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Saturday, July 02, 2022

Cows, dogs and the republic

🔴 Sameena Dalwai writes: What the animals can tell us about the state of our nation

Written by Sameena Dalwai |
Updated: January 29, 2022 9:20:50 am
When we pass through the towns of north India, the dramatic rise in the number of stray cows is evident.

Do we live in the republic of India? I live in three different spaces, and I can tell they are distinct because of the status that dogs and cows enjoy in each of them.

The first is the elite India that I watch operate on a university campus. It is like the European Union in many ways. A beautiful oasis amidst rough hinterlands, with paved roads, shaded pathways, lush-green lawns and fruit-bearing trees. Just like in Europe, entry is strictly guarded and boundaries demarcated. It is fed by an army of workers from the surrounding areas — guards, cleaners, cooks, carpenters, and plumbers.

Here, dogs have an enviable status. Our students love dogs; they hug, kiss and cuddle them. They fight with guards who try to shoo them away and threaten the administration with media exposure if dogs are treated with cruelty. They buy milk packets, tear them with bare hands and empty them for the dogs to lap up. Merely 200 metres away, infants and toddlers of migrant workers live in huts with no doors and do without milk.

The dogs are overfed and oversized. They have lost their natural alacrity but show their canine streak by barking at all hours. They also understand class. They wave their tails at people wearing shorts and snarl at those in uniforms or with dupattas on their heads.

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Pets are a profitable industry in the affluent world, with special foods, clothes, toys and beauty parlours to cater to them. India is the fastest growing pet care market in the world and is expected to grow at 14 per cent annually to become a $490 million market by 2022. Some of these pets threaten wildlife; cats kill 2.4 million birds every year and dogs have contributed to the extinction of nearly a dozen wild bird and animal species. The love I see on campus, perhaps, is a kind of possession, just as the Victorian wife, horses, dogs were all subjugated and loved, turned into trophies.

The land surrounding our pristine campus is plagued by gaurakshaks, the protectors of cows. This is the space that the RSS extols as Bharat, though the ancient name of the country is not theirs to claim. Here, people worship the cow as a mother and insist that crores of gods live inside it. The protection of cows has little to do with their welfare. When we pass through the towns of north India, the dramatic rise in the number of stray cows, growing thinner over summer months and crowding the roads unattended, is evident.

Gaurakshaks threaten Muslims and Dalits, who they suspect of killing and eating cows. Over 60 incidents of attacks and murders have been reported since 2010 as mobs of gaurakshaks have descended upon suspects with terrifying results. The vigilantes are aided by state governments, which have already passed laws banning cow slaughter and enlisted police units to enforce it.

This “Bharat” is trying to live on its past historical glory, on land ownership, on the slavery of Dalits, on the unpaid “on demand” labour, both domestic and sexual, of women. Here, the identity of the self comes from “not being them”, the proof of love comes from hating others. So, love for the cow equals hate for Muslims. Love for the country equals hate for Pakistan, China. Love for women equals hate for anyone who might take them away and panic about love jihad.

But there is a third kind of space that exists in the country — let’s call it Hindustan, which survives on agriculture and allied sectors like animal husbandry. Here, cows are important as they give milk and milk products, leading to extra income and stability in lean times. People love their animals like family members and are ready to make many sacrifices for them. In the fodder camps run by Mann Deshi Mahila Bank in rural Maharashtra, thousands of farmers stay out in the open for a few days so that their cattle can get water and fodder. Children and animals are introduced to strangers by their names.

Kids play with dogs here too. They guard the farms at night and keep the farmers company. Shepherd communities travel with their goats and sheep in search of grasslands. Their dogs help them keep the herd intact. Children run along with the dogs to bring back wandering goats. Life is hard and sparse — the dogs get food that people can spare and kids are as agile as their dogs.

Even under normal circumstances, hunger is common in poor communities. India ranks very low in the Global Hunger Index. Only 15 countries — sub-Saharan African nations such as Congo, Somalia or war-torn Afghanistan and Yemen — are below us. In the past decade, hunger has intensified as income gaps have widened. According to the World Inequality Report 2022, the top 10 per cent of Indians hold 57 per cent of national income, while the bottom 50 per cent’s share is 13 per cent.

In this marginalised population, love means giving oneself. Love for the land is experienced by applying oneself to it — by giving labour, care, sacrifice. Love for the country too is shown by the same. There are norms of equity which resonate with socialist idealism — from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. The members of this Hindustan sat at the Delhi border for a year and forced the mighty government to give in.

What is the idea of a republic but for many different types of people, species to exist together in harmony? Maybe we have a republic after all — perhaps overshadowed by the other two, but it exists.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 29, 2022 under the title ‘Imagining the republic’. Dalwai is a writer and a law professor

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