I recently learnt about the Gadhimai 'Festival' in Nepal during which large numbers of animals are massacred every five years. However, a lesser known fact is that over 70% of pilgrims and animals at this event are Indian. This year, the sacrifice took place on November 28-29, however, because of the Indian Supreme Court's ban on animal transport, the number of animals killed was considerably lower than expected.
The reality is that animal brutality in the name of religion is not limited to Gadhimai. In India, temples like Kamakhya kill animals on a regular basis and countless animals are massacred during Eid every year.
While there has been progressive legislation including the recent ban by the Himachal Pradesh High Court on animal sacrifice during Kullu Dussehra, in order to stop the practice altogether, we have to tackle the root cause of these senseless killings: a complete lack of compassion for animals. I will elaborate on my point using Gadhimai as an example but the reasoning applies to other instances of ritualistic animal killing as well.
Inhuman treatment of animals
At 'festivals' like Gadhimai the manner in which animals are treated before, during and after the slaughter is outrageous. Animals are made to walk for days without food and water. By the time they reach the 'festival' venue most animals are too weak to walk. They are dragged or hung from sticks and carried by their owners to the slaughter field.
During the slaughter, animals are subjected to watching their own kind being murdered in large numbers. The image of a calf trembling near his butchered mother's body is one I will never be able to forget. The terror in their eyes is unmistakable. Many animals are killed after multiple attempts because everyone is welcome to swing their weapons at the helpless animals.
Post the slaughter, animals who have not been killed cleanly lie in the field for hours waiting for death to relieve them of their agony. Carcasses are strewn along with rubbish while people go about their daily routine.
Would this treatment of humans in the name of religion be acceptable in any civilised society? If not, then why is it okay for animals to be treated in this manner?
Perverse pleasure derived from viewing slaughter
Human behaviour at this bloodthirsty 'festival' is also deplorable. People climb on to the walls of the slaughter field to watch the killings as though it is a grand spectacle. When buffaloes try to stand up in vain after being hit by a butcher, it serves as a source of great amusement for the crowds. Children can be seen carrying the bodies of family goats with whom they played just a few minutes before the slaughter.
To me this reflects nothing other than utter depravity and yet for several attendees it is part of the 'routine'. What is funny about watching a buffalo calf defecate in the anxiety of his imminent violent death?
Inculcating and rewarding empathy
Despite being the most 'evolved' species on this planet, empathy does not come naturally to many of us.
During the course of the last few weeks I have been constantly questioned about why I am opposing Gadhimai and not Eid or Thanksgiving. This has been extremely puzzling for me because as far as I am concerned, one life is not cheaper than another. An atrocity in the US does not justify one in India. Besides, if I cannot speak up against evil in my own country and neighbourhood what right do I have to point fingers at other nations or religions?
I believe that questioning my intentions is merely a way for people to deflect from their own apathy and the only way to shake them out of this inertia is by inculcating compassion for other living creatures. My experience with school health programs in India has shown that perhaps the easiest way to do this is to focus on children and youth as change agents since their behaviours, attitudes and practices are in the formative stages.
Of course, we cannot give up on adults either. We need to help people realise that if we inflict suffering on a living being or look the other way, we might be terribly lonely in our dire moments also. Adults who manage to change their behaviour for the better must be recognised. A handful of locals at Gadhimai were keen to stop this barbaric practice and they are the local heroes who should be highlighted as examples for others to follow.
Ultimately, it is up to each one of us to be more compassionate to other living beings--human and non-human. While trying to cling on to our religious and national identities, we must not forget that we are human beings first.