Had the fever-pitch anxiety about a four-day meat ban, in deference to the Jain community’s Paryushan, remained confined to TV anchors and the handpicked chatterati who appear on TV debates, one would have ignored it as another passing storm in a tea-cup. But when someone with the gravitas of Pratap Bhanu Mehta declares with righteous rage, “Get off the ban-wagon: Meat bans violate fundamental liberties, erode state’s secular character, harm the cause of vegetarianism” (The Indian Express, September 12), it becomes necessary to ask why our intellectual elite have never before felt outraged at far more draconian bans, with far deadlier outcomes?
Of the numerous examples of double standards in this regard that one could offer, let me cite just one. “Ban the ban” enthusiasts don’t seem to care that since the late-1990s, animal rights zealots have succeeded in banning the traditional arts and occupations of all those communities in India that specialised in training animals for performances as a means of livelihood. There was a time when snake charmers and Baazigars would be sent to international festivals as ambassadors of India’s traditional art forms. But when the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was extended to these communities, it reduced them to the status of outlaws. With one stroke of the pen, their centuries-old art forms came to be treated as criminal activity, without even bothering to provide them any alternative means of survival.
The Madaris, who trained monkeys or bears, the Saperas, who tamed and made snakes dance to the tune of traditional musical instruments like the been, are today among the most marginalised and brutalised social groups in India. Those who tried keeping alive their inherited art are sent to jail and have their animals or reptiles confiscated. Nobody even thought of employing them in zoological gardens, or putting their centuries-honed knowledge of forests, medicinal plants and wildlife to creative use in modern occupations.
Even the Nats, who specialise in acrobatic performances, had their art form banned under anti-beggary law. In the process of providing legal help to several such families, who had their children snatched by the police, while the adults were locked up on charges of “begging” — when all they were doing was earn money by displaying their unique art form — I witnessed from very close how pious-sounding laws have been used to inflict legal terrorism on these hapless groups.
If putting animals in a zoo is not “cruelty”, how can a Madari training a monkey to dance be called cruelty? If slaughtering animals for food is not a crime, how can we treat Saperas and Madaris as criminals for having preserved their inherited art forms involving animals? Animal rights activists dare not demand a ban on animal slaughter for meat-eating because the elite sections of society get outraged at the slightest restriction on their lifestyle. But when Madaris and Saperas were banned from practising their traditional arts, not a voice of protest rose in their defence, not a teardrop has been shed for their plight, because the ban impacted only the poorest of the poor.
It is noteworthy that the Constitution (Articles 25 to 28) allows every community to practise and preserve its traditional culture. Thus, the ban on Saperas and Madaris is not only an assault on their constitutionally guaranteed “freedom of occupation” but also on their fundamental right to preserve their millennia-old cultures.
I don’t know if monkeys, bears and snakes “rescued” from these groups have remembered to send their thank-you notes to Maneka Gandhi, who takes the credit for having imposed and implemented this ban with zeal and determination. But in every basti of Madaris and Saperas, one hears people curse her for having destroyed their means of livelihood and their knowledge tradition, and reduced them to beggary. We, the elite, remember the otherwise banned Saperas whenever snakes suddenly appear in our homes or offices and pose a threat to our lives. They were put on duty even at the time of the Commonwealth Games because the area cleared for building the CWG village on the banks of the Yamuna was a natural habitat for reptiles. But ordinary Indians still call Saperas to their homes for ritual pujas on Nag Panchami. But even that is outlawed as per Maneka Gandhi’s farmaans.
Today, these tyrannised communities, spread all over India, live in utter penury. Even if you can’t go and witness their plight in India’s villages, I urge you to have a glimpse of their wretched conditions at Kathputli Colony near Shadipur Depot, or at the Sapera Basti near Badarpur border. Now that the threat of curbs on porn sites and of meat deprivation for a couple of days has awakened our intellectual elite to the evil effects of bans, may one expect them to lend support to Manushi’s endeavours to get the above described ban also lifted?
The writer is founder-editor, ‘Manushi’, and professor, CSDS, Delhi