India court asks zoo to rename Sita, Akbar ‘interfaith’ lions

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An Indian court has asked authorities to find new monikers for two lions named after a Hindu goddess and a Muslim emperor, following a religious group’s petition to stop them from sharing an enclosure.

Sita and Akbar were shipped to Siliguri zoo in West Bengal this month as part of an animal exchange program from a neighboring state.

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That irked the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu organization that has campaigned against interfaith relationships.

The group took the matter to court saying the lion pair’s cohabitation was an act of “blasphemy” that hurt Hindu religious sentiments.

Justice Saugata Bhattacharyya of the Calcutta High Court asked government counsel to rename the pair on Thursday.

“These names should be avoided and discontinued to avoid unnecessary controversy,” he said from the bench, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper.

Government counsel Joyjit Choudhury told the judge that the state was “already thinking of renaming” the pair.

Sita is one of the main characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana and the wife of Ram, one of the Hindu faith’s most revered deities.

Akbar was a 16th-century Mughal emperor who extended Islamic rule over much of the Indian subcontinent -- a time some Hindu groups say was a period that their religion was oppressed.

The VHP also claimed that Akbar the lion had originally been named after Ram before the pair arrived in Siliguri.

Critics say religious intolerance towards India’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority has grown since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in 2014.

The VHP, a group loosely affiliated with Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has campaigned against interfaith marriages and supported efforts by state governments to make them more difficult.

It has also promulgated a “Love Jihad” theory that alleges India’s Muslim minority hoodwink Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam.

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