I first encountered the term “men who have sex with men” in 2004 as a journalism student at a United Nations conference for mediapersons around the language of HIV and AIDS. Also being used was the term “commercial sex workers”, which in recent years, has become simply, “sex workers. Emphasising the “work’’ or labour component is a way for advocacy groups to push for labour rights of the community.

In my work as a development communications consultant, I see how everyday language is being reimagined towards a better, more just world.

In recent news, The New York Times decided to start capitalising “Black” in a show of respect towards the community; while climate activist Greta Thunberg has been calling for Climate Change to be renamed to Climate Emergency. Everywhere, names are being changed, narratives reframed, historical wrongs reversed, marginalised groups are being empowered using language. Animal rights is not one of them.

Nowhere in history, has such a mass extermination of multiple species taken place with so much social sanction aided with one of our greatest allies, language. It would be foolish to limit this discussion to food alone.

The abuse and mass killing of animals – which extends to all aspects of human existence from food, clothing, cosmetics, to entertainment in direct and indirect ways – would be right to be termed as “genocide”, “annihilation” or “mass murder”, classified as a “crime”, not its tepid cousin “cruelty”. Instead, language, has systematically been eroded to hide this heinousness, and stripped animals of any personhood or voice.

The social justice movement – and its allies in the media and the arts – has only inherited and recycled the language of the oppressor, whilst reversing these forms of language elsewhere.

Framing the abuse

Sanitising the truth is key to this exercise. The meat and dairy industry for instance, is built on a successive series of half-truths and silences: from foreign names for several meats, to the whitewashing of fish-eating as vegetarianism in some cultures – north Indians refer to it as “jal tori” (water gourd), among Bengalis, fish is considered vegetarian fare.

From food, to articles of clothing such as ivory, silk, pashmina, no name comes close to denoting the roots of its violent origins. Such is the failure of language in the cause of animal rights, many of these have come to represent aspirational, luxurious living. Not only is there social sanction, it is an ideal to build towards.

Sanitising also happens in the things we do not say, to use a phrase from the Covid era, the under-reporting. It omits the suffering, orphaning, heartbreak, and cries, as a deliberate cause of human consumption. Fur is simply not the coat of dead animals killed in a split second, it is baby seals clubbed to death because a gunshot will damage their fur.

Fois gras, is the thousands of geese breathing fear inside a shed, terrified at the mere sound of human feet about to force-feed them. Elephant rides in Southeast Asia are possible because of “phajaan”, the practice of breaking the spirits of baby elephants into submission, so that they stay servile to human beings all its life. Because language has normalised that a “higher” species have their luxuries, than for a “lower” species to have its necessities. Some animals are truly more equal than others.

All of this is held together by the meta-narrative of speciesism – the idea that animals are inferior to humans. The corollaries follow: they exist purely for human consumption; they feel no pain, their pain is not pain.

Framing the movement

The traditional framing of the animal rights movement bears striking resemblance to that of the suffragists a century ago – treated with ridicule – think the idiotic suffragist mother in the Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins. In the popular imagination, animal protectors or activists, are viewed very differently from animal abusers. The first is the crazy cat lady; the latter is the carrier of machismo. One is the undesirable single woman who must live with cats because no man will have her, the other is Salman Khan.

But the biggest betrayal to the cause comes from the social justice movement itself – in the way it denies animal rights a seat at the table. Treating it with eye-rolling condescension, as an afterthought that can only be (if at all) addressed after the entire edifice of human rights has been solved, progressives have make it look like the idea of justice is entirely conditional to human convenience. At best, it gets a tokenistic insert into the larger subset of environment, an already under-reported subject. The list of UN agencies and International Criminal Court’s categories of crimes should tell us how the international justice community has thus far prioritised animals: it has not.

In the hierarchy of the development universe, where issues higher up the ladder operate within a rights-based framework, animal rights is at the very bottom, operating on the welfare/charity model, a subset of pity. Working in the space of donations, volunteering, rescues, the movement – in contrast to their dollar-salary counterparts in the human rights sector – is driven by passionate individuals, many of them working quietly and alone, calling themselves quite simply, “animal rescuers”.

This is not surprising. Where development discourse the world now prefers a “participatory” community-led model, animal rights must rely on the language of human beings. Unlike its human rights counterparts who lobby along the lines of “dignity”, “equality”, animal rights – built around words like “conservation” “protection” “rescue” – is scraping the bottom of barrel, fighting for the most basic of all rights: survival.

The cachet of communalism

If there is a way to compound this contorted narrative, one can only cite contemporary Indian discourse in the context of BJP-led India with its beef bans, cow protectionism and lynchings. A section of the social justice world has been happy to frame animal rights as synonymous with communal politics and violence, characterising its proponents as “fascists” or “vegetarian/vegan fascists”. By extension then, animal abuse is being classified as revolutionary.

“The conflation of vegetarianism/veganism with Hindutva by progressive segments either comes from complete ignorance or is a deliberate ploy designed to undermine what is a legitimate and secular social justice issue,” said Bengaluru-based Nirupama Sarma, who works in the development sector, and is an animal rights activist.

This has come up most visibly during the beef ban and lynching discussions, where prominent progressive voices protested for the rights of minorities, by holding beef festivals. Animal rights groups PETA was bullied for speaking in favour of the beef ban, and voices promoting veganism were silenced.

Congress workers in Kerala organised beef festivals to protest against the Centre’s decision to ban the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter. Photo credit: HT  Photo

Writer and journalist Himanshu Bhagat reports how a commissioned piece on veganism was dropped from a publication because it was timed soon after the Mohammad Akhlaq lynching. Sarma recalled how a noted feminist stood on a podium and declared “you cannot be a feminist and not eat beef”. Sarma, herself against the ban because of its “anti-minority motivations”, is critical of assigning a revolutionary quality to the idea of meat.

“I have friends who claim to eat meat/beef only to mark their solidarity with oppressed castes; I myself oppose casteism – but fighting oppression of one group by promoting oppression of another is ridiculous; a false binary,” said Sarma. “If you oppose violence and discrimination towards Dalits, women, sexual/religious minorities, you should also oppose violence towards animals – who are truly voiceless,”

By using meat/beef as an instrument of rebellion, progressives in India have handed the cause of animal rights to the selective-rage platter of the Hindutva. The latter being happy to claim it for its own, without having to answer for the animal abuse that goes on under the Hindu umbrella, from dairy-rich diets, to elephants chained in temples, or the systematic destruction of forests and animal habitat, etc.

Instead, gathering momentum has been the dangerous idea positing animal rights versus minority rights. It repeated itself this June during the discussions on “Saumya”, the pregnant elephant in Kerala, which made national news in the same week that Safoora Zargar, pregnant student activist was denied bail. “Progressive” social media accounts were abuzz with memes and versions of the same idea – “India is outraged about an elephant, not about Safoora.” As if to suggest the elephant and the student activist are fighting for a piece of the same pie and only one can have a piece.

Policemen and onlookers on the banks of the Velliyar River in Kerala's Palakkad district as a dead wild elephant is pulled out of the water. Photo credit: AFP.

Animal Rights discussion in India now lives in a series of caricatured cliches: Vegetarian, Non-Vegetarian, Hindu, Muslim, Cow Protectionist, Cow Killer. Missing is the subtext: on how if we were to indeed “protect” the cow, we first need to discuss the tortuous dairy industry, or how the categories of “vegan”, and “meat reducers” are also critical to the conversation, or how the vegan movement has a large number of Muslim activists, who are viscously trolled from all political quarters.

Mumbai-based Sadaa Sayeed, actress and animal rights activists says she is targeted by Muslims when she writes about Bakhrid, and by Hindus when she writes about Durga Puja. “Anything seen as impinging on religion becomes unassailable. Everybody is too scared to talk about it,” she said.

Unconditional justice

Culture is a common trope to demolish animal rights: even though culture in its most pristine form points to a Darwinian, almost respectful relationship that indigenous communities share with the animals they prey on – an argument which gets demolished in the context of hyperconsumerism and the sugarcoated lies of the marketing world. To take an example from my community of Bengalis: traditionally, Hilsa, is not consumed during the fish’s breeding season, a rule we seem to have abandoned in the modern context to the effect that the Hilsa is nearing extinction today.

Ironically, in less culturally-inflammable contexts, sustainable, plant-based diets and meat bans are being discussed with greater ease, accompanied by plans to rechannelise livelihoods of affected workers. The international campaign for crime of ecocide within the ICC framework has been on for over a decade, with discussions on specific articulation for animal ecocide, as also a complete meat ban. Last year, Green Party of England and Wales announced a new policy in favour of plant-based diets.

There is greater acceptance of animal rights in the climate and Covid-19/zoonotic diseases space. The international development world is buzzing with OneHealth, the transdisciplinary approach to health that recognises interconnections between people, animals and their shared environment, also highlighted in a UN report that points to destruction of wildlife and ecosystems as major causes of zoonotic diseases.

Echoing this sentiment is animal rights scholar Jane Goodhall, whose writings during the pandemic, describe the urgency with which humankind needs to recalibrate its relationship with the animal world.

A part-utilitarian perspective like this from Goodhall – whose work is premised on animal dignity, personhood and sentience – is a heartbreaking reminder of the extent to which the animal rights movement has been disenfranchised, with her “if not for animals, do it for yourself” undertones.

In her towering work Frontiers of Justice. Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, American philosopher Martha Nussbaum talks about the justice owed to animals. She writes of them as “primary subjects of justice, even though they are not capable of participating in the procedure through which political principles are chosen”.

If we stop lying to ourselves for a second, we will admit that animal rights is foremost about justice: an all-encompassing justice, that is not conditional, convenient, or built on lies. With our bodies, our economies so heavily predicated on animal abuse, it might take decades to reform if not reverse this equation. It can only start though, the day we change our language around it.