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| Last Updated:: 11/06/2015

Sanctioning cruelty in the name of faith?

 The Environment Ministry’s proposal to allow the hunting of some animals on cultural grounds will set a dangerous precedent that encourages poaching.


In the land of the cobra and the snake-charmer, the cobra finds itself in the middle of an unlikely controversy. Cloaked under the privilege of “religion and culture”, the new draft National Wildlife Policy, framed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, suggests amending existing laws to allow hunting of animals like cobras. Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has repeatedly made statements saying wildlife protection laws can be amended to accommodate “religious and cultural practices”. A high-level committee set up to review India’s environment laws, led by former Cabinet Secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, first suggested these amendments, stating they would be harmless to both man and beast.


The question is whether endangered and protected species, already illegally poached, should be subjected to further commodification through vague terms like “culture” and “religion”. More problematically, the question is whether decisions that impact ecology and non-human species should be taken on lines that will likely favour one dominant community, or custom, over another. Both problems represent the way certain animals are constructed as familiar to us, even as friendly; even if the animals are, in fact, dangerous, endangered, or hard to procure. At its centre is a person’s perception of the wild animal, however removed from reality.



Hunting of most animals, except notified vermin (like rats), is prohibited in India. This stems from strong conservation and preservation laws in independent India. However, the draft of the new National Wildlife Policy suggests that if cruelty in hunting can be removed, hunting should be allowed. It states: “Traditional practices involving wild animals are prevalent and in almost all cases, there are confrontations between the enforcement authorities and communities on these aspects, [thus] it is desirable to distinguish between “hunting” and specified religious/cultural practices of communities involving wild/ scheduled animals. The regulations for appropriate safeguards and prevention of cruelty can be provided in the Act.”


The predecessor of this is the T.S.R. Subramanian Report, which recommends: “India has a varied and glorious cultural tradition; while there are many national festivals, there are also localised festivals which are of great local importance in different States. Nature and animal worship has been part of the national culture. Thus, for example, Nag Panchami in many States is celebrated and snakes worshipped during five days in the Shravan month, as a thousand-year-old tradition. It is to be noted that the snakes are never harmed — indeed they are worshipped during this period. A dispensation in the various Schedules should be permitted to take into account such local practices, and reflect them in their approved schedules, through gazette notification.”


Both high-level documents suggest that removing cruelty in the capture or procurement of these animals can not only give the animal respect but also fulfil cultural traditions. For a species like the cobra (or any wild snake), this could not be further from the truth. For Nag Panchami each year, tens of thousands of snakes are captured. Cobras, like many wild snakes, do not take well to capture. They are almost always defanged using stones or hot metallic instruments and their mouths are stitched up. They die deaths that are always painful, and sometimes delayed.


The interpretation of certain traditions, however, construe that the captured, livid, hissing cobra wants to be captured or is being adequately respected. In reality, the hunting of snakes (cobras, rat snakes), birds (like owls, parakeets) and other animals always masks the death of many more. For each bird or snake in illegal captivity, there are thousands that died during the capture or transportation. Several animals will not and cannot breed in captivity. To procure them for any cultural custom, their capture from the wild will always be necessary. The Ministry’s moves try to cast an accommodative sheen on custom and culture, but the reality is invariably gruesome.


Sacred becoming profane

In India, several animals are deemed “holy”. This has led in a major part to unsustainable practices. Wild elephants are captured, beaten and broken, to carry people or stand immobilised for hours on end, adorned with heavy and blinding ornaments. Snakes and conch shells are illegally “harvested” for sale at scandalously greedy rates. For several wild species, their being sacred has actually led to physical profanity. Should the Environment Ministry broaden the cruelty of hunting in the name of faith? And further, is it the job of the Environment Ministry to be the gatekeeper of which customs, religions, and practices to uphold or privilege over another?


It was reported recently that eight tribals from Jharkhand’s Khunti district have been languishing in jail for months now, for sacrificing an ox, deemed holy by Hindus. The tribals were unaware of the furore their actions would cause, and their actions were probably inadvertent. However, amending the law as per the above suggestions would mean knowingly allowing sacrifice, harvest and hunting of some animals; and privileging one belief over another. Apart from having social ramifications, it will also strengthen the hands of poachers by becoming, effectively, a smokescreen for poaching itself. Till about 50 years ago, it was considered ‘cultured’ for people to hunt tigers. British and Indian royals and nobles hunted. As with other social evils, hunting too was deemed an anachronism and banned. We will be taking several steps back if we re-allow hunting, whether for ‘religious use’ or otherwise.


Ultimately, one hopes culture is something that evolves. The Nyishi tribals of Arunachal Pradesh have learned to embrace artificial fibreglass casques instead of hunting the endangered hornbills for headgear — that is evolution. Similar solutions should be found, instead of targeting the already dwindling wild animal populations.


The Environment Ministry needs to show leadership in protecting biodiversity. Towards this end, it should uphold hunting restrictions, instead of considering changes which will be cruel, regressive, and fetishise species. The only right answer is in creating new and evolved cultures.