Hearing the Cries of Animals Behind the Thick Drapes of Religion – A case study of Nepal and India

A buffalo being taken for sacrifice during the Gadhimai festival

by Oshin Malpani and Laabhesh Thapa 29 November 2019

Religion is the highest flight of human consciousness. It has been central in defining the relations between human, non-sentient life forms and inanimate objects in society. Different set of rights and obligations flow from different types of relations and as far as humans and animals go, this relation is mostly of domination and subordination leading to a vigorous system of rights but a frail set of obligations towards the another, making animal marginalization a theme of common occurrence in the anthropocentric ascribed reality.

These relations are governed by law today but earlier, when such governance did not flow from a sovereign authority; when ‘law’ did not exist, religion had been central in governing them. Even today, when laws of sovereign authorities exist, religion and law go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. However, the man-made laws depict the current morals and values of the society and any incongruence between law and religion should be done away with, based upon the dictates of morality, rationality and fairness. 

One of the grossest forms of animal rights violation comes in the form of cruel mass animal sacrifices, sanctioned by religious traditions. Nepalese and Indian societies dominantly practise a strong age-old tradition of Hinduism including sacrificing animals to appease deities.

Nepal, a Hindu majoritarian country expresses and celebrates its culture in the strongest spectacle. It hosts the world’s largest Hindu animal sacrifice festival Gadhimai. As millions of pilgrim flow in, the festival sees thousands of animals being slowly bled to death, skinned alive and strangulated on temple grounds. These killings come in the form of ‘bali’ (a tribute) offered to the Hindu Goddess Gadhimai with a hope to get power and prosperity in return. Another huge Hindu festival called Dashain also involves similar slaughtering of animals to seek the blessings goddess Durga.

India shares a similar culture to Nepal. A mass number of are offered to Goddess Durga during Navratri seasons in India. Bali Jatra also sees mass animal sacrifices. Apart from these major festivals, as a part of the tradition, thousands of goats, elephants, fowls, piglets and roosters are also sacrificed to appease local deities in both the countries.

Temples, during these festivals awash in loud shrieks and blood of animals and as thousands of carcasses pile up, leaving one confused about religiousness of these mass murders.

Nepalese and the Indian legal regimes have the multifarious tools in forms of specific and general laws to combat and address such animal abuse. Under the Indian legal regime, the constitution itself provides an array of protective measures, granting authority to the state to prevent cruelty to animals) and imposing a duty on every citizen to protect and have compassion towards all animals on which unnecessary pain is being inflicted. Central acts like The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 have also been enacted to protect animals. The newly adopted Nepalese constitution also puts the responsibility upon the state to conserve and maintain wildlife. Additionally, Nepal’s Animal Welfare and Protection Act, 2011 also aims to prevent ill-treatment of animals.

However, the strength of written laws can only champion so far without proper implementation. A mismatch between seemingly effective laws on paper and their ineffective implementation is reflected dominantly in both countries.

But the state of animal rights isn’t as grim as it looks on the surface. Though both the governments have remained oblivious to the inefficacy of their laws, a roaring voices of animal rights activists, local and international groups in both the countries advocating the rights of millions of animals being treated and killed barbarically are hard to miss.

Further, as common law countries, the courts have also played a significant role in law-making by the way of setting binding precedents and updating existing law and principles according to requirements of changing times.

Courts have unhesitantly banned many religious festivals and traditions that fall foul to the interests of animals. The Supreme Court of India banned the mass transporting of livestock animals to Nepal that forms eighty per cent of the supply for the Gadhimai festival. The court also issued strict advisories to abolish certain abusive animal games for recreation like cockfighting and jallikattu (bull-taming sport often involving mutilation of the animal).

Mounting national and international pressure, criticising the extreme level on animal sacrifices led to the Supreme Court of Nepal issuing an advisory to stop bringing and sacrificing animals for Gadhimai, thereby ending centuries-old tradition. The court further ordered the government to phase out and end all types of mass animal sacrifices in the country.

Animal rights struggle to materialize as religion is very deeply rooted in both these societies. No sovereign authority can indeed take away the right to follow religious traditions of their choice from the people but when they stray too far from morality, they need to be corrected and even abolished if need be. A raft of traditional practices like child marriages, sati etcetera have been done away with as and when they fell afoul of the society’s morals and benchmarks of fairness. The same can be done for the relationship between humans and animals defined by religion. A post-anthropocentric approach correcting the imbalance in the power dynamics of the human-animal binary should essentially be the first step.

There is also a scope for both the legal systems to learn from the progressive considerations their foreign counterparts depict towards animals. In addition to a groundswell of activism, they must work on the proper implementation of laws and raising awareness.

As society is developing, questions of moral import are growing vigorously. Society has started questioning what is right rather than blindly following things as they are. The concept of transcendent good of all is making its way into the laws as well as the public life and it is time that religions and their followers adapt accordingly.

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