The great Indian ‘ani-mosity’

Vegetarianism, fanatical cow worship and killing animals—what explains India’s complex relationship with animals?


The injured police horse Shaktimaan, whose leg was amputated and replaced with an artificial leg, in Dehradun. Photo: PTI
The injured police horse Shaktimaan, whose leg was amputated and replaced with an artificial leg, in Dehradun. Photo: PTI

Animals are one of the most significant minorities anywhere in the world. Their conservation and survival is essential for nature’s script for the continuation of life on the planet. Animals also give human beings the most valuable lessons in bravery as well as vulnerability, fortitude and loyalty. Immense scientific knowledge, too.

India’s relationship with animals, however, has always been fraught with numerous psycho-social complexities and religious conditioning.

Almost every god or goddess in the Hindu phalanx of deities has an animal as a consort or some depiction of an animal figure.

Goddess Laxmi, who symbolizes wealth, sits on a tiger; Goddess Saraswati, who presides on learning and knowledge, has a peacock behind her; Lord Vishnu, known as the ultimate creator in Hindu mythology, has the Sheshnaga (a serpent) as his bed—snakes symbolize energy.

There are many such instances, including curious associations such as the mouse as the consort of Lord Ganesha, the god of good luck. If you read about it, Ganesha was supposed to have different consorts in his various incarnations—ram, elephant, tortoise and peacock till he settled upon a mouse, always seen at his feet. Stories filled with wonderment abound in the works of Devdutt Pattanaik, the Indian physician-turned-mythologist, and there are some very informative ones in Nanditha’s Krishnan’s book The Sacred Animals of India.

The reason I bring up these references is because in the past 10 days or so, I have been trying to grapple with the disturbing relationship Indians have with animals. As my context are two recent incidents. The merciless beating of a 14-year-old Kathiawari mare, Shaktimaan, a part of the Uttarakhand state police force, at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demonstration in Dehradun, and the brutal killing of a litter of newborn pups by a woman based in Bengaluru. Having spoken to other people, I know I am not the only one whose sensitivity has been harmed, resulting in a bruised feeling that comes from a broken zeal.

The beating of Shaktimaan at a protest march in Dehradun led to the mare fracturing one of its hind legs, which required amputation. On the other hand, the Bengaluru woman wanted to teach a female stray dog called Ammu “a lesson” and so smashed her 15-day-old pups against a boulder. All eight of them. Ammu continues to wail in mourning, casting a pall of gloom in the neighbourhood.

Shaktimaan has a mixed destiny. She is fortunate given the care she is getting from veterinary experts from India and abroad as well as from her police colleagues. It is as if one of their own has fallen—an attitude of intense concern that many human beings in India don’t find. Shaktimaan is trying to make sense of her injured life with an urgently created prosthesis for her leg. For the mare who weighs more than 400kg, the road to recovery won’t be easy. In Dehradun, a BJP legislator was arrested in connection with the beating of Shaktimaan, then given bail. In Bengaluru, the attacker of the dogs was also arrested earlier this week for cruelty to animals.

Suddenly, the visceral “ani-mosity” for animals on the one hand and a fanatical religious protection of them on the other has become one of the most urgent subjects in India. Cow worship, horse attacks, poisoning and killing of stray dogs among many stray incidents that lead up to similar observations only underline the mockery and indignity handed out by a section of the society for caged animals in zoos. They throw pebbles and sticks, and tease and taunt them. All this while professing to be devout vegetarians. Vegetarianism, which is widely prevalent in India, is less out of a dietary concern; it has more to do with religious beliefs. In the scriptures, consuming animal flesh is seen as a sin. Obviously, beating and torturing them doesn’t constitute the same sin. It’s new (at least to me) that people have been arrested for their cruelty to animals. Shaktimaan and Ammu won’t know, but something is being done about the injustice they have suffered. So, are we at a crossroads of socio-legal attitudes towards animals? And would these crossroads also mean periodically assessing the psychological status of zoo keepers and the conditions of zoos?

Punitive methods may discourage crimes towards animals but there is something deeper here. Something disturbing remains to be addressed, which is perhaps a jumble of unresolved emotional issues and behavioural complexities of a society that gets expressed in the furore over animals. Extreme behaviour—killing human beings to protect cows and then going to other extremes by killing animals—should caution us. I was grateful that the media created an issue out of Shaktimaan’s injury. But I do hope both print and TV media dwell more consistently and probingly on latent issues of anger and hatred inside the minds of some people to address brutalities against animals at a broader level.

More From Livemint