The extraordinary human rights of animals in India


I can see it on their smug faces. Across Gurugram, cows sense a bright future. They stand on various roads looking in one direction, like before, but there are more of them than ever and they are left like this for hours by their minders because nobody now dares to evict cows; it’s not like they are mere slum dwellers. So they amble about, blocking traffic, occasionally nudging a biker and sending him rolling. Stray dogs, too, are enjoying a good life, especially after a high court clarified that they have “a right to be fed in their territory”.

For animals, India is like an advanced nation. In the West, humans talk a lot about animal welfare, but there are very few free animals. Stray dogs and cattle do not appear to have a right to life. Europe, in particular, is a complete triumph of the Biblical man. All animals are subordinate to humans, and those who cannot be subjugated have long been terminated, whole dangerous majestic species wiped out to make the world a safer place for humans. As an Indian, what I find most entertaining about Europe is that I can walk for days into a cute thing called the ‘woods’ and emerge alive. This is more difficult in the US but not improbable. It would be eventless in New Zealand where there are no snakes even.

The West talks a lot about the welfare of animals; in fact, all talk about animal welfare in India by posh people is derived from Western sermons, but it is a post-apocalypse time in the West for the animal world.

In India, a lone human may not last a day in a jungle. The animal habitat is an unambiguous space. But the human habitat is an ambiguous space that is shared by humans and animals. The law and its practice in this regard are ambiguous too. In a city, is my right of way superior to the right of a stray cow or dog? I do not know. I only know that lovers and hawkers can be removed from the streets.

Animals in India appear to have extraordinary human rights. But this emerges not from our romance with nature, because modern Indians are the worst thing that can happen to nature. It does not emerge from any modern sophistication, ancient moral code or tradition either. The reason animals thrive in India is a combination of administrative incompetence, allergy to order, the familiarity of informality and the success of secular Western evangelism of animal rights that has influenced us to adopt animal welfare laws that are the world’s most sophisticated. The interaction between Indians and animals is usually unsophisticated. It has a quality of antiquity. The antiquity is in the absence of over-articulation of what animals mean to us.

The average Indian does not think much about the place of animals. He has not formalized what animals mean to him; he has barely formalized what a road lane or traffic signal means. Some animals are sacred and useful, some are dangerous and rare, some tasty; and many are underdogs, and hence endearing. We have no particular interest in the welfare of animals, even if some of them are sacred. Sacred beings are not assured of a good life in India. Let us not forget that women are worshipped too.

A few days ago, a leopard killed a woman in Uttarakhand. It was captured and caged by forest officials. When local villagers got to know of this, they burnt the leopard in its cage, in vengeance. Those who did this face severe legal consequences. This event captures many aspects of Indian life: a certain banal reality in an ancient nation filled with wild beasts; the fury of a mob whose ways are as ancient as the leopard’s; and the intervention of a modern law—for the leopard.

Many of India’s troubles arise from the fact that it imports foreign solutions for unique problems. Influenced by societies that have not seen a leopard in centuries, or probably ever, we assume that a leopard belongs in a forest. This is convenient for everyone; also, this is how a society operates that demarcates human and animal habitats. We should know better. A natural habitat is an ambiguous thing. It is wherever there is easy food. What the leopard has been trying to say is that it likes human settlements. There is a lot of slow easy prey here. But forest officials have been “rescuing” leopards and banishing them to the forest. And these cats have been finding their way back. There are leopards in the sugarcane districts of Maharashtra that have probably never seen a forest. They like it here, so what can we do?

My own relationship with animals has changed with my circumstances. I have generally been friends with stray dogs, except when on a bike, or running at dawn. After the Bhuj earthquake, when whole villages collapsed, stray dogs grew very aggressive after feeding on human corpses under rubble.

Stray dogs in cities are mostly docile, but they are dangerous to unattended children, especially the poor whose ‘natural habitat’ is the streets. Many kids have been mauled or eaten, and thousands bitten. In Bionotes, a journal, Ryan Lobo and Meghna Uniyal write that India records over 20,000 deaths annually from rabies and the actual number could be many times more. They argue that Western activists whose notions of animal welfare have been rejected in their own nations see India as fertile ground for some extreme ideas. As a result, they say, animal welfare in India is at the expense of human safety, especially of the poor.

Animal welfare in India is also shaped by something very Indian. At a fundamental level, we are not as morally certain as Christian dominated civilizations that humans are more equal than animals. As you can see, on the question of how to keep Indians safe from animals, this column itself is ambiguous.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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