The overarching sense is that it is religious practice and use, rather than ecology, science or animal cognition, that is the shining light for subliminal but broad changes in our environmental policies.
Earlier this year, the central government issued a notification that lifted a ban on jallikattu, an ancient bull-taming sport that’s been embroiled in controversy over animal cruelty charges. As a practising wildlife conservationist, I appealed for a rethink on this feudal practice, arguing that baiting a peaceable animal was cruel. I was promptly hectored on social media with a barrage of questions. Twitter users, many of whom had no names or no profile pictures, declared I was against “Hindu religion and custom”. I was also asked what my views on Bakr Id were. Then, I was asked if I supported the beef ban.
My idea was to reflect on the jallikattu sport as cruel in and of itself, divorced from whichever community it originated from. The purpose was not to shame a community but to etch out the non-political, non-human animal as being helpless. The unwitting animal in this case was the very anathema to politics, class, culture or the galvanisation of an organised event. But a green animal-rights issue suddenly seemed to have become painted saffron.
Eating beef and what one feels about Muslim festivals is not analogous to what one feels about jallikattu. When I said I would only focus on the issue at hand, I was accused of practicing ‘selective outrage’ and being ‘sickular’. I could speak about animals only if I would say that I would protect cows and denigrate beef-eating. As a Hindu, I was repeatedly asked if I practise vegetarianism, depicted as akin to holding a conservation science degree – my final qualifier for speaking for animals.
This is simply one in many episodes in the construction of what is Hindu and what is not, when faced by questions to do with animals, environment and wildlife. Conservation biology teaches us to focus only on issues that are researched and known but the ‘bhakts’ will have us know that it’s all about cows.
There is an interesting ‘adarsh liberal’ poster doing the rounds. I haven’t been able to find its origins but I don’t think it’s a satire either; it mirrors much of what environmentalists hear as criticism today.
Two things are happening here. First, when environmentalists critique the religious or cultural agenda, they are descried as unworthy, foreign-funded or anti-Hindu – even should they be dealing with agnostic subjects such as ecology or animal behaviour, concerning a dying river, a hissing cobra or a placid bull. While religion has contributed to conservation, it does not follow that each animal or environment-related issue is a question of religious or communal identity.
Second, the distinction between culture and religion has collapsed. Criticisms of the World Culture Festival held on Delhi’s flood plains earlier this month were buoyed with the mass respectability religion and spirituality bring. Criticism on social media around jallikattu focused on activists being anti-Hindu, even though jallikattu is a community-led event rather than a flagship for Hindu customs.
A lot has been uncovered about trolls loving abuse and hating debate. It is established that they revel in group bullying, showing signs of psychopathy. But to what extent will this mentality inform conservation planning and future choices? The Art of living sponsored World Culture Festival is an interesting case in point. The Art of Living was the principal host of the World Culture Festival. Per court orders, construction on the flood plains is not permitted. The festival, which brought in lakhs of visitors, flattened the plains, concretised it in places, removed reed beds and set up a huge complex. The National Green Tribunal found that the permissions for this event were illegal.
With the existence of an NGT order barring constructions on the floodplain, this was akin to throwing a bash on the Moon, in precisely those areas which are no-go. On social media and other campaign platforms, Art of Living volunteers buried their heads in metaphoric river-sand, denying the very photographs that proved the rampage, and hectoring all those who said otherwise. Others inverted all criticism into an anti-Hindu activity. If secularism is the separation of the state and religion, then this was the Art of Living event appeared to have the blessing of both the state and soft Hindutva, backed by Delhi and the central government.
“I’ve worked for the Yamuna for years. We were simply saying that Yamuna is a dying river and does not need this sort of blow to the floodplain, which recharges the river and Delhi’s water table,” says Vimlendu Jha, an activist who was lobbying for the festival to be shifted away from the floodplains. “The festival bulldozed the flood plain and was actually against the sanctity of the river.” Instead, he and other activists were threatened. “Never before has my environmental activism been viewed as a bad thing. But now, not only do I have trolls coming after me, but also middle class gentry. I was threatened with my life, and people came to my office to intimidate us. On TV shows, I was called anti-national by a BJP spokesperson. It seems if you argue, you are bad. Supporting the river over a music festival is anti-national,” he says.
Interestingly, while AOL did not once accept the damage they caused, they inverted the incident to claim they would restore the floodplain. The sanctimonious spirituality on display involved usurping the area and then declaring it would be saved – the classic, pay, pollute, repeat that has been the fate of the Yamuna’s banks since the time of the Commonwealth Games. Only, this time, it came backed with state silence and the gleaming badge of religious colonisation and respectability, according to activists.
In the past, environmentalists have been blamed as obstructionist and anti-development. Legal environmental clearance processes have been described as green terrorism because questions of sustainable development and conservation do not always go hand in hand with polluting industrial expansion. But many environmentalists feel being called anti-cultural and anti-Hindu is new. “I appealed to people not to use glass-coated manja (kite-string) on Makar Sankranti as this leads to the death and injury of thousands of birds,” says wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra. “Immediately I was told that I was against Hindu culture. Then, I was told that I raise objections to anything that is Hindu. The environment is important to all of us. Giving this a religious spin is bizarre – and bad for the cause,” she says. It doesn’t end there. “I am asked next what I have done for cows.”
Another environmental activist adds, “If anything critical of the ruling government is said, you are immediately classed as anti-Hindu, anti-national and a ‘Congressi’. There is a mob constantly on the watch, on every possible platform, waiting to attack you. What is most disturbing is that this sort of extreme right nationalism seems to have affected even that class of people who were once believed to be well educated, well-travelled, broad minded, forward thinking and above religion.”
Social media, of course, is not the real world. But there are indications that the government is interested in colonising secular animals as religious subjects, or as cogs in customs which have loud lobbyists. For instance, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is mulling changing the Wildlife Protection Act and wildlife policy to allow the hunting of animals for “religion and culture”. At the forefront of this wishlist are customs such as Nag Panchami, in which cobras and other snakes are illegally caught to be worshipped. The practice almost always leads to complete mortality as snakes are averse to human handling; their mouths are usually stitched with needle thread and on capture. Interestingly, allowing for the capture of cobras and snakes for Nag Panchami, a longstanding demand from Hindu groups, also found its way in the recommendations of the T.S.R. Subramaniam committee report, which was tasked with suggesting amendments to five Indian environmental laws.
That cobras and religious hunting found mention along with far-reaching, big-picture recommendations, such as environmental clearances and penalties for environment damage, gave an insight into favoured policy aspirations. The overarching sense is that it is religious practice and use, rather than ecology, science or animal cognition, that is the shining light for these subliminal but broad changes.
As a result of this bent towards appropriating animals for culture and religion, we may also be seeing a new hierarchy emerging for animals. For instance, Haryana is mulling changing the word ‘nilgai’ (the blue antelope) to encourage hunting of this crop-raiding animal – while simultaneously absolving any guilt connected to killing a ‘gai’ (which literally means cow). The nation has shown that people have several ways of being fractured and polarised, but are we moving towards a fractured protection of animals? Will animals be placed in hierarchies informed by their role in religion, spirituality and custom, and discarded if not? Perversely though, an animal’s participation in religion is not directly proportionate to it being treated well.
Neha Sinha is a Delhi-based conservationist.