In the weeks preceding the festival of Id-ul-Adha (or Bakri-Id), “everyone is an animal activist”, tweeted writer Rana Safvi. And on schedule on July 2, PETA-India, one of India’s leading animal rights organisations wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for an amendment in law to ban animal sacrifice across all religions.
It specifically asked for the government to remove the Section 28 exception in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, which adds that nothing in the legislation “shall render it an offence to kill any animal in a manner required by the religion of any community”.
A few days before that, one of India’s leading animal activists, Gauri Maulekhi, also tweeted to shame the prominent Hyderabad-based politician Asaduddin Owaisi for his letter to the Director General of Police seeking a relaxation of animal transportation and veterinary certificate of fitness requirements for animals that will be brought in for the Bakri Id sacrifice in the state of Telangana.
While religious animal sacrifice is against the principles of animal rights, there is no uniform Central law banning it. The fate of several progressive High Court orders banning Hindu animal sacrifice as non-essential to Hindusim (Himachal, Tripura, Kerala and Orissa) hangs in abeyance before the Indian Supreme Court, which seems unwilling to decide the issue.
We need a national discussion on animal sacrifice. Many animal sacrifice rituals are based on “substitution”, using animals as proxy-humans to discharge a sacred duty of loss. We must ask why an act of publicly killing an animal (often with brutal, painful methods) is needed in 2021 to propitiate the gods. We must also ask whether animal sacrifice should be substituted entirely with other non-violent forms of worship, irrespective of whether it is an essential practice or not.
However Safvi is not entirely wrong. What is worrying is that this discussion only takes place annually before Bakri-Id, although religious animal sacrifice in India happens in both Hindu and Muslim communities. Only before Bakri-Id do we witness a flurry of debates on animal sacrifice and the need to either ban it or protect the rights of those who want to perform ritualistic slaughter. Most of these discussions often spiral into hate-filled threads on social media with no sincere and respectful engagement with the complicated issue at hand.
Both of us belong to a political collective called Animaleft, where we believe that the act of sacrifice of animals to propitiate gods undermines their intrinsic value as sentient beings. At the same time, we are also against the selective condemnation of animal sacrifice. In a political landscape that is barely holding together across burning religious fault lines, to hold only Muslims accountable for a practice that is common across Hindu and Muslim communities, weaponises animals to create further hate and divisions.
Owaisi’s complaint to the Telangana DGP raised fears about the harassment of livestock traders and transporters by self-styled gaurakshaks or cow protectors, a very valid concern in a climate of murderous lynching of Muslim men under the guise of animal protection. Indian animal activists must heed that concern, not evade it.
To be truly effective, animal rights groups must stand alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters against Hindutva violence and disavow polarised debates that distract us from holding conversations that can lead to justice for all humans and animals. On the other hand, if Owaisi is confident that all animals being brought in for sacrifice are in fact healthy, he must follow the animal welfare laws, and encourage everyone of his constituents to do the same.
Regarding animal sacrifice itself, pious people – across religions - must re-consider whether their community ought to be brought together over the bodies of animals who have known only suffering. Religious institutions hold immense influence over the supply chains that produce animals for sacrifice and are hence morally obligated to ensure that they have been raised and slaughtered in a way that aligns with the principle of compassion inherent in all religions.
A robust animal rights position recognises that animal sacrifice is but a branch of industrial animal agriculture. Only a capitalist animal farming system can meet the year-round demand for lakhs of animals. This in turn forms a vicious cycle of the mass production of animals, their surplus availability for slaughter, normalisation of animal sacrifice and the generation of further demand. A stance against animal sacrifice must also work to dismantle factory farming to achieve the vision of liberating animals from being mere instruments for human ends.
The road ahead for animal rights lies not in sensationalising animal sacrifice and stigmatising minorities but in building constructive, long-term dialogue among all groups to effect change. We quote the timeless words of the 1957 Parliamentary Committee for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that recommended a national ban on animal sacrifice, but caveated with a call for dialogue:
“Any legislation seeking to put an end to animal sacrifices can succeed in achieving its objective only if a strong public opinion, created by such measures as education and propaganda, is at its back. In the building up of the public opinion humanitarian, religious, and other organisations working on animal welfare can play an important role.”
The need for this dialogue has never been greater. Skipping that is detrimental to both animal and human communities.
Alok Hisarwala and Krishnaunni Hari are activists and researchers in the field of animal rights with an Animaleft bend.