My Human and other Animal Rights

Is this just the dawn of acche din or are Indians beginning to have too much of a sense of entitlement? Why do we think we deserve highways like America, public behaviour like Japan or politicians like Scandinavia? Indeed, why is it our birth right to have a house, a car, an annual foreign vacation and a wardrobe full of designer dude rags? Indeed, on a more serious level, why on earth do we think we have individual fundamental rights, indeed any human rights at all?

If we think about it, what we call human rights is just an ideological construct. Many species inhabit our planet: do they have equivalent rights? Do small fish have Fish Rights including the right not to be confined to a tiny aquarium without a fair trial? Do spiders and cockroaches have Spider and Cockroach Rights not to be sprayed with lethal poisons from a can sporting the picture of a very delighted young lady? Don’t be silly, I hear you say? But then, what about dogs? You wouldn’t expect it, would you? Doctors working in outpatient clinics in towns across the country will tell you horrific stories of human flesh mangled by street dogs. That does not include the small street children who are ripped apart by hungry pie dogs. Thirty five thousand Indians die of rabies every year. Still, when citizens poison stray dogs, the police register criminal cases against the crusaders. Clearly, dog lovers love dogs a whole lot more than they love people. In India, Dog Rights take precedence over Street Infant Human Rights, if there is such a thing as Human Rights for street dwelling infants. Dog Rights are never championed by those who actually live on the street.

The bigger irony here is that a rational law has led to absurd results. As usual, the devil has been in the detail. The whole basis for these criminal prosecutions is premised on the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, which is most concerned with preventing the infliction of cruelty on the dogs, rather than conferring a fantastic quality of life on them. So too the provisions of the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules 2001. It divides dogs into pet dogs and street dogs and pins the welfare of the latter onto animal welfare organisations, private individuals and local authorities. When you read the Animal Birth Control Rules, you get this sinking feeling that its vision is exactly the stuff Indian tax payers would not break down the door to be first in line to pay for. The rules specify procedures for registration of dog bite complaints, constitution of dog squads, the manner and implements using which dogs should be caught, the sick ones treated, the healthy ones sterilised, culled or housed in animal shelters. It’s all delightfully humane stuff, but probably not implementable in a country where we can’t treat people humanely. What we get then is administrative paralysis. If you can’t do it by the book, why not run away from the scene of the potential crime instead?

That’s exactly how it has turned out. More’s the pity because not only do the authorities scamper out of the scene of all potential crime; they also accuse you of a crime if you try to fix the problem yourself. I trust you will not think me facetious if I remind you that this attitude is colloquially called ‘Dog-in-the-manger’! I can see the method in the madness though. Cops are just robust semi-rural boys who landed a tough job. Before they got the job, they probably lazed away the day back home in the village following a dog with tin cans tied to its tail. They are not trained to handle screaming dog loving activist frothing at the mouth. They react by filing FIRs against dog killers.

In the result, the practical reality is that anyone trying to kill dogs in India runs the real risk of having his life ruined. Given the speed at which our criminal law system works, if one such cop is intimidated into filing an FIR, it is decades before the case is decided. This has Kafkaesque consequences. I understand the very tony Delhi Golf Club has a peculiar problem: its pariah dogs are killing off its peacocks. Should we love our national bird less than we love our mongrels? The management didn’t think so and obtained permission to terminally rid itself of its killer dogs. The permission was granted. The Minister of Women and Child Development, we are told, was not amused. Someone called up the Secretary of the club and said the Minister will be delighted to file an FIR against him if he touched a single dog. No Peacock activist appeared on the scene. In the result, nature – like justice – is taking its own course: the peacocks are dying and the dogs are partying.

Finally, the Kerala High Court had had enough. On Nov 2nd, 2015, it ordered local bodies to take effective steps to control stray dogs while killing rabid and diseased ones. For good measure, it asked the authorities to comply with the law while doing so. Dog lovers were incensed. A local businessman staged a fast in protest. A lawyer took the matter to the Supreme Court. He wasn’t the only one. Both the Delhi and the Mumbai municipal corporations have asked the Supreme Court to allow them to kill stray dogs because they are killing women and children in increasing numbers. This has put the Supreme Court in the tricky position of prioritising human rights and dog rights. Not exactly its solemnly constituted function, is it then?

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has never been one to shrink from performing a prickly task. On November 19th, 2015, the court revealed its thought process in observing that:

“(The) life of a dog is not more important than the life of a human being. Life is the glorious gift of nature and the compassion for animals and human lives should harmoniously co-exist. A balance should be struck between compassion for dogs and human lives”.

The Supreme Court has put a finger on the key issue perfectly. Life must be held in balance, but even more importantly, in context. The right to shelter cannot include the right to build your jhuggi in my home, or better still, the Rashtrapati Bhawan because there is more land to spare there. A dog’s right to live a dog’s life does not include the right to bite people (on the ground that it’s in its nature) any more than a criminal has the right to rape infants and carve holes into people’s bellies because it is in the criminal’s nature. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard that argument made about tigers, or even cockroaches.

While the Dog Rights case will be listed in March next year, and no doubt the Supreme Court will do the right thing, we need to confront the reality that we run the real risk of becoming a society with severe bi-polar disorder. We have dog lovers and dog haters but the space in between for those who think Dog Rights need to be seen in context has shrunk considerably. This is by no means limited to the Fundamental Rights of Dogs. As a society, the middle passage is disappearing fast.

Those who protest seeking to reclaim this space are demonised and condemned. We need to examine this. We need once again to begin cultivating cultural traits that were always ours, but have gotten away from us completely in recent decades: balance, tolerance, empathy and understanding. Complex multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multitudinous societies can be run as liberal democracies or not at all. What we are witnessing instead is the complete polarisation of all paradigms. I have little interest in promoting one brand of animal rights over another or one brand of politics over another. I am vitally interested in peaching peach and harmony, and the creation of an atmosphere conducive to propelling my country to its tryst with its destiny. Hate, anger, hostility, resentment and reaction is not going to get us there.

Originally published on December 8, 2015 in Business Today


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