It’s a Jun­gle Out Here

The way we treat an­i­mals tells us much about how we value lives — any lives

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - In­dra­jit Hazra

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.

Mare An­i­mal

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.

Hu­man In­stinct

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.

Be­ing hu­mane

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