The question is not about better welfare practices for ritual animal sacrifices, but whether the time has come to abolish this primitive tradition altogether, says RUKMINI SEKHAR
“In blind darkness are we sunk when we offer sacrifices with beasts.
A higher religious duty than ahimsa has never been nor shall be.”
— The Panchatantra
“I argue that the animal rights movement must simultaneously be a moral crusade and a social movement that pursues a strategy combining idealistic objectives of abolition with pragmatic goals of embedding the values of animal rights into public policy.” — Kim Stallwood, scholar, and Deputy CEO of Minding Animals International
As I write this piece, I doubt if I can even remotely match the horrors of what will happen on November 27and 28 around a small temple in Bariyapur in Bara district, southern Nepal, across the Indian borders of northern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.Within this temple, sits the blood-thirsty Gadhimai, a Hindu goddess of power. Every five years she presides over the largest ritual animal sacrifice in the world, a bizarre orgy of blood surrounded by the decapitated heads of nearly five lakh animals. In what can only be described as an unparalleled depraved madness, crazed by archaic ritualistic frenzy, lakhs of water buffaloes, calves, pigs, goats, chickens, ducks, pigeons and even mice are slaughtered within a three-km radius of the temple, after which the goddess, gorged with blood, rests for another five years till it begins all over again. The divine female principle, gentle mother and nurturer, has been turned into a ruthless blood-sucking ogress. The festival begins in late November to go on for a month.
The last Gadhimai blood fest took place in November 2009 where three lakh animals lost their lives to a primitive belief system, encouraged by the Nepal Government. Five years later, the clock now ticks ominously towards November 2014, sounding the death knell of another targetted five lakh animals, who will be brutally hacked.
Happy with the 2009 holocaust and moneys from the auctions of meat, hides and bones and the overall amount made from the nearly million people who came to the festival, the Gadhimai organising committees of Nepal are gearing up for a grander and more ‘spectacular’ event with even more animals than 2009, which they believe is possible because of better accessibility. local communities are forced to increase the number of animals. The Nepal Government is promoting the festival as a “spectacle” and a cultural event, albeit soaked in blood, misery and karmic negativity. The hard and naked truth is that Gadhimai legitimises violence against animals.
The world outside Nepal has been watching in horror and has now stepped in to campaign globally to prevent this legacy of unbelievable animal cruelty, viewed as unpardonable by any sane thinking human. On October 11, 2014, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWWN) are coordinating the coming together of 22 countries, including the UK, USA, Germany and France, to protest against the Gadhimai Festival through Nepalese embassies and consulates globally. Their demands include that the Nepalese Government should stop all funding for the Gadhimai Festival. They should introduce the Gadhimai Zoonosis Control Action Plan, ensure strict enforcement of the Animal Transportation Guidelines and are calling upon the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child to protect Nepalese children from the psychological impact caused by exposure to such violence.
Asia for Animals Coalition and Occupy for Animals are fellow campaigners. In India, the campaign is being actively spearheaded by Beauty without Cruelty, Humane Society International and People for Animals. The latter two have filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India and are working on coordinating the border-seal, working closely with Indian authorities and ministries concerned.
But why is the Gadhimai Festival pertinent to IndiaIJ Firstly, 65 per cent of the five lakh animals for slaughter go from India (UP, Bihar, West Bengal) crossing over to Bariyapur in Nepal, which is only 50 km from the porous Indian border. Many of the animals will arrive illegally, effectively bypassing animal quarantine posts. 70 per cent of Gadhimai devotees are from Uttarakhand, West Bengal, UP, Bihar and the Terai regions, making Indians the largest number of worshippers. Therefore, while the event actually happens in Nepal — which allows animal sacrifices — India supplies the majority of both animals and worshippers.
Who is Gadhimai and how did all this beginIJ Anil Bhanot of the UK Hindu Council, which is working closely with CIWF to end the sacrificial event, writes: “The history of this bloodthirsty event began when Bhagwan Chaudhary, a feudal landlord, was imprisoned in Makwanpur Fort prison about 260 years ago. He dreamed that all his problems would be solved if he made a blood sacrifice to Gadhimai. Immediately upon his release from prison, he took counsel from the local village healer who started the ritual with drops of his own blood from five parts of his body. Apparently then a light ‘appeared’ in an earthenware jar... and the gory sacrifice began.” There are other versions, but all that seems less consequential than the blood-soaked event which has taken root and happens every five years.
What happens at the Gadhimai sacrificeIJ An eyewitness writes, “The animals were not given any water and food in the days before the sacrifice. Many young animals had, in fact, already died from stress, exhaustion and dehydration. Their carcasses were left among the live animals. Anyone could kill anything, with whatever — knife or sword. Many animals died an unbearably slow and violent death because the butcher was inexperienced and the knives were not sharpened properly. Thousands of buffaloes were standing in an enclosure when butchers holding swords started hacking the animals randomly. Some heads could be severed in one cut; in other cases, it took the butchers a long time to kill the buffalo. No one was holding the animals — many tried to escape. Baby buffaloes were bleating and searching for their mothers. Soon they were walking around in a pool of blood. They were hunted down by the butchers. Needless to say, not a single animal survived the bloodbath.”
In Sojourner, a foreign writer says, “I came face to face with the grizzly nature of the festival. There were thousands of decapitated buffaloes spread over the area of roughly a thousand square yards enclosed by the brick wall. Among them were the remaining survivors, either walking between the carcasses of their fallen comrades, huddled in the corner in a futile attempt to escape their fate, or lying amidst the carnage seemingly trying to blend in to avoid detection.”
A letter submitted to the Government of Nepal, signed by over 25 political parties, ministries and animal welfare organisations says: “The handling and slaughter of the animals contravenes the most basic animal welfare standards. They are forced to witness the killing of countless others before they are slaughtered themselves, including the killing of mother animals in front of their offspring.”
They want a complete ban on the festival because “it hurts them; it hurts us humans, it strengthens vested interests, it contradicts the spirit of laws and treaties, it is bad for tourism”.
Surya Upadhya, Chairman of the Nepalese Hindu Forum, UK, says, “The Forum completely opposes animal sacrifice as Hinduism does not sanction the killing of living beings. There should not be any place for this inhumane, barbaric sacrifice of innocent animals in the name of any religion.”
So what does India have to fall back on and what tools from our cachet of arsenal could we useIJ On September 26, 2014, the Himachal Pradesh High Court banned all animal sacrifices in temples. In a heartening judgement, the Division Bench declared: “The prominence of values enshrined in the Constitution is above religious values, but they have no right to issue any directions or opinion in violation of basic human rights as well as animal rights. Religion cannot be allowed to become a tool for perpetuating untold miseries on animals and if anybody tries to impose its direction on the followers in violation of the Constitution or validly enacted law, it will amount to an illegal act. The extra-Constitutional bodies have no role and cannot issue directives to the followers to not obey the command of law. They cannot be permitted to sit in appeal over the judgments of the court.”
The High Court must be applauded for its progressive verdict as regards Hindu temples, but one hopes that a similar Supreme Court judgement, secular and uniform in nature, will be passed and will apply to animal sacrifices all over the country, irrespective of which faiths practice it.
More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his much advertised Madison Square address, wished to pole-vault over the image of India as a land of snakes and snake-charmers to that of a modern, scientifically-oriented global state. How then can we continue to allow tradition-sanctioned, ritual animal sacrifice, which is primitive, archaic and outdatedIJ The Central Government should stress on upholding the basic Constitutional values of the rights of all living beings.
As regards Gadhimai, India should uphold its constitutional values and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to prevent its animals from crossing the border. Manoj Gautam of AWWN, who has been working relentlessly against the festival, says: “The central ministry in India concerned should send out a formal circular to enforcement agencies to seal the porous borders to Nepal from Bihar, UP and West Bengal. The random hacking and wasting of animals is going to hit the agro-economy of the States concerned, sending at least Rs100 crore down the drain. Further, there should be a strategic media mobilisation by the Indian Government beforehand to discourage people from transporting animals, who are exhausted after their long journey and are held up at the borders by Indian authorities without food or water.”
Indeed, if India can mobilise all its resources, forces and political will to prevent even one animal from crossing the border, it would be a triumph of its commitment to animal rights and earn the respect of the world.
Patrice Greanville of the Greanville Post, an animal liberation organisation, makes an apt summary of the Gadhimai Festival. What she says, in fact, can be applied to all-faith ritual animal sacrifice in general. It is the result of “an utterly corrupt world leadership, representing puny elites, that has little or no interest in protecting animals or nature, and which spends immense social and military resources in keeping a chaotic, backward, poverty-riddled order in place, a pathetic level of social and cultural backwardness resulting from the above, the dead weight of unexamined, ignorant traditions, a scandalous amount of precious media time squandered on escapist nonsense, political lies, and retrogressive material. It’s clear that at least a portion of this time could be spent educating the global public about these horrors and the ways in which they could be eliminated. The silence of institutions and individuals, that should be speaking loudly about these crimes, starts with organised religion itself. Since most religious leaders assume their trade involves the right to ‘guide’ society ethically, their glaring absence from this and other struggles is all the more telling about their true worth as factors for human progress”.
Faith, religion, customs and practices should not take precedence over lawful rights, human or animal. Whether it is the slaughter of lambs for Easter, turkeys for Thanksgiving or goats for Bakri-Eid, this is an appeal to all sensitive humans to pause and take a deep breath and visualise the eyes of the trusting animal in flesh and blood that will come under your knife to ‘please’ an unseen God. The question is not about better welfare practices for ritual animal sacrifices, but whether the time has come to abolish this primitive tradition altogether.
“The concept of bali (sacrifice) is to give up or forego something that is truly one’s own (either a negative emotion or some other material attachment) to further one’s tapasya or spiritual pursuit, not pick up a helpless animal and slaughter it; that’s the easiest thing to do,” says Yogi Ashwini of Dhyan Foundation.
Gadhimai epitomises this myopic concept of bali and we must end its recurrence a month from now and forever. I conclude with a quote from Gandhi, “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body.” I will add, “or God”.
Rukmini Sekhar is a writer committed to an ethics for animals