04/08/2015 8:08 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Gadhimai, Simhachalam And The Political Economy Of Animal Sacrifice

ROBERTO SCHMIDT via Getty Images
Sword men parade their weapons before a massive slaughter of buffaloes in the village of Barayarpur on November 28, 2014. Millions of Hindu devotees from Nepal and India migrate to the village to honour their goddess of power. The celebrations includes the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of animals, mostly buffalo and goats. Worshippers from Nepal and neighbouring India have spent days sleeping out in the open and offering prayers to the goddess at a temple decked with flowers in preparation. AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

There was much jubilation last week when the Gadhimai Temple Trust in Nepal announced that the ritual sacrifice of animals at the five yearly Gadhimai Festival would come to an end starting 2019. The three-century-old festival - the world's largest religious sacrifice of animals -- has resulted in the massacre of as many as half a million animals, ranging from livestock to mice and birds, in a three-day orgy of bloodlust.

The beginning of the end, so to speak, came last year when the 2014 festival, promised by the temple trust to be "biggest and most spectacular" carnival of bloodshed in Gadhimai history, was marked by worldwide condemnation by animal activist and citizen groups. The Supreme Court of India also directed the Indian state to prevent the trafficking of animals across the border into Nepal. With a staggering drop of some 70% in the animals that were to be killed at Gadhimai 2014, the temple authorities faced extraordinary financial loss. With persistent campaigns against the festival continuing, the temple trust finally capitulated.

"Gadhimai had provided farmers from some of India's most impoverished states an exceptionally convenient way of culling economically burdensome animals."

There is, however, reason to receive the declaration with a measure of sobriety. The statement is the Gadhimai Temple's "formal decision to end animal sacrifice" rather than a substantive legal ban by the Nepalese state. What the Gadhimai Temple statement offers is a moral obligation upon which to protest all future animal killings in the name of the goddess, and sets the stage for renewed battles against all animal sacrifice in the name of any religion. However the sheer scale of Gadhimai, as well as insights from other cases of animal slaughter/sacrifice/donations for ostensibly religious purposes in India strongly suggests that piety alone is hardly the principal reason for killing these animals.

The economics of the Gadhimai sacrifices

To analyse Gadhimai purely in terms of a religious motivation to please the voracious appetite of a carnivorous goddess is to miss the desperate economic realities that undergird India's agricultural economy and motivate the disposal of economically "unviable" animals. Religious superstition undoubtedly plays a major -- but not the only -- role in animal and human rights abuse.

As in any capitalist economy, and particularly one such as India where animal-based commodities are crucial in sustaining growth, the "need" to dispose of economically unsustainable animals is a crucial force. These realities have hardly disappeared. Hitherto, Gadhimai had provided farmers from some of India's most impoverished states -- as well as a morally corrupt Indian state itself -- an exceptionally convenient way of culling economically burdensome animals.

A clear illustration of the complex economics of animal sacrifice can be found in the case of bull-calf "donations" to the 1000-year-old Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam. Andhra Pradesh, like most Indian states, criminalises the slaughter of cows, bulls and bull-calves based on laws inspired by Hinduism. As a way of circumventing these bans then, religion itself needs to be made complicit in animal brutalisation. The practice of cattle "donations" to Hindu and even Jain and Buddhist temples in India, or large-scale animal sacrifices in Nepal serve as some of the largest concealments for the violence of the dairy, meat and leather industries.

Poor agricultural and dairy farmers in Andhra Pradesh and neighbouring states "donate" their male calves to the Simhachalam Temple, resulting in the dumping of tens of thousands of calves in the temple precincts annually. In a particularly innovative technique of unburdening themselves of male calves which is, in one fell swoop economically efficient, as well as ostensibly pious, the pathway to the slaughterhouse is routed via the temples. This is not unique to Simhachalam -- cattle donations to temples and goshalas has been a euphemism for sending them to the slaughterhouse for a long time. The Simhachalam goshala is simply unable to accommodate thousands of calves, and prior to the intervention of the animal activist group, the Visakha Society for the Care and Protection of Animals (VSPCA), the temple used to sell the calves en masse to butchers.

"[C]attle donations to temples and goshalas has been a euphemism for sending them to the slaughterhouse for a long time."

After nearly 20 persistent years of battle, the VSPCA was successful in achieving a ban on the auction of calves by the temple authorities. Simhachalam announced that they would accept only native Indian calves in their temple goshala, and the Jersey crossbreeds would be rescued by the VSPCA and relocated to their sanctuary in the outskirts of Visakhapatnam. After several years of VSPCA's awareness programmes, the donations have registered a decrease but by no means have stopped. Calves continue to arrive in the thousands throughout the year, particularly in the peak and scorching festival months of May and June.

Where next from Gadhimai?

The political economy of religious slaughter of animals is mired in issues of not only animal rights but also human social justice and the priorities of a neoliberal state. The need of farmers to dispose of unproductive animals is real, the butcher and meat mafia can be ruthless in their pursuit of profits, and the Gadhimai Temple Trust has just lost an extremely lucrative income source. Corruption is rife in the political and bureaucratic administration of both India and Nepal. How can the genuine, committed welfare of the living, terrorised animal then be ensured?

VSPCA's experience with the temple calves of Simhachalam offers key insights in ensuring that the Gadhimai animal sacrifice ban has integrity.

1. What happens to the animals now?: The first concern, according to VSPCA founding director Pradeep Kumar Nath is to ask: what happens now to the animals that will not be sacrificed at Gadhimai? It is dangerous to merely ban slaughter without providing an alternative for the care of the animals. In Simhachalam, the ban on the auction of calves to the butchers would have merely resulted in the death of the calves through slow hunger, disease and thirst if VSPCA had not stepped in to rescue the bull-calves that continued to be dumped at the temple.

To expect poor farmers to provide for animal welfare without state support is ludicrous. Farmers in the subcontinent belong to some of the poorest labour classes. The real possibility is that the Gadhimai animals may now be simply starved to death instead as was the case with the temple calves at Simhachalam. Large sanctuaries for all animals, not only cattle, need to be constructed for the intended Gadhimai victims in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. These states already have a dubious reputation for law enforcement. What welfare, audit and policing methods can be enforced to ensure the safety of these animals? Pradeep Kumar advises massive awareness campaigns in the concerned villages, ensuring the involvement and issuance of orders from the local Panchayats, and conducting regular meetings with the village heads.

2. People's issues must be addressed too:The livelihoods of the poorest are dependent most directly on the commoditisation of animals. The renowned deep ecologist Arne Naess was emphatic that all life had inherent value regardless of their utility to humans. He maintained however that social justice for the poorest humans has to underpin reverence for nature and nonhumans. Otherwise the core tenet of deep ecology -- unconditional respect for life -- simply would not work.

"[S]ocial justice for the poorest humans has to underpin reverence for nature and nonhumans."

What alternative education and employment opportunities can the government offer the poor? How can agricultural policies be reframed to transition to a more humane economy for humans and nonhumans? Can we envisage just labour and retirement laws for working animals? The reduction of human populations in the interests of nonhuman animals and the welfare of the planet itself has been well noted. The onus on India to take its population control measures seriously is particularly heavy.

3. Ensuring enforcement: Nepal, like India has cow slaughter bans. However most animals sacrificed at Gadhimai, including buffaloes, which form the single largest number of species to be killed at the carnage, fall outside the ambit of legal protection. Where open animal carnage is now discouraged, it is vital to ensure that the decision is not circumvented through animal "donations" to the temple, which can then serve as a smokescreen for continued, albeit hidden sacrifice. Citizens in India and Nepal must thus be vigilant in asking: what penalties, if any, can be placed for any violations of the temple decision? What measures will the two governments employ to deter trafficking across a porous border?

A need for State support: The ban on calf auctions did not deter temple officials at Simhachalam from continuing to endanger the lives of temple calves and sell them to butchers. The temple trust at Gadhimai must now pass the test of fire in being scrupulous in their commitment to celebrate life instead of death. Animal welfare bodies such as the Animal Welfare Network Nepal must be assisted unstintingly by the Nepalese government to uphold the ban. In other words, the Gadhimai decision will almost inevitably be a hollow victory without State support.

In the final analysis, it is hardly sufficient to merely ban atrocities against animals in the name of religion. What of the secular policies of the state that are in fact arguably as complicit, if not more, in abetting violence against animals? No animal protectionism bans can endure without an ongoing interrogation of the realities of the political economies of current national and global food production systems. It is even more vital to outlaw archaic animal husbandry policies that are responsible for the profligate growth in food animal populations through artificial insemination. Animal husbandry throughout the world is a throwback to a medieval era, and must be at the forefront of the scrutiny of governments and citizens for reasons of animal rights, human rights and climatic change.

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