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Opinion | Bakr Eid 2020: A bleating heart liberal confronts animal cruelty

Ahead of Bakr-Eid, the debates about animal cruelty pop up like clockwork. But stopping animal slaughter during a religious festival is not enough—all it does is turn the poor goat into a scapegoat

Animal cruelty is not so much about what’s on our plate as the conditions under which it got there. Getty Images
Animal cruelty is not so much about what’s on our plate as the conditions under which it got there. Getty Images

Lines of goats ambling along Kolkata streets are always a sign that Bakr-Eid is approaching. I must admit I cannot see them without a pang—their floppy ears, paint daubed on their sides, trotting along trustingly. It might make me a bleating heart liberal but I cringe because while I share funny videos on Instagram where little kid goats jump on top of alpacas and tumble around animal rescue farms, I also really like my mutton biryani (with aloo, but that’s another debate altogether).

This year Bakr-Eid is different. Covid-19 and the lockdown meant thousands of goats have been left unsold. More goats have been sold online (as a Lounge story reported last week) though buyers usually want to check them physically to make sure they are not sick or in distress.

The old debates about animal cruelty, however, have popped up like clockwork. Muslim leaders rebuked Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray for suggesting “symbolic" sacrifice as a pandemic safety measure, saying symbolic qurbani is not possible. It’s not new, though, as an idea. A couple of years ago, a bakery in Lucknow offered a different kind of sacrificial lamb—cakes with pictures of goats on them. Najmul Hoda writes on citizen journalism platform Fair Observer that the idea of sacrifice is really about “giving something personal and precious for the larger good". Once upon a time, cattle and livestock were practically family and sacrificing cattle was akin to carving out a bit of oneself. Now, writes Hoda, people need “food, medicines and books more than one fine meat-rich meal". A laptop for a needy student might be a more fitting offering in this age. It’s not meat or blood that reaches Allah, according to the Quran, says Hoda. It is piety.

The problem with the annual goat debate on Bakr-Eid is that it just descends into a vicious circle of whataboutery and tirades about minority appeasement. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) India is accused of double standards because it has an ad with a cow asking Hindus to give up leather for Rakshabandhan while it just asked governments to prevent the illegal transport and slaughter of animals when it came to Muslims. Last year, it replaced a goat billboard in Lucknow urging people to go vegan with a chicken billboard ahead of Eid and was taunted for being cowed down. Obviously, this is all about scoring points that have nothing to do with goats, cows or chickens. For the record, I feel just as bad when I come across goats tethered to posts during the dark nights of Kali Puja, waiting for the chopping block. Many Pujas now sacrifice a symbolic pumpkin instead but some still swear by a goat. As a child, I remember going to the Chhinnamasta temple in Rajrappa. The first thing I would see as I walked in were people carrying the heads of freshly sacrificed goats on platters. The stone floor would be sticky with blood. That memory has stayed with me but my heart still skips a beat when I hear the pressure-cooker whistle go off on a Sunday morning, the unmistakable Bengali harbinger of a Sunday afternoon mutton curry, as much a ritual in many homes as any temple sacrifice.

Like many others, though, I sheepishly prefer to get my meat pre-cut and shrink- wrapped, neatly divided into legs, thighs, breasts which no longer resemble the animal they came from.

The fact is, stopping animal slaughter during a religious festival will do little to end animal cruelty. Anjali Gopalan, best known for her HIV/AIDS activism and fight against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which criminalized gay sex), also runs All Creatures Great and Small, an animal rescue centre outside Delhi. She has emus, horses, donkeys, pigs, peacocks, dogs, even fish. Almost all of them bear scars of unspeakable cruelty. She told me about a Great Dane that had been sexually abused and left tied to a tree. He needed one-and-a-half years and seven surgeries to get better. She has a mare whose eyes were gouged out in a fight between two groups of men raising horses. For weeks, that mare would just thrash around every time anyone went near her. Hokey as it sounds, Gopalan would make volunteers stand in front of her stall and sing to the mare. Slowly, the mare started coming to the front and now she comes trotting as soon as she hears her name.

Another horse with attitude, whom she describes as a diva, took a carrot from the hands of a wheelchair-bound, autistic child with such gentleness that it left the mother in tears. “These animals with broken legs, broken jaws! I often think how could they forgive us for what we did to them," marvels Gopalan. “We really have so much to learn from them."

But we want to show our dominion over the world of animals rather than admit that we share the world with them. I remember the horror of 16 puppies found dumped in plastic bags near a hospital in Kolkata, their heads smashed and livers punctured. A woman in Bengaluru flung eight tiny puppies against a boulder and killed them because she was angry their mother chose to have a litter in a drain near her house. She walked free after paying a thousand rupees as a fine. Every now and then one horror story, perhaps a pregnant elephant dying after eating an explosives-laden pineapple, will break through the news cycle but the humdrum animal cruelty continues unabated once the headlines fade away.

Yet it is also true that right alongside those unspeakable acts of cruelty towards animals exist the most tender acts of kindness. Film-maker Jesse Alk came from the US and made Pariah Dog, a documentary about the street dogs of Kolkata and the eccentric souls that feed them—an autorickshaw driver, the scion of a fading aristocratic family, a domestic help who lives in a shack. Someone gets leftovers from a nearby hotel and walks miles and miles all over the city feeding dogs, sometimes eating what is left over. One man says he used to help people but then he saw some of those same people beating a mangy dog and started helping animals instead. The odd thing, Alk realized, is that street dogs don’t just want food. They also crave affection. “Sometimes people in the US tell me, oh, it’s so terrible, so many dogs on the streets in India" says Alk. “And I tell them we don’t have dogs on the street (in the US) but we kill two million dogs a year in animal shelters because we don’t like to see them on the street."

In the end, animal cruelty is not so much about what’s on our plate as the conditions under which it got there. It’s not so much about how we treat them during one religious festival as how we treat them all year. Curbing the sale of cattle at markets on grounds of animal cruelty is pointless if it means more cattle are left to wander the streets and eat plastic bags. What we do in our lives, however humble, makes more of a difference than pointing fingers at others.

After following numerous goat Instagram accounts, my partner gave up mutton and donates to organizations that do surgeries for maimed goats. I am still stuck at cruelty-free shampoos. Our suburban neighbourhood bands together to look after the dogs on our street. Mahatma Gandhi said the greatness of a nation and its moral progress is judged by the way its animals are treated. But if those who protest the wholesale slaughter of goats during Eid don’t give a damn about all kinds of animals being terrified by noisy Diwali fireworks or the chained temple elephants with lacerations on their legs, then the poor goat was never anything more than a scapegoat.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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