif to supplement his human stock of uncontrollable jihadist wards with a few free-roaming feline wards less likely to turn against him?

Stig Toft Madsen

Senior Research Fellow, NIAS


Dawn.Com, “The Election Score”, 16 May 2013, http://dawn.com/2013/05/16/the-election-score/

Economic and Political Weekly, “The Lions in Gujarat. The Supreme Court judgment marks a welcome move away from anthropocentrism”, Editorial, 18 May 2013, p. 8

Khan, Rina Saeed, “The mysterious case of the white tigress”, 15 May 2013, Dawn News, http://dawn.com/2013/05/15/the-mysterious-case-of-the-white-tigress/

Madsen, Stig Toft, “Musharraf lets in the lions”, Asiaportal, 29 November 2007, https://infocus.asiaportal.info/2007/11/29/novembermusharraf-lets-lions%E2%80%9D-by-stig-toft-madsen/

Madsen, Stig Toft, 2004-5, “Narratives of Nature as Metaphors of Society”, Folk 46/47: 121-141

Sethi, Mira, “Watch the throne: Nawaz Sharif on the cusp of power”, 1 April 2013, Caravan, http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reportage/watch-throne

May 23, 2013