It’s a Jungle Out Here
The way we treat animals tells us much about how we value lives — any lives
After coming out of the cinema a few evenings back having watched Jon Favreau’s truly immersive and magnificent The Jungle Book, I came across a bunch of street dogs lying down, stretching, lolling about in the early summer heat. I’ve always found it happy-making that in India, we live alongside animals even in big cities such as Delhi. Dogs here don’t have to be pets. They don’t need to belong to anyone. They aren’t really stray, they are free.
After coming out of the hall, the green jungle of Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Kaa and Shere Khan lingered and seeped into the dust and cement of Noida even as I drove back home. The dogs on the street became closer to their ancestral wolves and I could feel the momentary pleasure of being in a jungle populated by different species, concrete notwithstanding. Those dogs and all the others at night along the streets were the Akelas, the Rakshas living in our sprawling man-village.
But earlier the same day, I had learnt of the death of Shaktiman, the horse that was brutally attacked by BJP leader Ganesh Joshi when his party was protesting against the Harish Rawat government in Uttarakhand on March14. The death of an animal caused by an act of violence we asso- ciate with humans inflicting on other humans made Shaktiman’s painful death more than about cruelty to animals. It was about how we in this saare jahan se achha country of ours value and treat lives. Any lives.
Why had Joshi attacked and wounded Shaktiman, breaking its leg, which, a month later, would cause its death? Because it was a mare that belonged to the Uttarakhand police force and because shows of rage pick on the softest target, not the most logical one. And also because hitting a police horse with a stick is the safer, yet dramatic, option than hitting the policeman on it.
Joshi is an MLA in Uttarakhand. So when he had earlier said, “If I am found guilty, then cut my leg,” we are meant to recognise the hyperbole of a lawmaker. We are also to register the fact that he was sent to 14 days of judicial custody and after getting out on bail, he was received with garlands by BJP party workers. And somewhere in all this, we come to terms with the fact that in a country like ours, where people are killed and violence bears a banal, pedestrian quality, the death of a horse caused by the violence of a man, however pointless it may be, is really nothing.
And yet, the death of this horse tells a larger story. One of the instruments by which a culture and a country are judged is the way it treats its animals. I’m not talking about that obsessive, truly Freudian fixation about eating habits and that simmering pot in which vegetarianism vs non-vegetarianism and beef ban debates are kept on boil. Eating animals is culture-specific. Treating animals is not, no matter what the Manu Smriti or Koran tells you.
The way we treat animals in India, even the ones we don’t end up eat- ing, can be shocking, especially for a country where so many deify the cow, worship a humanoid monkey, and have elephants as our unofficial tourism brand ambassador.
The condition of our zoos is pathetic. The way in which we deal with people who treat animals cruelly is cringeworthy (except very few do cringe at it). The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act is widely seen more as a politically correct instrument for the mental peace of ‘Maneka Gandhi’-type animal-huggers than as a law.
And yet, it was Ashoka, the 3rd-century BC Mauryan emperor, who was the first ruler in recorded history to consider the duty of a monarch to protect and look after not only his human subjects, but animal subjects as well. Ashoka made animals in his empire citizens by law. As historian Nayanjot Lahiri writes in Ashoka in Ancient India, “Normally, the state protects fauna when numbers decline. The language and idiom of Ashoka’s concern is radically diffe- rent: it is a code of ahimsa, or nonviolence. It was as if Ashoka’s own self-image as a morally credible monarch involved laying down a humane code of conduct towards all living creatures.” Well, we haven’t lived in Ashokan times for a while now.
Shaktiman’s death, and — after that mandatory moral outrage that makes us look out to see whether people have recorded our moral outrage — the fact that a politician of a national party can get away with a 2016 Ashwamedh yagna, tells us that human life, with much more at stake for humans, is less valuable than animal life, not more.
In The Jungle Book, Bagheera, the panther and guardian of Mowgli, tells Baloo, the happy-go-lucky sloth bear pal of Mowgli, that he’s taking the man-cub back to the man village. Baloo, shocked, replies, “Man village? They’ll ruin him. They’ll make a man out of him.” Which is what we are made into in our man village, once we manfully learn that shit happens. Horse shit too.