KOHIMA, SEPTEMBER 14: “I didn’t mean to cause hurt to any people. I have nothing against Nagas. My anger was towards those who threatened to kill and eat dogs. How can someone kill a dog?”
Hema Chowdhary, the angry animal rights activist whose objectionable video landed her in Nagaland’s jail is unapologetic about her aversion to people who eat dogs, or for that matter harm the “bezubaan” animals. But the Founder and Managing Director of Bezubaan Public Welfare Trust, a Mumbai-based animal welfare organization, says, “I am not a racist, and I never intended to cause harm to any Nagas.”
In a tête-à-tête with Nagaland Page at Kohima, Hema Chowdhary, who is currently out on bail, spoke about her career in Bollywood, memories of growing up in Hoogly district of West Bengal looked after by her grandmother, her passionate dedication towards the welfare of animals and the trauma of being locked up behind bars in an unfamiliar place far away from her family. She justified the motive behind the “derogatory” video. And she spoke of the kindness shown to her by Nagas.
Hema Chowdhary grew up without a father after her parents separated when she was a child. Her initial education was in rural Bengal and during her teens she had shifted to Mumbai. Chowdhary stepped into Bollywood, first employed as a Clap Girl. She claims to have worked with directors like David Dhavan, Raj Kumar Santoshi and handling events for the 1990s hit comedy hero Govinda. The animal rights activists had a stint in Kenya as a production manager of a news channel and worked in the costume department of Zee TV. She then started her own events management business handling star appearances for various events. The 43-year-old also owns a production house and has produced a Bhojpuri movie. Currently, her source of income is a guest house at Mumbai and an event-management company dealing in corporate events. According to Hema, her “food habits are like the English,” and she has traveled to many foreign countries. Saying that, Chowdhary who faces charges of racism makes a point, “I am well-traveled. I am a tourist. I am not a racist.” And yet even as she launched into rhetoric, it was evident that use of strong language, deemed offensive and which caused her much grief, she was true to her nature.
Hema Chowdhary has the tendency of resorting to politically incorrect vitriol when provoked, more so when provoked by cruelty shown towards animals. Even before she had landed in hot soup for her tirade against “dog-eating Nagas,” Hema had employed equally strong and violent vocabulary in her video while reacting to the incident of killing of a “pregnant” elephant in Mallapuram, Kerala.
“I was already immensely distressed by the murder of the elephant in Kerala. And then soon after these photos of dogs tied in gunny sacks flooded social media and signature campaign demanding ban on dog meat in Nagaland happened. We got more signatures than targeted and I was happy when the Honourable Chief Minister of Nagaland banned killing of dogs and sale of dog meat.” Nagaland banned dog meat on July 3 after a petition started by journalist, parliamentarian and animal rights activist Pritish Nandy, and an organization called People For Animals. The ban on dog meat sparked a huge debate with some lauding the move, while many others including well-known intellectuals terming it as food-fascism.
“Even after the ban, people started posting that they are still killing and eating dogs. I am known for my work for animal welfare and people were tagging me on posts about dog killing. They wanted me to take a stand. That was when I made the video.” Hema’s video was created on July 5, a few days after the Nagaland Government ban. The run up to the ban also witnessed controversial and misleading statements by PFA-India, whose Founder and Chairperson is Maneka Gandhi.
“I was emotional, and my words came out wrong,” Hema accepts, and says that after her brother pointed out the use of the word “chinky” in her video, she immediately apologized. Questioned as to why she threatened to cause bodily harm in her video, Hema sought to justify her actions saying that some people were trolling and insisting that no one can stop them from eating dogs. “I was outraged and I meant to say that somebody kills a dog in front of me, I will cut their neck. I cannot imagine someone killing a dog.”
“Many wrote that dog meat is part of traditional cuisine. You stay in Mumbai and Bangalore and you claim that you can’t do without dog meat; that means you are killing dogs here. That’s why I said we need to check their eating habits. I won’t allow dog killing to happen if I can.”
Hema confesses to not watching a single video of China’s controversial Yulin (dog meat) festival. “If I see I will die.” She claims feeding hundreds of strays every day and mostly from her own pocket. “Animals that we serve, they wait for us, look ahead to our visits. And I have been in jail for this long away from them.”
Chowdhary was arrested by a Nagaland Police team on July 17 at Mumbai and brought to Nagaland on July 20 after a Mumbai court granted a transit remand for 4 days on July 18. The animal rights activist feels that she had set out to do good and protect animals and for that she didn’t deserve to be made to undergo the “traumatic” ordeal of being “arrested like a criminal” and lodged in jail for almost 2 months. “We (animal rights activists) have to spend whole days in Police stations to get a case registered for cruelty against animals. And here I am arrested and put inside the jail.”
“Even one day in the jail seemed like forever. The jail is cold. And I was traumatized, more so as there were no familiar faces, and no family around.” Hema says that her morale has been crushed. “I am broken mentally, physically and also financially.” But, she quips, “The only good thing to come out of my time in jail is that I have lost 10 kgs weight.”
Despite her “traumatic experience” Hema says she was moved by the kindness of Nagas. Narrating her encounters with Naga people, mostly women, starting from the cop who arrested her, she stated, “Even before coming to Nagaland, I didn’t say Nagas are bad people. Now of course it’s a different story. Nagas are great people.” “But,” she pauses, “now if I say Nagas are good, people and social media will construe it as something I am saying to save my skin. But I shall still say Nagas have been very good to me.”
Going by the narratives surrounding Hema Chowdhary’s days in Kohima jail, the jailed animal activist has been showered with the famous Naga hospitality with all concerned ensuring that she doesn’t suffer due to lack of proper food and company. After being released on bail, she has been receiving guests, all women. Talking to Nagaland Page, one of the women who had made acquaintance with Hema said, “She still doesn’t understand that she has done wrong. But she speaks her mind, and doesn’t hold back. She is not a bad person; just that she shouldn’t have said what she said and judged our food habits.”
Hema claims that she spoke “without thinking.” “But I can commit mistakes also; I am not perfect.
“But I am not one of those celebrities who say something to please those in power. I said what I said but not with any ulterior motive or agenda. I said it because I love animals.”
Hema then concludes, “People were trolling me that I should love humans first. If I love animals, where is the question I don’t love human? I love animals and that means I am kind.”
Interestingly, Maneka Gandhi’s People For Animals India which went all hammer and tongs screaming for ban on dog meat consumption in Nagaland has stayed away from the Hema Chowdhary ordeal. While many animal rights NGOs gathered in Mumbai to show their solidarity for Hema, PFA-India was nowhere in the picture. PFA-India had also courted controversy, even before the infamous Hema Chowdhary video by a grossly misleading statement on social media, which they later removed following an outrage. In their posts on Twitter and Instagram, PFA-India had claimed that “All the dogs are now being brought in from outside the state as Nagaland has eaten all its own dogs.” The statement which is evidently incorrect was removed by the organization from its social media accounts but despite demands that they tender an apology to the people of Nagaland, the PFA-India has refused to do so till date. A petition on Change.org was started by a group of people in Nagaland on July 6, which garnered 9300 endorsements. But even that couldn’t solicit an apology from the biggest animal welfare organization in the country. And no action against them has been taken till date.