"The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"
Jeremy Bentham posed this question regarding animal suffering in the 18th century. In 2014, when India's Supreme Court set a historic precedent and banned Jallikattu (a cruel practice in which crowds of young men pursue and torment bulls), partly a result of an intensive campaign by the Animal Welfare Board of India and various animal organizations, the Court asked simply, "Why should they suffer?"
Jallikattu involved heinous instances of animal cruelty for the sake of entertainment. The bulls' ears were cut to purportedly enhance their hearing. Many bulls had their tails and humps pulled and twisted, resulting in grievous bone injuries. They were made to stand for hours without food and water. They were goaded with sticks and other sharp instruments. Irritants were rubbed onto their eyes and skin to agitate them and in some cases, they were believed to have been force-fed alcohol. The bulls were found to be extremely frightened, and their anxiety was worsened by the mayhem and noise caused by the frenzied crowds. This physical and mental distress resulted in them exhibiting a flight response, i.e. running away from a perceived threat, which was exploited to make them race. Being prey animals, bulls run when threatened, but are biologically unsuited to run distances at high speeds owing to their build.
As per Indian law, bulls are not performing animals and hence, cannot be made to race or fight because they suffer. In its decision to ban Jallikattu, the Supreme Court took cognizance of the Prevention of Cruelty Act, which explicitly bans the unnecessary suffering of animals. According to Section 3, persons in charge of animals are responsible for their well-being as well the prevention of unnecessary pain and suffering by the animals. Additionally, Section 11 addresses animal cruelty and grants animals certain rights. It unequivocally declares that inciting an animal to fight is tantamount to cruelty.
Photo Credit: Biju Boro
Animal fighting is touted as being culturally significant by its proponents. However, no culture or tradition is exempt from examination under the lens of ethics. India, in fact, has seen the end of many oppressive traditions like Sati and child marriage, which were sanctioned by culture and later deemed regressive and hence, eschewed. Moreover, since the time of its enactment, the Indian Constitution granted all Indian citizens aged 18 and above Universal Adult Franchise. Many countries deemed 'progressive' at the time only granted voting rights depending on one's gender, class, wealth etc. If progressive values are the foundation of an evolving, civilized and rational society, then it is amply clear that perpetrating untrammeled cruelty upon animals must be considered anachronistic, rather than traditional.
In human-induced animal fights, dogs, bulls, cocks, buffaloes and even bulbuls are forced to fight each other to the death. In nature, animals usually fight over territory, food and mates. Even so, most species avoid actual acts of violence with other animals as injuries sustained from conflict can jeopardize their survival. Conflict is usually resolved by a display of aggression after which the weaker opponent backs off. This kind of conflict seldom results in death. Even among species that are known to be aggressive, the willingness to fight may differ in individual animals.
Animal fights for entertainment are a result of an indulgence in bloodlust by human beings who exploit this 'animalistic' instinct towards violence (or is it survival?) through fear, coercion and inordinate torture. Animals who are selected to fight are often left without food, water or shelter and are usually subjected to physical violence during the training period to incite aggressive behavior. Many animals show untreated and often, debilitating injuries sustained through acts of cruelty by handlers as well as wounds from fights. Those animals who do not perform satisfactorily are usually brutally killed or abandoned to die. While there is ambiguity over whether a propensity for violence in humans is instinctive or inculcated, reveling in this torture reflects a sinister state of the human heart.
Photo Credit: Biju Boro
Therefore, it is critical that people recognize and accept that animal fighting is an atrocity that masquerades as tradition and entertainment. Fortunately, the Indian legal system is creating this public awareness. Following an intervention by Humane Society International, the Supreme Court ruled against a petition to lift the ban on cockfighting in Andhra Pradesh while the Assamese Government directed the deputy commissioners of all districts and the Commissioner of Guwahati to ensure that no animal fight events are organized, especially buffalo fights and bulbul fights. Meanwhile, the Maharashtra HC has banned cockfighting, while the Madras HC declined permission to one such event and suggested its prohibition. To combat illegal activities, HSI established a national tip line (+91 7674-922044) where one can report animal fighting and related offences.
These judgments are especially relevant, given that some local governments may try to amend laws that protect animals from being exploited in the name of religion and culture. For instance, there is loud clamour to lift the Jallikattu ban. And in Goa, the government there has allegedly formed a House Committee of the State Legislative Assembly to explore legalizing 'Dhirios' (bullfights) within the ambit of the existing laws related to animal cruelty.
Whether we condone or condemn such acts of human-incited violence upon animals is a telling sign of our times. After all, Bentham did hope that, "The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes." It is up to us to determine if that time is now.