Friday, October 30, 2015

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Cow: Or what the demand for a new national animal means

It would mean that this republic no longer believes in separating religion from the state and privileges the beliefs of the majority.
That way things are moving, it should not be long before a movie production house announces Crouching Tiger, Hidden Cow, or Revenge of the Vegetarians, a fast-paced action thriller by Anil Vij. Sacrificing cow gets sidelined by carnivorous tiger in the bid for national animal status. The tiger has a showy habit of getting poached but does anyone ask where all those beef kebabs came from? But the meek (or the tasty) shall inherit the earth and when the right government comes to power, cow finally edges out tiger to become national animal.

That, broadly speaking, is the plot Haryana Health and Sports Minister Anil Vij has in mind. Living up to his reputation of being a maverick, caller of spades, Vij went on Twitter to add his two bit to the controversy on beef and cow slaughter. Make the cow the national animal and you won’t need laws for its protection. The Royal Bengal Tiger can protect itself, Vij reasoned, and held an online poll on the matter. Of the 329 people who cast their vote, 88% agreed with Vij.

Not a representative sample size, really, but Vij and his online voters are not the first to demand Project Cow. Last year, the Sanatan Brahma Foundation, believed to be an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, voiced the same opinions. Earlier this year, over 100,000 groups and individuals appealed to the Centre for national animal status for the cow, according to one report. And the government is said to have given the idea due consideration.

This time, the demand has moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Vij, a minister of the Bharatiya Janata Party, now seems to be mobilising public opinion around it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the state government he belongs to has already passed laws banning cow slaughter and the sale of beef. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has also recommended that minorities give up beef if they want to stay in India. So why not make the cow, a holy animal for some Indians, a national animal for all Indians?

How to choose a national animal

A changeable skein of reasons goes into the choice of a national animal. But what we choose says much about our priorities as a society at that point of time and what qualities we wish to identify ourselves with.

The real and the symbolic meet in the body of the national animal. The animal that lives in the collective imaginary, the significance attached to it, the qualities attributed to it, and how we use those qualities to describe ourselves. And the actual living, breathing creature with biological needs like food and water, circumscribed by evolutionary conditions such as habitat and breeding seasons. Indian governments so far have chosen animals with a cultural resonance, recognising their physical realities through projects of conservation. Which means they generally picked endangered species, animals that needed to be tracked, counted, protected from harm. Their very elusiveness, the fragility of their existence, gave them a new symbolic significance in the public imagination.

Between 1952 and 1972, it was the lion, perhaps appropriate for a new republic anxious to establish its sovereignty. It matched the statues on the Ashok Chakra, the new national symbol, it stood for kingliness, power and courage across religious traditions. Lions were also early subjects of conservation, dating back to colonial times. Hunted at an alarming rate in the 19th century, there were just 12 left in the Gir forest at the beginning of the 20th. Appalled, the nawab of Junagadh put a stop to hunting and declared the area a reserve. By 1950, there were 240 lions in Gir, numerous enough for the conservation to be called a success story, few enough for them to keep needing protection.

More recently, the lion has been absorbed into the iconography of the Modi government, his brand of muscular development and the figure of the prime minister himself. Earlier this year, it was suggested that the lion might become national animal again, newly laden with associations such as Make in India, Vibrant Gujarat and “hoonkar” rallies. Even conservation was caught up in a competitive jingoism, as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh sparred over the proposal to transfer lions out of Gir and into the Kuno Palpur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Back in 1972, the lion had been edged out by the tiger as conservation gained new urgency. It was the same year that the government passed the Wildlife Protection Act, compiling a list of protected species and outlining an agenda for conservation. The following year, it launched Project Tiger. The tiger, which ranged over a much larger area than the lion, came to represent the modern state’s new environmental consciousness, the wealth of its biodiversity. But the tiger is also a much storied animal in the subcontinent, returning to culture in symbols of power and valour.

The Chola kings used it as their symbol and the Mughals liked to be painted hunting tigers. The tiger is also a familiar for several deities and the form favoured by a divine king in the Sunderbans, known for both his wrath and mercy. To British colonisers in the early 19th century, it stood for Oriental savagery. Their most difficult opponent, Tipu Sultan, had fashioned himself as the “Tiger of Mysore”. Later, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book would also cast Sher Khan as the villain of the piece. Colonial hunting lore only acquired the conscience of conservation in the last few decades of empire.

In post-colonial India, Tipu Sultan was reinvented as a national hero, known for his courage, martial prowess and sense of independence, and the tiger acquired the same virtues. The National Portal of India says, “The combination of grace, strength, agility and enormous power has earned the tiger its pride of place as the national animal”. It also mentions the animal’s dwindling numbers.

National holy animal

People demanding that the cow be made national animal, however, have tended to focus on the tiger as non-vegetarian, a trait that is increasingly reviled and identified as non-Hindu. The vegetarian cow, in contrast, is sacrificing and nurturing, giving up its milk for humans and spending its energies on the field. Since cows populate the landscape in large numbers, conservation is not an objective here. What is being protected here is the agricultural animal, absorbed over time into Hindu mythology.

Writing about how Western culture “pictures the beast”, historian Steve Baker refers to an older symbolic relationship with animals in rural settings. Farmers depended on animals for food and labour, and therefore attributed mythic significance to them. They worshipped and sacrificed animals because they reared, worked with and ate these animals. Urbanisation disrupted this relationship, separating the symbolic from the real as animals disappeared from the essential business of living.

In Indian slums and cities, a similar process has taken place. Cows rummaging in garbage dumps, cows run over by cars, cows swallowing filth and plastic – these are the physical realities that city dwellers know. In the countryside, too, the cow’s uses have waned. Vij and his supporters may be surprised to find that most of the milk drunk in India today comes from buffaloes, and mechanisation has forced cows off the field in many places.

The symbolism that remains, hollowed out of real ties, is overtly religious and political. Next-door Nepal, which recently named the cow its national animal, has adopted a constitution that is secular but especially for Hindus. It is the country of Muluki Ain, or a criminal code based on Hinduism, which treats cow slaughter like homicide and imprisons people for eating beef. The laws have interfered with the customs of indigenous groups and religious minorities, who feel the constitution is another instrument of exclusion.

In India, where people are lynched for allegedly eating beef and where chief ministers tell minorities to change their habits if they want to live in the country, this experience could be repeated. Cow as national animal would mean this country has given up the attempt to separate religion and the state, that it identifies completely with the beliefs and practices of the religious majority, even if it means criminalising the beliefs and practices of other religions.
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