Cow as national animal only furthers communal agenda, animal advocacy has no place in it

Amid the furore over the cattle market regulations being seen as a Hindu right-wing conspiracy, a judge of the Rajasthan High Court has renewed the bizarre call to nominate the cow as India’s national animal, and to escalate the punishment for cow slaughter to life imprisonment. These calls utterly blur the distinct agendas of Hindu ultra-nationalism, and animal protection advocacy. As highly sympathetic animal rights activists, we reject such calls as inherently devastating for the cows, and indeed, all other animals, especially those designated as ‘food’ or ‘livestock’.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

One, petitioning only for the cow is inconsistent with animal ethics where we make no distinctions between the innate value of animals of all species. In fact, the political fetishising of the cow for over 60 years since Independence has arguably done more harm to the cow – as the concern has never been for the cow. The Hindutva agenda has always been to mobilise the cow to advance the idea of a Hindu Indian nation. The animal vulnerabilities of the cow – which is what animal advocacy is concerned with – have been completely disregarded. The state of cattle in India is perhaps most pitiful of any nation in the world, subject as they are to violent beatings in cattle markets, chillies in their eyes, repeated pregnancies for milk production, range of pregnancy-related issues for dairy that go untreated – the list is limitless. Making the cow a national animal only serves a communal agenda further, in which animal advocacy has no interest.

Two, objectifying the cow as a national animal based on her ostensible sacrality, we argue, in fact results in greater violence for the cows. Nature religion scholar Catherine Albanese makes the crucial distinction between nature as sacred, and nature as sacred resource. Where nature is a sacred resource – and not inherently sacred, regardless of the utility to humans – violence to nature is endemic. The cow’s sacrality emphatically comes from her value as a sacred resource. The panchagavya from the cow – milk, butter, ghee, urine and dung, as well as a spectrum of other products – leather, bones, gelatin, hooves, meat – undoubtedly have economic value, making the cow the most commercially valuable animal. Commercialising the animal is founded upon violating the animal, and the cow’s sacrality is almost indistinguishable from her economic value.

Three, as animal advocates, a logic of cow protection that is profuse with violence for other animals is against our ethical practice. Indeed, even Hinduism regards all animals as sacred; the Mother Cow is the mother of all living creation. All other religions equally emphasise compassion to all life as a core ethical practice. However, the politicising of the cow results in prolific violence for all animals, especially the buffalo who are slaughtered prolifically. In fact, the bulk of India’s beef exports come from buffalo beef. The buffalo – and goats and sheep – bear the cross of being as valuable as the cow for their milk and meat, and yet having none of the protections, weak as they may be.

Last, the cow doesn’t need us to recognise her as a national animal – she just needs us to fully acknowledge her as an animal. The growing strand of animal studies in environmental politics work argues for a recognition where ‘animals are animals (emphasis in original)’ in order to fully understand their specific vulnerabilities as animals. ‘Protecting’ an animal has no meaning unless we are aware of their animal, species-specific vulnerabilities. This, in fact, would change the entire paradigm of what cow protection even comes to mean. The cow as mother, sacred and goddess in fact fully obscures her animal vulnerabilities further, and is entirely unhelpful to effective animal advocacy.

The paradigm of the animal advocacy movement in India needs to significantly shift. We need our own mega-politics of resistance and liberation. By continuing to buy specifically into cow politics, we erode our own credibility, and end up becoming complicit in divisive communal politics that we were never interested in to begin with. The focus of this work needs to focus on all animals, especially all those objectified as food sources.

Published Date: Jun 01, 2017 06:39 pm | Updated Date: Jun 01, 2017 06:53 pm

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