Fig 1. "Maneka Gandhi demands BJP MLA’s expulsion for attack on horse." Indian Express. March 17, 2016 12:28 am.

Fig 1. "Maneka Gandhi demands BJP MLA’s expulsion for attack on horse." Indian Express. March 17, 2016 12:28 am.

On March 14th 2016, a police horse, named Shaktiman (or Shaktimaan), was attacked in Uttarakhand, one of India’s picturesque northern states. On its back was Ravindra Singh, an officer charged with maintaining law and order during a political parade. The man accused of assailing the horse wasn’t a nobody - indeed, far from it. Ganesh Joshi (Fig 1.) was a politician of the opposition BJP party, and a member of the state Legislative assembly.

On his forehead, 58-year-old Mr. Joshi dabs a red ‘tilak’ mark signifying religious inclination. The affiliation carries weight, for his party rules the nation. In explaining his actions, the former Army man turned politician claims that he reacted  “after a police horse ran over a BJP activist and the horse squad rained batons 'reminiscent of the British action against independence fighters'” (“Sharma”).

However, in his complaint at the police station, Mr. Singh, the officer riding Shaktiman, alleged that “Joshi hit the horse many a times before he [Shaktiman] fell on the ground" (“Horse”). Mr. Joshi denies any wrongdoing, but several photographs (Fig 2.) attest to the contrary. When the press reported the incident, the case went viral on social media. The following day, The Telegraph, one of India’s national newspapers, reported that “Pooja Bahukhandi, a local animal rights worker, and Vinod Kumar, a driver, have also registered separate cases against Joshi and his supporters” (“Horse”). Although Mr. Joshi is subject to due process, he doesn’t have much to worry about. His punishment can, at most, be light: “[he] may have to pay a fine of only Rs 50 [$ 0.7] for the cruelty caused to the animal under the prevention of cruelty to animals act of 1960” (“Paltry”).

Fig 2. "BJP MLA arrested on charge of assaulting ‘Shaktiman’" The Hindu. March 18, 2016 17:45 IST 

Fig 2. "BJP MLA arrested on charge of assaulting ‘Shaktiman’" The Hindu. March 18, 2016 17:45 IST 

The Shaktiman case doesn’t just spotlight our antiquated animal rights laws, but it also ignites debate over what rights they may have. Do animals have the right to freedom? Do they possess the right to a painless death?  Can they insist on ‘humane’ living conditions? Quoting a 2006 Hindu-CNN-IBN poll, Wikipedia says that “31% of Indians are 'vegetarian', while another 9% also consume eggs (ovo-vegetarian)” (“Vegetarianism”). The statistic is significant in that, at least at first reading, it implies widespread respect for another creature’s life. However, if religion were the primary reason for this figure, it could also be argued that dogma and the promise of eventual reward have more to do with this choice than empathy or compassion. Whatever the case may be, the fact that a 1960 law, stipulating ₹ 50 as fine for cruelty to animals, has gone unchallenged for so long raises the question of whether animals truly come under our moral umbrella.

In a place where agriculture is the mainstay (“Employment”), and dependence on livestock is significant (“Animal”), the act’s wording is understandably circumspect: “If any person… beats, kicks, over-rides, over-drives, over-loads, tortures or otherwise treats any animal so as to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering… he shall be punishable” (“Prevention”). It appears that the operative clause, here, is “unnecessary pain or suffering.” But when does pain become necessary or unavoidable?

Arguably, it is during slaughter for food. But if we accept this explanation, we must also accept the responsibility to ensure that an animal’s pain does not breach “necessary” levels.

Modern abattoirs are expected to stun animals before they are killed: “In the United States, there is the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, a law requiring that all swine, sheep, cattle, and horses be stunned unconscious with application of a stunning device by a trained person before being hoisted up on the line” (“Slaughterhouse”). But the same Wikipedia article says that, even in these modern day abattoirs, law enforcement is lax:

In 1997 Gail Eisnitz, chief investigator for the Humane Farming Association (HFA), released a book Slaughterhouse. Within, she unveils the interviews of slaughterhouse workers in the U.S. who say that, because of the speed with which they are required to work, animals are routinely skinned while apparently alive, and still blinking, kicking, and shrieking…

According to the HFA, Eiznitz interviewed slaughterhouse workers representing over two million hours of experience, who, without exception, told her that they have beaten, strangled, boiled, and dismembered animals alive, or have failed to report those who do. (“Slaughterhouse”)

If humans, in a hospital ward, were to be neglected by caregivers, it would make national news. Why is it, then, that when animals are abused at their time of death, our system barely blinks? Is it apathy, or do we implicitly accept that animal rights must be diluted when it comes time to implement them?

Some animal rights activists might argue that we should treat animals the way we treat ourselves. Opponents are likely to counter with: we ‘feel’ more; our intellect is superior; we are a moral race - hence we are more deserving. Perhaps they are right. But, when it comes to animal behavior, science has continued to surprise us. Describing activist and law professor Steven Wise’s visit to the Gorilla research project “Koko,” the Washington Post writes:

Wise reports this conversation from the day after Koko bit a caretaker, and her trainer asked what she had done.

"Wrong wrong," Koko signed with her large dark fingers.

"What wrong?" her trainer signed back.

"Bite," signed Koko. "Sorry bite scratch."

"Why bite?"

"Because mad," signed Koko.

"Why mad?"

Koko signed, "Don’t know." (“Beastly”)

Although it appears clear that Koko shows remorse, not everyone might agree that her words stem from a moral core:

Tibor Machan, a philosopher and professor of business ethics at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who has written about the issue, argues that the criterion for rights is morality. 'Such rights would only arise if animals developed into moral agents, which they haven't,' he says. 'Notice no one is expecting animals to be kind, compassionate, considerate of their own victims, stop being carnivorous if they are, and so forth. That's because the only moral animals are human beings.’ (“Beastly”)

Studies, however, refute Mr. Machan’s view. In a 2013 article in Social Research, Harvard psychology professor, Felix Warneken says that “an increasing number of studies of instrumental helping provide evidence that chimpanzees might in fact have altruistic motivations. Under certain circumstances, chimpanzees do in fact act on behalf of others” (“Warneken”).

Opponents of granting equal rights to animals also argue that it is hypocritical to demand them when we rely so much on medical technology:

The standard reproach from medical researchers: Virtually every major medical advance of the past century has come from animal testing. Says Frankie Trull, president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, in Washington: 'It is pretty easy to sit around a table and intellectualize about his stuff and talk about what you'd be willing to give up -- until you or somebody you care about is hit with some terrible disease’” (“Beastly”).

Mr. Trull’s argument is certainly valid. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that, in the industrialized world, all of us use modern medicine. To make a drug safe, experimenters first test it on chimpanzees, dogs, monkeys, guinea pigs and rats, amongst others. Imaginably, their pain can’t be too far from what Shaktiman must have undergone (Fig 3.). But can we draw a line between Shaktiman’s case and that of these thousands of lab animals that are sacrificed to make our lives better? And if so, where do we draw that line?

Perhaps a good place to start is to reexamine the words of the 1960s prevention of cruelty Act. What is unnecessary suffering? And, for starters, can we prevent at least some of it?

Fig 3. "Police horse Shaktiman's condition deteriorates." DNA. Thu, 17 Mar 2016.

Fig 3. "Police horse Shaktiman's condition deteriorates." DNA. Thu, 17 Mar 2016.

It may be difficult to reach agreement on what is unnecessary - since, as we saw earlier, it gets entangled with its counterpart, necessary, but how much would we lose if we were to be vegans on one day of the week? Wikipedia says that five percent of Israel’s population has embraced it on all seven (“Vegetarianism”). Have the people of this tiny nation reduced unnecessary suffering by a bit? It certainly appears so, and the good news is that the same article also states this: “Among surveyed countries, the general trend shows vegetarianism on the rise.”

For many in India, Shaktiman turned out to be a lighting rod for change. But sadly, although he  appeared to recover after being showered with medical attention (see Fig 4.) and a national outpouring of love, he died on the 20th of April 2016. Reporting in the Economic Times, Kautilya Singh writes:

Soon after the accident, Shaktiman's left hind leg was amputated. Then an artificial one was fitted before that, too, was taken off and replaced with a state-of-the art limb brought by a Virginia-based former banker called Tim Mahoney. Four vets, helpers and 25 policemen were on round-the-clock duty.

Fig 4. "शक्तिमान के नाम पर होगा रिस्पना पुल चौक, लगेगी मूर्ति." Amar Ujala. 16th March 2016.

Fig 4. "शक्तिमान के नाम पर होगा रिस्पना पुल चौक, लगेगी मूर्ति." Amar Ujala. 16th March 2016.

Moments after Shaktiman breathed his last, [Mumbai based Equine Orthosurgeon, Dr. Phiroze] Khambatta told TOI that the horse was unable to handle anesthesia. ‘We had, in fact, planned a minor surgery later in the afternoon. There was respiratory failure and Shaktiman expired at about 4.30pm,’ he added. (“Singh”)

It may be years before we learn whether Shaktiman’s death has brought about significant change. Years before we, as a society, decide to completely wean ourselves away from livestock. Years before we accept that animals have emotions much like our own. Still, it's a time to look forward to.

    Works Cited