Discussions around the consumption of dog meat almost invariably revolve around issues of cruelty and barbarism. This is seen every year in the international outrage over the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China. Consumption of dog meat in other countries like South Korea is also frowned upon and has often come under attack. In recent years, the consumption of dog meat in North East India has also caught the attention of animal rights activists.

The debate picked up again in August, when the police arrested two people from the North East living in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area for allegedly killing a dog, “to eat its meat”.

The consumption of dog meat in Nagaland, where many consider it a delicacy, first came in the spotlight in 2016, when a legal notice was sent to the state government seeking a ban on the sale of the meat. The state reportedly did contemplate taking such a step, though it is yet to materialise.

Pictures of the super market in Dimapur city, where the meat is sold, started doing the rounds and tourists, journalists and activists began to frequent the market to highlight the alleged inhumane practices involved in the dog meat trade. Images of dog meat being sold in Nagaland and footage of dogs being slaughtered for consumption are used animal rights activists to portray consumers of dog meat as abusive, and inhumane. The message being sent is that those who ate dog meat are evil torturers and savages with no conscience.

Canine concerns

Another debate on canines in India centres on stray dogs. Defined as pests and looked at as a danger to society, stray dogs are a bane for citizens and municipal corporations in many cities. Besides introducing sterilisation, rescue, and rehabilitation programmes, many cities have chosen to deal with the growing stray dog population euthanizing in hundreds.

In 2015, a BBC report on the stray dog “menace” in urban India said that in Tamil Nadu alone, more than 100,000 cases of dog bites had been registered. In neighbouring Kerala, dog catchers had resorted to extreme measures, such as injecting stray dogs with potassium cyanide, to kill them the report said. A recent Times of India report, talking about stray dogs in Porvorim, said that residents of the Goa town had become “victims” of the canines and were being “harassed” by them.

As early as 1860, the Chennai Municipal Corporation took up initiatives to eliminate dogs. By the 1996, 136 dogs were killed daily by state authorities in Tamil Nadu, and the 2013 Chennai Municipal Corporation plan to send dogs to pound houses started another series of debates between animal rights activists and the authorities about human societies’ growing intolerance towards street dogs, and the cruel ways being taken to make these animals invisible from our lives.

Odd proposals

Given the resentment against stray dogs in urban India, law makers have proposed various methods to address the issue. In 2012, a solution was submitted by a member of the Punjab Assembly, Ajit Singh Mofar. The Congress politician proposed that all the stray dogs in Punjab should be sent to Nagaland, Mizoram, and to China for, “whatever they do to the dog,”. He further stated, “We cannot be really bothered what that is. We have to solve our problem first. Stray dogs are killing children, attacking the elderly”. As one might expect, this statement caused an uproar, but this would not be the last time such a proposal was made.

It has been reported that state human rights commissions and local bodies like the panchayats in Kerala have also suggested exporting dog meat to China, South Korea and other countries where it is consumed.

So, on the one hand, you have stray dogs who are looked at as dangerous, posing serious concerns, and even labelled as encroachers in urban India. Yet, on the other hand, conversations about dog meat as a delightful meal are unthinkable. The subject of dog meat merges disgust and a grey area of legality. Thinking of dog meat as part of a food system, or linking it to larger issues of food culture or taste, does not cross the minds of many Indians. That is the reason why, although stray dogs are defined as pests and killed by state authorities every day, it is morally incomprehensible to label them as a food choice.

This calls for a debate on dog meat consumption in India (as well as other countries). Why is it that certain culinary practices are seen as cruel and savage, while others are considered appropriate in human society? Why mobilise for the banning of dog meat in India, which, to borrow from Michaela DeSoucey’s argument in her book on the debate over Foie Gras consumption, “has little to no impact on the nation’s diet or commerce, and not for chicken, beef, pork… (or homelessness or crime, for that matter)”?

This is not to argue against the cruel treatment or painful slaughter of animals, allegations of which abound in the context of the Yulin festival as well as the meat markets in Nagaland. The focus, rather, is on why dog meat consumption is considered savage, barbaric and even inhuman, even as other animals are consumed in India and the world.

Dog meat is widely consumed in parts of North East India and there is no formal regulation that regulates the dog meat market. There are no laws about consuming feral animals such as street dogs, pigs, goats, rabbits, or monkeys.

In an article for Raiot, advocate Sira Kharay explains that there is no direct legal provision banning dog meat cosumption in the country. This why every time someone is arrested for eating dog meat in India, they are charged legal provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Indian Penal Code. However, as Kharay argues, it is unclear how this can be qualified as an offence. What remains unclear, as advocate Sira Kharay explains in an article for Raiot, is the concept of cruelty:

“Killing of stray dogs for ‘human consumption’ is nowhere else defined as crime in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. What is prohibited under Sections 428 and 429 of the Act is “mischief” against animals. To attract the two penal provisions, first, the ‘act of killing’ must constitute a ‘mischief’ as defined under Section 425 of the Act and second, to constitute a ‘mischief’, the act must be done ‘with intention to cause wrongful loss/damage to the public/person’ and there has to be ‘actual cause of destruction/change/diminishing of utility of the property’...But killing of stray dogs ‘with intention’ to ‘consume as meat’ can by no stretch of imagination be considered as an act of ‘mischief’ ‘with intention to cause wrongful loss to any person/public’ as defined and more so because the economic idea of ‘loss’ can hardly be associated with the loss of life of a stray dog.

With regard to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, Kharay says: “The point is not to argue that ‘cruelty’ to animals must be glorified, but that every act of killing of animal does not amount to ‘cruelty’. What is material is the ‘purpose’ in determining what amounts to ‘cruelty’ in law and not in fact.”

Unless dog meat is seen as food and there are regulations pertaining to safety and hygiene, including clear guidelines for humane slaughter, the matter of putting this dish on the plate will remain a legally grey area.

Therefore, in 2016, after the Nagaland government was served a legal notice to ban the slaughter and consumption of dog meat, the state’s Municipal Affairs Department went on an overdrive. State officials requested that the Dimapur Municipal Council oversee the matter of banning dog meat in the city.

However, this order unravelled the urban development and governance system in Nagaland. Matters of regulating the dog meat market highlighted the challenges of managing a conflict city. There has been no municipal election in Nagaland since 2006. Therefore, officials overseeing the municipal functions in Dimapur with a population of 400,000 people are ad-hoc political appointees. They struggle to keep up with basic functions like garbage collection and maintenance of the sewage system and are barely able to manage the crumbling infrastructure such as water supply, drainage, and the increasing cases of land encroachments by land mafia, the municipality had little time and few resources to spend on animal welfare. Dimapur Municipal Council eventually dropped the matter and did not pursue it, but a vibrant conversation about banning and consuming dog meat took place across Northeast India and beyond.

Question of care

Even though a large number of animals in the food system are subjected to cruelty in India, the call to ban dog meat in 2016 was a strategic one. It touched upon the interests of social groups who increasingly see dogs as pets and a lifestyle choice in urban India. The Indian pet industry is expected to grow at a rate of 10-15% in the near future. The rise of accessories, dog saloons, and food was escalating as more urban residents were adopting dogs as pets across India. This leads us towards understanding relationships about human value, vulnerability, and connections with animals.

The connection between dog and human is considered to be a long-lasting and deeply social one. Humans have developed strong attachments to their pets, particularly dogs and cats, who are looked at as companions, friends, caregivers, and family members.

But the moral issues connected to the consumption of dog meat in India have far-reaching consequences. Besides routine arrests of people from Northeast India who are caught killing stray dogs for consumption in metropolitan cities across India, it labels a dietary choice as disgusting and repugnant. A Naga migrant who worked in a retail store in New Delhi told me that she ate her lunch alone after she had been regularly humiliated by her colleagues about the dog eating culture in Naga society. “One day I was so angry I told them yes, yes, we also eat human beings. We are cannibals!” Consumption becomes connected to the identity and culture of the consumer.

During a conversation in July 2016 about the proposal to ban the sale of dog meat, the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty against Animals Dimapur District, Mr N Joseph Lemtur said, “It is not being taught from the school or church, it is cultural. We have become habituated to eat dogs; this is very unlucky. So at this juncture, animal activists like the SPCA are campaigning against it”.

It is important to recognise how the culture card is applied to legitimise certain practices, and that homogeneity is carelessly assumed among a cultural group. Acts of cruelty and torturing animals is not a cultural practice, neither is branding the eclectic eating habit of two million Nagas in Nagaland. The reality is that a large number of Naga households do not eat dog meat and many more refrain from eating wild animals, silkworms, water insects, ferns and mushrooms, all considered to be delicacies in Naga society. Nevertheless, the ongoing debate about the consumption of dog meat is framed by cultural practices and ideas about civilisation and cruelty.

Moral minefield

Dogs mean different things in Naga society: pets, companions, food, medicine, guards, spirit sensors, thief catchers and cat chasers. They also feature centrally in the most famous origin myth about the Naga script, which is connected to identity and language. According to legend, a dog ate the Naga script written down on animal skin, and from that day onwards, Naga tradition and knowledge has only been received and shared orally. The relationship between dogs and people in Naga society is an intimate one, and is integral part to everyday lives. Dog meat has been part of Naga cuisine for a long time, yet, before dishes started to appear on restaurant menus and before vendors starting selling the meat in the market place, there was no debate or national campaign to ban dog meat.

In contemporary India, the language of animal rights that triggered the dog meat debate is strongly rooted in a class and caste framework. Unlike the cow, which is regarded as holy and therefore banned as a food item in some parts of India, or the tiger and Amur falcon campaigns based on saving the animals from extinction, the dog meant debate rests on a framework of care and love.This is leaky politics. This debate about eating man’s “best friend” is a moral minefield where meanings of acceptable dietary practices are fluid and ambiguous and the logic of barbarism is juxtaposed with love and compassion.

Who is best capable of loving a dog? What are the dilemmas for dog eaters in India? The politics around which animals deserve protection has become an arena to discuss issues of ethics and justice between humans and animals in India. It is predominately an urban issue. Concern about stray animals, selling certain meats in public view, and animal welfare generally appear when an urban area is desperate to clean up its act; to be taken more seriously as a place for investment, tourism, and in the case of Dimapur, peace.

The exceptional attention dogs have received in urban India as vulnerable beings, in comparison to squirrels, pigs, or monkeys, tells us about the distinct language of value in metropolitan India. In this language, dog meat betrays a civilisational deficit. It reflects notions of a far off place where ethics, justice, and care are lacking. For authorities in Nagaland there is an aggressive drive to sanitise cities like Dimapur of pests like stray dogs as part of a general mindset of being more metropolitan; more like other cities in India.

And while passionate activists stand up for vulnerable dogs, extraordinary laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act give the armed forces with the right to kill and detain humans throughout Nagaland and other parts of the North East India on mere suspicion.

So, if dog meat consumption symbolises cruelty on the one hand but is also a part of local food habits on the other, what should be the way forward? Perhaps a useful way to think about it is to consider how the resistance towards the consumption of dog meat in India opens up the complex battle for configuring spaces of governance, ethics and authority between citizens and street dogs in India. It draws us towards the realm of engaging with contested issues of consumption, but more importantly, calls for legal regulations to be put in place that clearly lays out the guidelines for eating feral animals.

Dolly Kikon teaches Anthropology, Development Studies, and Gender at the University of Melbourne.