Responding to #VAW. Once more and again

On a good day; it is hard to find much that’s wrong with Twitter. The bonhomie, the banter, the cerebral and the goofy, all meld together as epitome of all that is wonderful with it. But, the communal nature of the place ensures a downside too. And that, is the sadness which queues up in Timelines with a regularity that’s almost predictable based on who or what you follow. Sorrows happening elsewhere find their way into our lives here, as news feed of obits and, brutalities scroll past disbelieving eyes in varying shades of vile and venal. They come to inform, to instigate grief and outrage and from there, hopefully, to initiate change. That they come with expectations of response is obvious. What the nature of the response should be, is less certain.

Obits have the acronym that sounds more like a barking order than honest grief. Even if, its rampant use seems more like misuse; at least, it is harmless and well intentioned. On the other hand, our insta-response to the more common stories of murder and mayhem, combines rage, abuse, argument and misinformation, is designed to be little more than a vent and must therefore give us some pause. Yet, against every common sense, we rise easy to provocation. Rise in collective reaction as giant waves of outrage that we direct against systems and mind-sets; but, that instead, somehow manage to crash on our own borders as shipwrecked fury. In a rare case, this outpouring leaves behind a ripple of online activism that vows to hold the flame. More commonly, it’s over almost as soon as it started. And we are alone again with the familiar hollow feeling; a nag of: something done but nothing achieved. A feeling of having clanged doors that turned out to be windows and that, still, didn’t open.

Despite these misgivings, I’ve been on Twitter long enough to know that its outrage is rarely ignored. The swell from here spills over onto the MSM and from there to the powers that be. That ought to feel like a good thing. Yet, it reeks of short-term gain with no definitive long term outcome. More unhappily, that short-term gain is usually nothing more than mere tokenism but it seems to satisfy and the storm of our rage is allowed to dissipate.

Violence against women (#VAW) is one such example. It is episodic, complexly intertwined with many other social determinants, and is often happening elsewhere and to someone else. Every now and then, a particularly unspeakable horror is inflicted on another hapless sister, our carefully constructed assurances crumble once more and again, we rise in a clamor of outrage. The same cycle repeats and it goes like this: We convince ourselves the sound of our sinking sorrow is actually the cadence of our rising voices. The noise hits tipping point, some token response is crumbled our way (the standard for rape now seems to be – fast-track courts), we pipe down, carry the grief around awhile, and limp back to the routines of our lives. Most of us have neither the time nor the energy to be single-minded about staying on course with something that is periodic and happening elsewhere. That last about it ‘happening elsewhere’ is often used as accusatory judgment. In reality, no ‘elsewhere’ is that far that we don’t feel the desecration each time as if it was our own. The next time too (and there will be a shameful next time) we will return to re-enact the stages of our public grief. Excoriate ourselves for not doing enough. Set ourselves up to be judged by cynical eyes that view our reactions as, flavor-of-the-moment activism. Every woman knows in her bones the falseness of that charge. But, Twitter after all is the giant sinkhole that sublimates our closet dilettante.

WSJ Graphics         A Rape Map Of India: Pic Source

This time, it was Badaun. We are still going through the stages as I write. Nothing new; nothing different. Even the standard diversionary shift is down pat. In this case, it is an argument over photographs – should they have been posted online. Meanwhile, the children are dead. Tokenism is out in full force and our grief seems to be waning.

It’s embarrassing. And distressing. That a matter of such importance is colored by so much drama and so little gravitas. What difference are we really making? What difference has been wrought? What are we hoping to spur with photographs? What are we doing here that is changing anything on the ground.

The Delhi protests against the Dec ‘12 rape of a student (called by many monikers, none of which I like; but, uncertain of what the law says on the subject of naming her, I’ll toe the line and call her Nirbhaya too) were indeed a defining moment. Out of that came: the Verma commission report, a 1000 Crore fund in Nirbhaya’s name, the Vishaka guidelines for workplace harassment (originally espoused in 1997) passed into Law and six dedicated fast track courts that were set up for Delhi alone.

Unsurprisingly, all of them have problems. The 1000 Crore fund proved to be one in name -barely a Rupee has been allocated; the Verma Commission’s suggested changes to the Vishaka guidelines have not been incorporated and the jury is still out on the benefits of fast track courts. Most of the Verma Commission’s recommendations, though considered thorough and comprehensive, are yet to be implemented. The only heartening news is that the number of reported and registered complaints of harassment and rape have gone up. But, here too, the convictions continue to be few and far between.

In light of this, of what use is outrage? The scrolling stream of erupting emotion seems to have little, if any, teeth to mobilize actionable change on the ground. In despair, this time, I tried tagging the Prime Minister – an exercise in foolishness for someone with my modest profile and as expected, it yielded nothing.

Our response to rape and #VAW might yield a better result if it is channeled at a specific target and is incisive and persistent in its attack. The problem of rape has thrown up two such targets. One: Police reform. A factor that has time and again been cited as a potential game changer for gender abuse. And, two: Inadequate sanitation. Badaun has once again brought to the fore the horrific chance-consequence of a lack of sanitation. What for us is a matter-of-fact guarantee as to not even merit a second’s thought; for these children, is a matter of life and death. The simple ordinariness of a humble toilet should become something that girls and women get used to having in the relative safety of their homes, schools and communities.

As with most other things; for outrage to be effective it must be directed at a precise target. The word ‘Rape’ doesn’t fit the bill anymore. ‘Police reform’ and ‘toilets for girls’ do and are actionable targets. Activism directed at them will be a harbinger of a more lasting change.

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Jallikattu – a case for cultural evolution and responsible activism

This is a very hard subject to write about. But, it must be done since I am now answerable (to myself primarily) for commenting on Twitter, twice, both times without having considered the issues particularly incident to the case. It must also be done because I am an ardent believer in animal rights and support activism for the cause.

It is hard to write; for, the exercise necessarily entails I appraise myself of the details and circumstances of abuse are very hard to read and digest. Sometimes, you simply don’t want to know the grit on the ground. Floating in the abstractness of the measure of blue in the sky (very interesting by the way) is so much more comforting by contrast but, you then shouldn’t be mouthing off on activism. So, suitably chastened, I set out to understand the facts about Jallikattu with as bipartisan a view as I could summon.

History

Jallikattu lays claim to a hoary history and antecedence from the Tamil Sangam period (300 BC- 300 AD). A celebrated literary work of the time – the Silapadikkaram, describes a bull-fighting sport which also seems to have doubled as a Swayamvaram (a festival wherein prospective grooms had to demonstrate their suitability by passing a series of obstacle tests). Clearly, the sport has evolved from then. The modern day version is traced back 400 years to the reign of the then King of Madurai, Thirumala Nayikar. Today, it is neither a bull-fighting sport; nor a test for matrimonial suitability. It is now diluted to a bull-taming festival but retains a vestige of masculine preening and is meant to be practiced thus: ‘aggressive’ bulls are released from their pens into enclosures and young trained men demonstrate their valour by charging the bull and holding onto its greased body for as long as they can; before, either the bull flings them down or, the men quiet it down. Generations of selective breeding have resulted in recognizable groups of especially mighty and temperamental bulls; the more famous among them is called, Pulikulam.

Controversy

Jallikattu is considered cultural tradition in the deep South districts of Tamil Nadu where it is practised. Apart from heralding the harvest festival Pongal, it is also seen as mandatory to auspicious fortune. But, a sport that involves a battle of strength and wits between powerful bulls and headstrong men cannot be docile. Whether due to heightening animal activism, religious globalization or simple tourism; the sport has come under increasing scrutiny in the past decade. Further, in an unfortunate collision with the flat-world hypothesis, an equivalence is alleged between the tortured cruelty of the Spanish bull-fights and this bull-taming sport despite ample knowledge that the bull (by every account) is neither ever killed nor is it intended to be. Yet, in recent years (and again, this finds consensus), the practice has become more violent and has changed character. Bulls are put through abusive and cruel treatment on the day of the event by subjecting them to both substance abuse (alcohol or by application to the skin of irritants) and physical abuse (I do not wish to detail such torments but Clause 17 of the SC judgment quotes the AWBI report in depth and it is a wrenching read). Verified and documented incidents of cruelty, torture and abuse of the bulls, on the day of the sport, have led to frequent run-ins with animal rights activists. Things finally got to a head and the matter was taken to court.

Litigation history

The AWBI (Animal Welfare Board of India – a statutory body) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – the largest not-for-profit corporation for animal rights in the world) sought a ban on the grounds of animal abuse and public safety. In 2006, the Tamil Nadu HC delivered a ban under the provisions of the PCA Act (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act). From then, for the past eight years, the ban has gone through many stages of cyclical negotiation when it has been alternately lifted, revoked and diluted. In 2009, the State, in an effort to reconcile the parties, passed the TNJRA (TN Jallikattu Regulation Act) which imposed stringent terms for the sport to continue  under non-abusive conditions. One of which, was that Jallikattu could only be allowed under the watchful supervision of the district collector, superintendent of police and AWBI representatives. The JRA has laid down the rules hard and consequently, the number of Jallikattus has steadily dwindled from 2000 participating villages to a mere 25 this year. Yet, 2010 alone witnessed 12 deaths (human deaths) and 1614 injuries (both animal and human, I presume). While the regulation ensured the practice was restricted to large groups and to a few months of the year; it failed to deliver on conditional requirements of the PCA. The affiliations between the State and organizers ensured that the act was reduced to hogwash. The matter reached the Supreme Court with both the TN government and the organizers are defendants and after deliberations, the SC delivered its final verdict last month banning the sport.

The Prosecution argued on the basis of ‘flight response’ and that the PCA should override the JRA. The Defence argued for cultural preservation, cultural tourism, and insisted  that the ‘degree of suffering’ of the bulls was not enough to come under the ambit of the PCA. The Court ruled that the JRA was anthropocentric in contrast to the eco-centric welfare legislation of the PCA and as such, the latter had pre-eminence. The ban was upheld and its reasoning detailed in a long judgment of staggering scope and scholarship (recommended reading).

The consequences have been swift and harsh. Yesterday’s papers reported; many bull-owners have had to sell the bulls to the slaughterhouse. An outcome, I am sure, no animal activist would have wanted.

Opinion

Despite their deeply entrenched faith in the veracity of their individual positions, both sides have uncomfortable questions to face.

  • The argument that the bulls are ‘naturally’ aggressive can’t hold much water with most ethologists. These bulls are trained to be temperamental but, despite that, a clear flight response is documented every time.
  • That the bull-owners pamper and invest (according to some reports, upwards of 15K a month) in the upkeep of the bulls is not contested. That, however, is an irrelevant defense against cruelty considering that the abusive treatment is meted out on the day of the event. Section 3 of the PCA clearly defines the duties of animal caretakers (bull-owners in this case) to include both, caring for the welfare and the well-being of the animal and, at the same time, protecting it from harm, suffering or abuse.
  • If the bull-owners were seriously interested in the welfare of their animals or in cultural tradition; they would not have allowed the degeneration of the tradition to an exercise in hostile and unruly behavior. Cultural tradition is something that is actively supported and protected; you cannot fall back on it as convenient excuse for degenerate versions of what might have once been aesthetic. The learned judges opine on this very point with an excellent quote from Professor Salmond: “Custom is the embodiment of those principles which  have commended themselves to the national conscience as the  principles of justice and public utility”.
  • Much talk circulates about the investment of money in the sport. There is, however, scant information on how much money is made living off and through these bulls for sport and stud services.
  • While lamenting the bulls that have already been sold to the slaughterhouse because of the ban; there is silence on what happens to these bulls once they become old and infirm? What is their fate then? Is what happened yesterday only an acceleration of an inevitable destiny?

Animal rights activism is a very tough grapple when it comes to the rights of domesticated animals. These animals have their agency usurped twice – once by the process of domestication; and then again, by activism that, having argued and won the case against the first, is stranded on a course of action from thereon. It is wise to tread slowly in such areas and with humility. The effort to cast this battle in the false dichotomy of good and evil/ right and wrong will yield disastrous consequences, most of which are then borne by the very animals you set out to save. It is often the case, that the people who work closely with these animals are more knowledgeable and equally empathetic and these qualities allow for easy negotiation of a middle ground. In this particular case; what strategy did PETA and/or AWBI, have for these mighty creatures once the ban took effect.  The sight of these gorgeous bulls being used for commerce in their own death as they were in life, is especially painful to bear. PETA is also answerable for selective targeting of practices. The use of animals for sport is equally odious in ‘glamorous’ horse racing and I expect and hope that PETA will  stay true by targeting the Turf Clubs next.

Our culture has always seen man as one of many creatures, of and by nature (the judgment quotes the Ishopanishad to illustrate this point; I have added the verse below). Hinduism does not accord our species a foolish exceptionalism above and beyond all others. Our folklore is rife with stories of animal law and justice. We practice a benign sharing of resources with other animals exemplified best in the cows that inhabit traffic islands and our street dogs who negotiate traffic crossings with aplomb. But apart from this genial side; there is also a dark underbelly of torture and cruelty towards animals. It is impossible for me to say how recent a phenomenon it is; but it would not be illogical to deduce that it is relatively recent and has paralleled the crumbling of social structures elsewhere. Culture is ever evolving. Each time, it evolves in aspiration of a higher ground. With Jallikattu too; the practice has evolved from the time of the Sangam and should continue to evolve if it wants to stay afloat. If only to save the fate of the bulls and their owners for this current generation; the practice must be allowed to stay albeit with strict conditions to evolve and with immediate effect to, at best, a bull-race. There are better avenues for entertainment in the 21st century than the sadism of using animals for sport.

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From the IshOpanishad; as quoted in the judgment:

“The universe along with its creatures belongs to the land.   No
creature is superior to any other.  Human beings should not  be  above
nature.  Let no one species encroach over the rights and privileges of
other species.”

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