Compassion died a dog's death in Kottayam in Kerala on Monday, quite literally. Proving true the adage that an empty mind is a devil's workshop, politically jobless activists of the youth wing of the Kerala Congress (Mani) killed eight stray dogs, tied four of them to a pole and paraded the carcasses in Kottayam town. They then left them in front of the Kottayam West post office, demanding that the bodies be sent in a parcel to Union minister Maneka Gandhi's office. Their ire was directed at Maneka Gandhi because she has been critical of the manner in which Kerala has tried to ensure it is not 'dog's own country'.
For those not familiar with Kerala and its politics, Kerala Congress (Mani) is headed by former finance minister KM Mani, considered a strongman in Kottayam district. Even after he was accused of accepting a bribe of Rs 1 crore from bar owners to renew liquor licenses, he refused to quit the Oommen Chandy government and even went on to present the state budget in March 2015. He finally had to resign when a court ordered a probe against him.
Since the elections this May that the United Democratic Front (UDF) lost, Mani has been keeping a low-profile. Peeved at the manner in which Mani was treated like a pariah, his five MLAs quit the UDF in a huff. He tried making overtures to the LDF but he is not really welcome in the ruling front. The BJP can be an option Mani could explore at a later date, as the saffron party would be keen on the Christian vote he will bring to the kitty. So Mani and his party have decided to play the waiting game at the moment.
But that does not include letting sleeping dogs lie. Mani's youth activists decided to bar the stray dogs from Kerala by targeting the "dangerous" ones. The politicians ridiculously bragged they could recognize a dangerous dog when they saw one. Just a week ago, another one of their party activists, Gils Periappuram – a councillor in Ernakulam district – had killed ten stray dogs. All of them were allegedly asphyxiated using a noose.
The protest also seemed intended to send a message across to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan who had earlier announced in a Facebook post that no illegal killing of strays will be allowed under his watch.
The party has gone to the dogs – pun intended – because they realise it is an issue that finds resonance with the people of Kerala. According to the Kerala government, since January 2016, over 51,000 people have reportedly been bit by dogs in the state. The public outcry over the years also seems justified if you look at the numbers of dog bites reported. Over 88,000 people were bitten in 2013. The number rose to over a lakh cases of dog bites both in 2014 and 2015.
"There have been incidents of stray dogs chasing, attacking and biting school children, aged persons, pedestrians, morning walkers and two-wheeler riders,'' a three-member committee headed by former Kerala High court judge Justice SS Jagan said in its report submitted to the Supreme Court last month.
The earlier Oommen Chandy government that faced flak for not being able to control the stray dog menace, decided to look the other way, while some panchayats decided to take law into their own hands. Several cases of mass culling of strays were reported from districts like Kannur in north Kerala last year.
Social activists like Jose Mavely played to the gallery by offering Rs 500 to anyone who would kill and bury a stray canine. He started an organisation called 'Street Dog Eradication Union' in September last year whose goal, he said, was to free Kerala from aggressive and rabid stray dogs. Animal rights activists created a furore, starting an online campaign 'Boycott Kerala' to put pressure on the police machinery to rein in people who take to killing dogs.
Matters became worse when some activists alleged that cases of dog bites were being fabricated, creating more anger and animosity in the mind of the average Malayalee, who was fed up with the dog menace. But activists insist that a large number of dog owners let loose their pets and it is these free roaming pet dogs who are biting, while the strays get a bad name.
While arguing that there is no excessive population of street dogs in Kerala, animal rights activists have suggested sterilisation as a solution but Keralites dismiss it as a ploy to help the pharma companies.
The other way to contain the menace is to ensure cleanliness and proper disposal of garbage because the stray dog population in any place feeds and thrives on it. The ground reality, however, is that Kerala's towns and villages are by and large a more clean lot than many other habitations in India.
Activists dispute the claim that Kerala is home to 2.5 lakh stray dogs. A member of the Animal Welfare Board of India cites an instance when a scientific census showed that Thiruvananthapuram was home to about 8,000 street dogs but the municipal corporation officials wanted the figure to be inflated because "that the people in the state capital believe that there are a lot of street dogs."
Activists also point out that sporadic culling is only complicating the problem as the dog catcher catches just about any mongrel instead of looking out for the ferocious dogs that are given to attacking humans. So, when the friendly neighbourhood stray goes out of the picture, the more aggressive alpha male dog takes its place.
The immediate focus is to get the youth activists arrested for indulging in the mass killing of dogs. In a land where these politicians are masquerading as heroes, the dogs are the villains of the Kerala story.