Horsewhipping, tahrs, and political sacrifice

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2001:

NEW DELHI–Lashing racehorses with “jockey bats” is now illegal in India, Indian Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Maneka Gandhi declared on February 20. The announcement, issued at the presentation ceremony for the Vanu Menon Animal Allies Awards, inadvertantly upstaged news media recognition of the winners. One winner was Visakha SPCA founder Pradeep Kumar Nath, familiar to ANIMAL PEOPLE readers from coverage of his work on behalf of nesting sea turtles, cattle rescued from the illegal slaughter traffic, and street dogs and cats.

The banned whips are defined by the 1998 edition of The Whole Horse Catalog as “heavy sticks, made of plastic or fiberglass [now, formerly made from whalebone] coated with leather or thread and furnished with leather, tape, or rubber handles,” with “wide leather ‘poppers,’ or flaps, to make a noise when slapped against the horse’s flank.”

Indian jockeys may still use lightweight rubber whips, Mrs. Gandhi stated, as Animal Welfare Board of India chair and retired judge Guman Mal Lodha clarified the details. But the rubber whips may be used only to signal to the horses, not to do them injury, Mrs. Gandhi stipulated. Mrs. Gandhi said that beatings with jockey bats had blinded many horses and sometimes caused horses to develop dangerous blood clots on their heads, beneath the skin.

“There have been several instances in which whipping has inflicted serious injury on horses,” Justice Lodha confirmed,
adding “I see no reason why we should tolerate this.”Delhi Race Club manager Kulwant Singh told Arun Kumar Das of
the Times of India that, “We have placed orders for the import of 15 whips from England,” and said that the race club would “propose to initiate action against jockeys who violate the order.” Agreed Delhi Race Club president P.S. Bedi, “We will embrace rubber whips as soon as they arrive.”

Mrs. Gandhi herself was 10 days later named winner of the prestigious Aadishakti Puraskar award, to be presented in April by singer Lata Mangeshkar on behalf of Dinath Mangeshkar Smruti Pratishthan, “in appreciation of her remarkable contribution in the field of environmental protection and animal welfare,” the announcement said.

But handing out and receiving laurels were not among Mrs. Gandhi’s uppermost concerns. Her top political priorities during a hectic February and March were dealing with the aftermath of the January 26 Gujarat earthquake and a cabinet crisis occasioned when a corruption scandal forced the resignation of Defense Minister George Fernandes and other ranking officials.

Mrs. Gandhi found time in between to interrupt the scheduled South African National Park Service massacre of the last 31 feral Himalayan tahrs left on Table Mountain, near Cape Town, offering them sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh. The tahrs established themselves on the mountain after a pair escaped from the Groote Schnur Zoo in Cape Town. They had arrived in 1935 from a zoo in Pretoria. Unwanted in South Africa, Himalayan tahrs are highly endangered in
their native India, with only a few hundred believed to remain in the wild.

The South African government on March 23 suspended the massacre for six months to give Mrs. Gandhi, the Wildlife Trust of India, and Friends of the Tahr time to arrange for the tahrs to be net-gunned from helicopters by a New Zealand team and flown to India–and to seek funding for the work. A last-minute complication was the risk that quarantines on the movement of all hooved stock, meant to slow the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease, might cause delay.

A further complication may be reported objections from the World Conservation Union that the Table Mountain tahrs are “invasive,” should therefore be removed immediately, and should not be allowed to mix with the remaining wild tahrs lest they carry negative inbred genetic traits.


Never one to spare the verbal lash against cruelty and corruption, Mrs. Gandhi also found time to demand that Karnataka state minister for primary and secondary education H. Vishwanath be criminally prosecuted for attending an allegedly illegal sacrifice of two rams on February 16.

“The minister’s cousin reportedly bought the animals and kept them in a police officer’s house before sacrificing them,” the Times of India reported. “The minister attended the prayer service, but did not witness the sacrificial ceremony. He left the place only after the rituals of sacrifice were over. Chamarajnagar Deputy Commissioner Bhimaiah and Police Superintendent Anne Gowda reportedly accompanied the minister. It is learnt,” the Times of India continued, “that the minister spurned the invitation of his cousin to partake of the rams’ meat.” Mrs. Gandhi demanded that Vish-wanath be prosecuted.

Reported the Deccan Herald of Mysore on March 3, “A public interest litigation petition will be filed in the High Court against Viswanath, said Progressive Organ-ization convenor K. Ramadas.” A noted rationalist author, Ramadas made the sacrifices public knowledge by confronting Vishwanath as Vishwanath prepared to speak on “Anthropology in the service of humankind” at the Fine Arts College for Women in Manasagangothri.

A prominent member of the Congress Party, which ruled India from 1947 to 1998, Vishwanath was defended by Congress officials who accused Ramadas of “abusing Vishwanath by caste name.” Ramadas said he would apologize if anyone could produce evidence that he had done it.

The incident stimulated reportage all over India about ongoing open defiance of the 1960 national prohibition of animal
sacrifice–and was scarcely the first time Mrs. Gandhi denounced influential politicians for tolerating it. In April 2000, for
instance, she fingered Andhra Pradesh chief executive N. Chandrababu Naidu.

“Andhra is the only state where animals are sacrificed on the premises of the Legislative Assembly in what they claim are purification exercises,” Mrs. Gandhi told Asian Age. “My ministry has received letters from all over the state informing us about animal sacrifices and the complete ignorance and, in some cases, connivance of local authorities. We have set up a fact-finding committee,” she said, “to inquire into these complaints and identify the areas where action is necessary.”

Asian Age published details furnished by Mrs. Gandhi including calendars of sacrifices at prominent temples and a
description of a rite in Medak in which day-old lambs are reportedly killed by the priests’ teeth.

“In most cases,” Mrs. Gandhi charged, “there is a nexus among the temple priest, the village moneylender, and the butcher, wherein the priest concocts a reason for a particular sacrifice, the moneylender steps in to provide the money, and then the priest sells the carcass to the butcher at the wholesale price. This is the reason why most temples have meat markets behind them. It is absolutely obscene.”

The only animal sacrifices specifically exempted from the 1960 law are the sheep and goat slaughters undertaken by Muslims at Ramadan, called Bakr-Id in India–but Mrs. Gandhi said there is no effective enforcement of the restriction on which species may be killed, nor of the requirement that the slaughtering be done only at designated locations, in the prescribed Halal manner.

Other mass ritual killings are commonly reported. At Kushtagi, for instance, 80,000 people reportedly attended three
days of sacrifices that began on February 25. “Despite heavy police presence, 1,000 buffaloes were reportedly killed and 10,000 sheep,” said the Deccan Herald. “The police are said to have left utterly helpless.”

At Pauri Garwhal in December 2000, 40,000 people watched the sacrifice of “76 male buffaloes and an endless number of goats and rams,” according to Aarti Aggarwal of the Times of India. “The swinging axes, the bleating of the animals, the frenzied worshippers created a sickening scene. The carcasses were eventually thrown off a mountaintop, creating a virtual mountain by themselves. The stench was unbearable. By evening the earth was as red as the
setting sun. Vultures blanketed the sky.”

But animal welfare activists and civic authorities claimed a victory of sorts, in that the number of buffaloes killed has fallen annually since 1998, when 150 were killed. More successes–but involving much smaller numbers of animals–are claimed in halting “sacrifices” and other ritual use of wildlife. Many of the events are just thinly disguised destruction of animals who may raid crops or attack livestock, and fade as wildlife populations diminish.

The biggest single-day ritual killing of wildlife in India, however, appears to occur each August at Nagapanchami, the snake festival, when most participants appear to believe they are doing cobras and rock pythons a kindness by feeding them milk, butter, and sweetened rice–paying snake charmers for the privilege. The captures, defanging, mouth-stitching, and other procedures done by the charmers to make the feedings possible, however, kill an estimated 50,000 snakes per year. ANIMAL PEOPLE receives reports of ritual wildlife abuses being interrupted or halted by activists at the rate of about one case per week.

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