Once upon a time, all the animals in the jungle killed each other and took the loser’s territory. If they were strong enough they held on to it, if not they lost it again. This was the law of the jungle and things had always been done this way. No one complained because there was nothing to complain about.
Then one moonlit night an idea came to Aashka the Tiger as he sat by the river. Wouldn’t it be better, he thought, if instead of killing each other and taking each other’s territory, all the animals agreed to be satisfied with the territories they now possessed?
The next morning he convened a meeting and presented his idea to all the other animals. At first they wondered if this was some kind of trick. Constant fighting was just what the animals did. This new idea was so strange that it took many of the stupider animals an hour or two to understand. Yet by evening they had all more or less grasped the idea and the more they thought about it, the more they liked it. The weaker, more timid animals were specially keen on it.
So they all agreed that the Tiger’s idea should become law and they all signed a treaty, declaring that henceforth the taking of another animals’ territory would be illegal and punishable by the League of Animals.
For ten long years all the animals lived in peace and felt safe in their lands. Aashka died peacefully in his sleep one night and was succeeded as head of his clan by his son, Amir.
Soon after Amir’s accession a snake called Hiss convened a surprise meeting of the animals. They all took their seats, excitedly speculating as to what the topic of the meeting might be. After silence had descended on the assemble crowd, Hiss started to speak:
“After looking though the ancient records, I have come to the conclusion that it would be only right and proper for Amir to concede all his lands to me.”
The other animals gasped. No one had ever demanded such a thing before, and certainly not of the tigers, who were known for their ferocity. Hiss looked from one animal to the next and coolly continued:
“You see, Amir’s great-grandfather took territory from my great-grandfather in the days when the law of the jungle reined. I now feel that these lands should be returned to their proper owner, namely me.”
All the animals turned to Amir to see what his reaction would be. He sat in silence for a while, looking at Hiss, weighing him up. After some time he stood up and addressed the assembled crowd, though looking mainly at the snake:
“As you readily admit, Hiss, the transfer of territory of which you speak took place at a time when all animals, not only tigers, fought to take each other’s territory. What is now considered a crime was not then considered so. Therefore if no law was broken then, there is nothing to be put right now.”
“Come Amir”, said Hiss, “what is morally wrong today cannot have been right yesterday, simply because it took place in the past. What’s wrong is wrong, regardless of when it happened. Or do you believe that morals change so quickly that stealing is wrong on Friday but right on Saturday? You surely cannot believe such a thing!”
Hiss grinned and seemed to be encouraging the other animals to take his side. They however were waiting to see how things developed before choosing sides.
Amir then asked, “If I were to give you my lands Hiss, where do you propose I should live?”.
“Actually, they are my lands, not yours and where you live is of no concern to me,” replied Hiss. “Even so, may I suggest the frozen territory to the north. Or you could go east whence your kind originally came. After all, it was not so long ago that your clan arrived here. Snakes were here long before you came. Yet once here you immediately dominated the other animals. And when your family had control of the land it wanted, your father cunningly devised a way of keeping his stolen property in his family by sweeping aside the Law of the Jungle and introducing property rights. What was outwardly a benevolent idea was in reality a way to hang on to his ill-gotten gains. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that this idea only occurred to your father after he had all the lands he wanted?”
Amir now moved closer to Hiss and there was something threatening in his demeanour, despite his apparent calm. He replied:
“You seem very sure that your ancestors were the first animals to own this land. But what if we were to discover that your ancestors were not the first ones here after all? What if we found the ancient bones of just one tiger, or any other animal, in the ground beneath us, even deeper than the bones of snakes? Would you still claim that the first animal to stand on a piece of ground must always and forever be the owner?”
Hiss started to look a little worried. Had Amir found evidence that snakes were not the first animals to live on these lands? If so, by his own argument Hiss had absolutely no claims on any territory at all.
Amir continued. “But even it it should transpire that your family were in fact the first animals here, it was still only due to my father’s idea that the taking of another animal’s territory is now considered a crime. I agree, it is unfortunate for you that nobody before my father ever had such a thought. But we can’t choose the time at which great ideas are ready to be thought. And if my father hadn’t had his idea, the animals of the jungle would still be ripping each other limb from limb. Please remember that my father had his idea while still at the height of his powers and was more than capable of taking away even more land than he already possessed. Instead he chose to remain satisfied with what he had.”
“The truth is that we are all the children of animals who lived by a different code. The only difference between you and me, Hiss, is that your ancestors were weaker than mine and were unable to hold onto their land.”
Hiss visible stiffened.
“Yes”, continued Amir, “and had they been stronger they would undoubtedly have taken away my ancestors’ territory. And if they had done so, would you now be willing to give it back? I suspect not. All you are doing is dressing up the weakness of your ancestors as virtue. In truth, if there is one animal that can claim to have had real virtue it was my father. He was the one who changed our thinking on these matters.”
“Now Hiss, you have two choices before you. Either you can drop all this nonsense you have greedily dreamed up or you and I return to the Law of the Jungle and fight over our disputed lands. Which is it to be?”
Hiss looked a little uneasy at the prospect of fighting Amir. Hiss was good with words but little else. Amir on the other hand was known for his strength and bravery.
Amir turned to the other animals, “If the animals now assembled decide that Hiss has a case, then many among you must also give back your lands to other animals. Personally I find the backdating of a law merely to benefit one species an undignified course of action. However, if the assembled animals decide to return to the Law of the Jungle, I am ready to abide by that law and am ready to fight.”
A murmur of worry went round the animals gathered. None of them wished to see their lands confiscated, or to have to fight for them again, though there were one or two who thought they might gain from such an arrangement.
“Hiss”, Amir continued. “You seem to be under the impression that there is a third option, namely, that by making me feel guilty for the supposed sins of my ancestors I will simply hand over my lands to you without a fight. But here I must disappoint you. I can assure you I feel no guilt at all. In fact I am proud of my ancestors, both the ones who gained my lands and those who brought peace to the animals. I therefore have no intention of giving you even an inch of my territory. So, what is it to be? Will you fight me or will you honour the agreement made a generation ago by our fathers?”
All the animals of the jungle looked to the snake to see what he would say next.
But Hiss said nothing. He just made a sour face as though swallowing his own bitter venom, hissed once and slid off into the undergrowth. The matter was never raised again.