Animal rights: Here’s what Jawaharlal Nehru said 60 years ago

Jallikattu rescued us from the lull after the heat of demonetisation. Much has been said and written about cruelty to animals these past few weeks. Activists and traditionalists seem to have agreed to disagree.

It was not so 60 years ago when cruelty to animals first became an important cause in Independent India due to the efforts of Rukmini Devi Arundale, noted danseuse and a nominated member of Parliament. She happened to be from Madras state, the home of Jallikattu.

Arundale’s compassion was legendary. Once, during a debate on the extermination of rats, she stood up to say: “If they can be killed instantaneously, if there is some kind of poison which would work quickly and not bring about terrible suffering it will be better.”

India had a Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act since the Raj days, but Arundale wanted to improve it so that “every animal and every bird should be treated as if it is really a citizen of this country.”

She did not approve of meat eating, not even vivisection for science, but while bringing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Bill, 1953, she accepted that “meat eating has to be there.”

Nevertheless, the improvements she sought were so extensive that during the first debate on them, on March 5, 1954, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stood up to suggest moderation of her commendable goals keeping in mind India’s diversity. Perhaps Nehru’s middle path would still serve India best. Here’s what Nehru said:

Changing customs

“When we speak of India, we find that it is a great country with enormous varieties and with all kinds of customs, good or bad, and if we imagine that we are going to reform the whole of this country from the northern and the northeastern mountain regions — the people who are living there — to the southeast and the west, and if we think that we are going to change them basically and fundamentally by some Act passed here, I think that we are imagining too much. In fact, it is just a possibility that the customs that we seek to put an end to in this way might not only flourish but flourish aggressively, possibly in some parts of India, not all.”

Imposing one view across the country

“I am entirely one with the hon. Member when she says that any kind of killing in the name of religion is bad. It is difficult for me to connect the idea of a noble thing, of any noble principle, which is enshrined in religion, with killing. Nevertheless, I certainly would hesitate in imposing my will on others in that respect.”

Difficulty of enforcement

“It is well over 36 years now since I used a gun against any living thing, and the last living thing that I attempted to shoot was a bear 37 years ago. Since then I have not done so because I have no desire to do so, and the very idea is somewhat repugnant to me. But for me to say that by a law I put a stop to all this business of what is called shikar in India seems to be a large order, and an order which we will not be able to enforce though we try.”

arundales-compassion-was-legendary-once-during-a-debate-on-the-extermination-of-rats-she-stood-up-to-say-if-they-can-be-killed-instantaneously-if-there-is-some-kind-of-poison-wh

Using ‘other ways’ to change people

“We, as a people, are given to the worship of animals, and it is a sure sign that, if you worship something, you gradually destroy it. With all our worship, in this country the animals are in a worse state as compared with other countries. Secondly, in our desire to protect, we are actually sometimes much more cruel than we might be. We try to avoid killing but we do not seem to mind cruelty and callousness of other kinds. That, of course, you have to change not by law but by other ways.”

Focus on most important objectives

“There is such a great field for us to act and act firmly that we spoil our work if we make that field much vaster by including many aspects in it about which it is difficult for me, at any rate — it may not be for many Members of this House — to express any opinion without any doubt and about which, I have no doubt, many people in the country also will be doubtful. Therefore, let us seize hold of that field which we can and which really would make a tremendous difference to this country if we can stop cruelty to animals in that particular field.”

Remembering plight of humans

“It is a debasing thing for the person who indulges in this cruelty. Perhaps the effect is worse in his case than in those who suffer that cruelty. I agree with it entirely. Nevertheless, it seems to me — if I can say so with all respect — that human beings also suffer cruelty, not only cruelty in some crude and barbarous fashion like this, but sometimes even worse cruelty, because it is a long-drawn-out thing, whether it is from hunger or starvation or whether it is something else which people dislike.”

Perversion of Ahimsa ideal

“Sometimes I feel that we are apt to forget the human being in thinking of the non-humans. Some of the extreme advocates of Ahimsa, I am told, even offer themselves to the insects as food, but they are very few, no doubt. They also hire people so that they may offer some food to some of these various types of insects. That is, what I call, a complete perversion of the ideal of Ahimsa.”

Shunning sentimentalism

“I entirely agree with the hon. the Mover that one test of civilisation — a very major test — is the growth of this feeling and practice of compassion. All the great men have said so and said so rightly, if I may say that with all humility, but compassion has to be effective compassion and not merely some kind of, if I may say so, flabby feeling which really creates more misery instead of removing misery.”

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