Growing up in India, we were almost always made aware of the supposed primitiveness of our cities. The sight of stray dogs, cows and monkeys blocking traffic on roads as they jostled against big cars, trucks and buses was believed to be the ultimate evidence of it. Relatives visiting from the West would especially point out the apparent unacceptability of animals sharing our spaces. “Jab gaayein hatengi toh gadiyan aa sakti hain na sadak par (there would be space for cars on the road only when cows aren’t there),” I remember one of my more obnoxious NRI relatives once telling us less-fortunate ones who still lived in India. Never mind that they now support the banning of slaughterhouses in several parts of India, which has led to a massive cattle population crisis.
Images of development and urbanisation fed to the upper and middle-class have no space for animals who are, by definition, intruders that need to be controlled. But every now and then, when the state fails to deliver on its promise of building animal-free cities of our dreams, the media and social media-savvy citizens take charge, forcing the state to “act”.
Take the ongoing volley of hate being directed at stray dogs in Kerala. WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms are inundated with posts and stories about “dog menace” and “dog terror” in the state. The situation is so bad that, under pressure from the media and citizenry, the Kerala government has asked the Supreme Court for permission to launch a month-long drive to kill “violent” dogs. How the government plans to ascertain the violence level of strays before it kills them is evident in the photographs of heaps of dead bodies of dogs and torrents of blood on the streets of Kerala.
Complicit “dog lovers”
Social media campaigns against stray dogs and the subsequent call to unleash state violence on them is a template we have seen before. Even though sporadic mass culling of dogs has no proven record of actually resolving dog-human conflict, it does serve a purpose. On the face of it, mass killings are seen as the government taking some ‘action’, at least by those few who lose their children to dog bites or attacks. Also, social media warriors who declare a war on street dogs can claim victory. They can also go about blackmailing dog feeders with greater force, and beat them up once in a while. As for those of us disturbed by the violence unleashed on dogs, we can see through our complicity in creating a world that leads to such bloodshed.
I am referring to the section of privileged, English-speaking, “dog-lovers” like me, who buy pedigree dogs from breeders producing puppies like packets of chips at mills. We love buying pitbulls, who were originally bred for fighting, racing and bull-baiting, and then plead ignorance when they attack children and old people. We also love buying blue-eyed Siberian huskies and Saint Bernards in Delhi and Mumbai, even though these breeds are meant to live in the Swiss Alps.
We live in high-rise gated apartments, rightly referred to as “colonies”, with separate elevators for residents on the one hand, and dogs and domestic staff on the other. The dogs or cows from the street cannot enter our colonies—in fact, it is one of the key responsibilities of the security guards to ward off strays from entering these buildings.
And so, we do not feed our vegetable and meat waste to strays—something that is a common practice in villages, smaller towns and residential complexes where waste management is something people just naturally do, and not study it as a public policy course after spending lakhs of rupees. Instead, we have elaborate, expensive machines that turn tons of the waste we produce to compost. We also consume Instagram posts of stuff-toy looking dogs and cats doing foolish, cutesy things all day. Every now and then, when we see gory images of stray animals being culled by people who do it because they are poor, marginalised, and don’t have any other means to earn a livelihood, we outrage on social media—almost as a protest against the vitiation of our Instagram aesthetic.
Personhood for animals
A few years ago, I read of a “personhood for animals” movement in the United States. The “dog lover” in me was truly moved. Unlike our cruel Indian cities, where dogs get crushed under speeding cars all the time, and boney, emaciated horses still carry vegetables and fruits on wooden carts, the US had a movement demanding civil rights for animals.
The movement seeks to fundamentally change the status of animals from property to person. It raises fundamental questions about our anthropocentrism, the tendency among human beings to look at the world solely from a human perspective, while making decisions that wreak havoc in the lives of all species.
A few months of living in the US, I can see why American “dog lovers” would lead such a movement. There are no animals on the streets here. They are allowed to live only in areas specifically demarcated by humans as their habitat; they rot in misery in industrial factory farms, or are simply culled if they intrude into human spaces—unless, of course, they are fortunate enough to be pets.
Therefore, in order to save themselves from the guilt of the unfathomable levels of violence that human being inflict on animals, a small section of people think they can undo it by giving animals the legal status of a person—totally missing the anthropocentric irony of this endeavour!
As I read about the massive hate campaign and violence being unleashed on strays in Indian cities, it seems to me that a personhood for animals’ movement might soon catch up in India too. Because as systems of organic harmony between animals and humans increasingly break down in our pursuit of building smarter cities, we need laws, movements and policy makers to teach us how to co-exist again.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)