The Union government has proposed an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (POCA) to increase penalties against animal cruelty from Rs 50 to Rs 75,000 or “three times the cost of the animal” besides up to five years’ imprisonment. This approach is steeped in caste and class elitism, and is unlikely to help address institutionalised animal cruelty.
Cruelty is vaguely defined in law, as it carries cultural values about animal suffering. The animal rights movement and legal jurisprudence state that cruelty is characterised by unacceptably high animal suffering. In Animal Welfare Board of India v. A Nagaraj, the Supreme Court ruled that animal suffering caused for “legitimate” purposes is not cruelty. The popular and judicial conceptions of cruelty, and which animals need to be protected from it, continue to be coded in Brahmanical ideas of suffering, legitimacy and proportionality. For instance, cruelty was cited as the reason for banning dog meat trade in Nagaland. Alleged inhuman killing methods were used on stray dogs. However, the imposed ban was not on the inhuman killing methods to address cruelty, but an arbitrary and disproportionate prohibition on all dog meat. Meanwhile, laws prohibit only inhuman killing methods for other animals such as poultry and cattle, instead of blanket meat bans.
Criminal justice studies dispel the notion of deterring crimes through increased penalties and stringent criminal laws. Therefore, higher penalties may be unlikely lower the cruel incidents of animal murder and puppy violence. The POCA is then yet another tool for the police to criminalise communities that traditionally earn their livelihoods from animal labour by vilifying these interactions as cruelty. Given the police’s selective enforcement and proposed higher penalties there is a grim possibility of criminalisation further producing marginalisation. The Sapera and Madari communities (formerly criminalised tribes categorised today as Denotified Tribes), are traditionally snake-charmers and performers with monkeys respectively. POCA and wildlife protection laws frame these communities as offenders facing imprisonment without providing rehabilitation opportunities. POCA is commonly implemented by the police such that dominant caste families who invite snake charmers home for the annual Hindu festival of Nag Panchami escape sanction.
It is an established legal principle that punishment should be commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. However, the sliding scale of sentencing is often disproportionate due to cultural influences on criminal law. In recent years, the legitimisation of Brahmanical morality has led to the penalty for unlicensed cattle slaughter in Gujarat leading to higher imprisonment than for certain kinds of culpable homicide. Other laws coded in similar cultural values, such as excise and gambling laws, disproportionately criminalise marginalised communities. The police use their wide discretionary powers to commonly extort and harass vulnerable individuals. The judiciary may also be complicit in entrenching cultural values — mere alcohol possession is routinely denied bail by lower courts.
Members of the animal rights movement belong to elite castes and classes. Over a period of time they have assumed the status of being a pressure group of sorts. They “requested” increased POCA penalties to balance human needs with animal interests. Yet, their scales of balance fail to consider the lives of lower caste and class communities. These groups have little engagement with indigenous cultures which have advanced and nuanced practices of respecting all sentient beings. It is “modern” society that grades its priorities of care on animals by demeaning categorisations of wildlife, cattle, domestic pets, vermin etc. Such animal rights activism has also previously framed Adivasis as “encroachers” and “poachers”, invisibilising tribal communities’ contemporaneous symbiosis with all animal life, and their crucial role in wildlife existence. In 2019, a band of wildlife conservationists challenged the constitutionality of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The case nearly evicted over 11.8 lakh tribal families and traditional forest-dwellers from forestlands in 16 states.
The anti-cruelty animal rights movement is not seeking POCA amendments to enforce stringent rules or strict enforcement against large-scale industrial operations such as factory farms that profit off the cruelty of millions of animals. Instead, it counts among its chief successes, the banning of animal-drawn carts in Delhi and Mumbai. These punching down strategies lay bare its inability to challenge institutionalised animal cruelty. Several animal cruelty incidents have arisen from escalating human-animal resource conflicts. The death of the pregnant elephant in Kerala was due to the accidental consumption of a cracker-stuffed fruit intended to repel wild boars from farms. As development increasingly deprives animals of foods, they forage in human cultivations while vulnerable agricultural households with inadequate incomes struggle to protect their primary income sources.
The POCA serves some value insofar as it protects animals from select forms of institutionalised cruelty, including exploitation for research and experimentation. However, we must commit to co-producing and protecting the dignity of all beings. Our experiences with the criminal justice system, arbitrary policing and the state’s carceral nature should caution us that even well-meaning, but uncritical elitist movements will exacerbate the subjection of vulnerable individuals to the cruelties of policing and prisons in India.
The writers are associated with the Bhopal-based Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project
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