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In India, while both laws and judicial pronouncements recognise that animals possess certain privileges, they lack the status of fundamental rights as provided to humans by the Constitution. Animals need recognition

Steven M Wise, founder and president of the United States-based Nonhuman Rights Project, is one of the world’s foremost scholars of jurisprudence specialising in animal protection issues, primatology and animal intelligence. He has done much to make the issue of the rights, protection and well-being of non-human living beings an important component of contemporary discourse. Author of several books — Rattling The Cage: Toward Legal Rights For Animals, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery and An American Trilogy: Death, Slavery, and Dominion on the Banks of the Cape Fear River — he visited India along with Kevin Schneider, the organisation’s executive president, at the invitation of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO), to attend its “Personhood for Animals” meeting. His mission here, he told this writer, was to spread the message that the conferring of legal personhood to all non-human living beings and recognition of their possession of inalienable rights were imperative.

The issue of personhood and rights of animals is at the centre of a growing global debate. In 1992, Switzerland recognised animals as beings and not things by amending its Constitution. In 1999, New Zealand conferred basic rights to the great apes — gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and bonobos — banning their use in research, testing and teaching. In 2002, Germany became the first country in the European Union to enshrine animal rights in its constitution. In 2008, Spain legislated to protect animals from abuse, torture and death, not only protecting them from scientific experiments but also outlawing their use in television commercials, circuses and films.

In India both laws and judicial pronouncements recognise that animals possess certain rights. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, implies that street dogs have the right not to be killed by providing that they be sterilised and immunised by animal welfare organisations, private individuals and local authorities and that they cannot be relocated from their respective territories after being sterilised. They have to be released from where they had been taken. It does provide for their killing under certain circumstances but only after following a prescribed process justifying the Act. Similarly, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 implies that animals have the right to live and not made extinct. Also, Article 48 [A] of India’s Constitution provides that the “State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.” According to Article 51A (g) it is the fundamental duty of every Indian citizen “to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures”.

There have been a number of significant judicial pronouncements. For example, in the matter of the Animal Welfare Board of India and A Nagaraja, the Supreme Court recognised that Sections 3 and 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, conferred animals the right to well-being and not being inflicted any unnecessary pain, suffering or cruelty as provided by Section 11. It also stated that animals could not be arbitrarily denied of their honour and dignity, and their rights and privacy had to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks.

To cite another example, in the Nitin Sanghavi and the Union of India case, which is about the release of a wild elephant called ‘Sonu’, which had been kept in captivity by the authorities of Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh for a year-and-a-half  after capture, the Chhattisgarh High Court had observed that “we need to recognise that animals do have the rights, the enforcement and preservation of which depend largely upon the self-imposed or, otherwise enforced, restrictions that humans should maintain, individually, collectively and through institutions of governance; against invading the life and territories of animals.”

The rights legally and judicially sanctioned, however, lack the status of fundamental rights which the Indian Constitution provides to humans. The reason for their being denied it is the widespread belief that animals and other non-human living beings belong to a lower category than humans. This is the result of the influence Judaeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman weltanschauung on the culture of the West emerging in the matrix of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which has now become the dominant global culture. The critical issue was the absence of the faculty of reason in animals.

St Augustine stated while interpreting the implications of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” that it did not apply to “bushes because they have no sensation nor to unreasoning animals that fly, walk or crawl because  they are not partners with us in the faculty of reason.” Paul Waldau points out in The Spectre of Speceisism: Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals, “Members of human species are viewed in the Hebrew Bible as a single, distinct group of animals that has been specially created and given dominion in Genesis1.26 over all other animals” such as “the fish of the sea….birds of the air….the cattle….and every creeping thing.” He further stated, “mainline Christian tradition has historically asserted, as a part of its basic message, not only a fundamental, radical division between human animals and all other animals but also the exclusion of all other animals’ interests when they conflict with even minor, unnecessary human interests.”

Aristotle stated in Politics that nature made all animals for the sake of man and it was permissible to enslave people who did not possess reason as it was permissible to enslave animals. Such views were strengthened by the anthropocentric thrust of Humanism whose essence has been best encapsulated by Protagorus’ well-known aphorism, “Man is the measure of all things”, the implications of which in terms of the status of non-human living beings are obvious.

The coming of the modern age and the tremendous progress made by humans in modifying, through science and technology, the world to their advantage has further enhanced the feeling of human supremacy and the sovereignty of reason, which has played a critical role in the process and in emphasising the subordinate status on non-human living beings.

The ability to reason is, doubtless, an important attribute of the human mind. One, however, wonders whether it is the defining attribute. Irrationality is as much a part of the human mind as rationality. Otherwise, millions would not have supported Hitler and Mussolini. Intuition and instinct are, arguably, as important as reason. It is the intuitive or instinctive recognition of an objective or a goal that leads to the resort to reason to devise ways of attaining it. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Costello, the principal protagonist in JM  Coetzee’s Lives of Animals, says that reason “is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God…Reason is the being of a certain spectrum in human thinking.” As important, reason can be used in the service of both commendable and not so commendable goals.

Animals have far superior levels of intuition or instinct than humans. They can survive in situations in which no humans can on their own. They can calculate and have sophisticated systems of communication. Karl Von Frisch won a Nobel Prize in 1973 primarily for his discovery that honeybees possessed by far the most sophisticated system of communication in the modern world after human language. Wise says in Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights  that dogs “mentally represent” and “probably carry cognitive maps in their brains”, have internal representation of spatial relationships between external sites. We know that they take short-cuts that require them to perform mental calculations.”

There is no case for treating humans as a category above non-human living beings. With apologies to TS Elliott, “After such knowledge/What forgiveness?” Denial of fundamental rights to non-human living beings has been a shame and has to end immediately.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)