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Is The Animal Rights Debate In India A Farce Or Of Genuine Concern?

Posted by suraj thube in Society, Staff Picks
January 28, 2017

The Jalikattu episode and its aftermath has brought up two familiar sounding issues. One is the significance of culture defining a modern identity, and the second is the increasing concern being shown for animal rights in general. In the Anthropocene period in which we find ourselves, biological rights have somehow managed to resist the dominant narrative around human rights. For many, reforms and regulations can see to it that both of these rights enjoy positions of respect and dignity in everyday life. But is it really possible to chart out a framework of a benign, sustainable model? Moreover, what exactly is the popular sentiment that goes behind exhorting a lofty, almost seductive line of animal rights?

Torture or causing any sort of pain to animals in the public domain normally qualifies as a grievous crime for animal rights activists. There are two particular issues, though, that need more deliberation. The first one is the scope and imagination of what constitutes torture. Second, how tenable is this dichotomy of public and private in the world of animal rights?

To begin with the question on what constitutes torture – one mostly means an act of cruelty happening in front of everyone. This implies an element of visibility and tangibility to the act. Torture is mostly that which is captured at a particular moment, seen by a larger public and experienced through certain senses which have a heightened sense of emotions attached to it. Take any example of animal abuse – the imagery that gets constructed is one of gory violence and bloodshed which is quite simply the best and the easiest way of projecting the helplessness of that animal.

We don’t seem to think of pain as an indirect or a gradualist phenomenon. In a world where man dominates the environment, think about its impact on the ecosystem through the various forms of pollution, for instance. We don’t emphasize this part, as it remains largely indirect, and naturally gets placed lower in the list of culprits  causing harm to multiple species. For vegetarians who point fingers at the mean and cruel non-vegetarians – they fail to introspect their own complicity in the entire cycle of animal torture in varying proportions. You don’t believe me? Ask all the sundry, burrowing agents who get tortured endlessly, with their lifestyles getting disintegrated during the ploughing of fields and the harvesting of food crops. When it comes to torture, being a part of the modern lifestyle automatically implicates all of us in the episode.

The second narrative of the public-private dichotomy is related to the first one. To begin with, this distinction is, in itself, a false dichotomy. When it is said that one remains committed  to animal rights pertaining to pain and torture in the public domain, it essentially means that the private realm remains free from all such environmental obligations. Where does the public start, and the private end – this is also a matter of eternal dispute. More so, are we going to ask the more disturbing question of how morally right it is to diligently think of torture in public, and be completely fine with internalizing an indifferent stand on the same issue in the private?

Hyper-enthusiastic animal rights activists on social media will make  a loud noise about animal cruelty in public spheres. But more often than not, the public stance fails to have any place in being answerable to our own consumption patterns. Be it leather products, or sophisticated and rare items that we get from certain animals only, to even the normal day to day activity of eating non-vegetarian food – do we really take into account what amount of torture various animals might have gone through before we consume the final product? It is very easy for popular sentiment to accuse public offenders of being violent, cruel and inhuman toward animals. At the same time, the same set of people conveniently distance themselves from being anywhere close to media-induced forms of animal abuse. If we really are sensitive to animal rights, we should first introspect our consumption patterns at the level of the individual.

Something like halal, a concept that Muslims use to ensure less torture, is seen more from the biological, instead of a religious point of view. Animal rights have always been a tricky business. For some, there is an inherent contradiction in a leather-product consumer or a non-vegetarian being an animal rights activist. However, the debate has always been about the regulation of torture – and not about its prevention or protection. It is only when push comes to shove that the prevention card is used – a time when a palpable disorientation in the ecosystem is witnessed at an alarming rate. The problem with bodies like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment Of Animals) stems mostly from creating a discourse which gives a clear black and white decoding of the issue.

The fundamentalist position of banning a particular sport creates nothing more than pumping up hysteria for a temporary phase. This fundamentalism beckons concrete reasoning and explanation. In an episode like Jalikattu, even the talk of reform and regulation is easier said than done. As it has been built up as a signifier of Tamil pride, even a marginal tweak will be tantamount to an outsider assault on the local culture. Calling for a ban in such a case simply misses the larger point of the entire feasibility quotient of it.

At a time when environmental determinism is an imminent reality, future debates on sustainability between the biological and the anthropological is the need of the hour. Plus, animal rights as a whole field of study and understanding needs to be revisited – keeping in mind our rapidly evolving global lifestyles.