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India: Ritual slaughter bans aimed more at petty gains

6/1/12  economictimes.indiatimes.com

cow
The Madhya Pradesh Gau-Vansh Vadh Pratishedh (Sanshodhan) Vidheyak might seem as bad as it gets for meat eaters, religious minorities or defenders of civil liberties. This amendment, to an already draconian Cow Slaughter Prevention Act, allows any person empowered by the authorities to enter and search a place on suspicion of beef being consumed there, puts the burden of proving the prosecution wrong on the accused and increases the penalty from three to seven years.
A similar bill in Karnataka has been held off, for now, by the Governor, probably more to spite the BJP government rather than from any great support for civil liberties. The bill also provoked opposition from a coalition of religious minorities, who know that its purpose was to harass them rather than care for cows, and farmers organisations, who know that economically viable cattle rearing needs to allow for slaughter of old cattle. But none of these forces seems to have been operational in MP enough to prevent the passage of the bill, and now this awful amendment.As I’ve pointed out in this column earlier, these bills are the latest in a decades long battle to ban cow-slaughter that, after being stymied at a national level in the ’60s, has moved to a much more successful strategy of chipping away at the margins and state-levels. It has seemed like a peculiarly Indian fixation, but recently a movement has takan shape abroad that offers unsettling parallels with the cowslaughter ban movement, as well as a possible way to come to a solution, assuming people really are concerned with the welfare of the animals involved.

The focus here is the ritual slaughter of animals under halal (for Muslim) and kosher (for Jewish) requirements. They are not quite the same, but the essential requirement in both is for the animal to be killed by a single, clean cut to the throat. Animal rights activists argue that this causes great trauma to the animal, and while ideally most would prefer no slaughter at all, if it must be done, then the animal should be stunned before the throat is cut. This is not acceptable to orthodox Muslims and Jews, who say their traditions require a sentient animal.

This debate has been taking place across Europe, even directly affecting the UK’s Parliament where Muslim MPs were furious to learn recently that the catering department’s animal-friendly policy prevented them serving halal meat. But the main action has been in the Netherlands, a country where animal rights activists actually have a couple of seats in the legislature. Last year Marianne Thieme, the leader of the Party for the Animals, introduced a bill mandating stunning, with no religious exemptions. This threw up interesting coalitions.

Muslim and Jewish protests were supported by Christian groups and parties, who felt that religious freedom was at stake. Against them, generally leftist animal rights activists were joined by right-wing anti-immigration and Islamophobic groups, like the Freedom Party, which has little interest in animal rights, but saw the bill as a way to get mainstream support for their positions.

While not disdaining their support, Thieme argued that far from being anti-religious, she was appealing to the spirit of the religions. She acknowledged that rituals might have been humane for their time, since they are quick and prohibit unnecessary harm to the animals, “but that does not change the fact that, based on new insights, their methods of slaughter are in need of reform today.”Thieme’s persuasive arguments, and the general popularity of animal welfare as a cause, enabled the bill to pass by a large margin in the lower house of the Dutch Parliament. The furious protests it led to, and concerns from civil rights groups about the hidden Islamophobic agenda, caused the Dutch Senate a few weeks back to backtrack and put the bill on hold. It seems likely now that exemptions for ritual slaughter will stay, though with further animal welfare safeguards, like the need for a veterinarian to be present to ensure the animals are not badly treated upto the point of slaughter.

New Zealand is one country which has already seen the debate play out this way. Animal welfare has strong popular support, and orthodox Islamic and Jewish communities are not as large or influential. But meat processing is a very important industry, and exports to Islamic countries are growing fast, so these commercial interests took a problem-solving approach to the issue.

A system of ‘reversible stunning’ was developed where animals are given a strong electric shock that knocks them out for a few minutes but which, crucially, allows them to recover if their throats are not cut in that short period.

This is admittedly not an image for the squeamish, but then nothing involved with slaughter is. What one has to remind oneself is that if people are not going to give up eating meat – and there is no sign of this – then the animal welfare position should be to ensure that they are least troubled upto the moment of slaughter.

And New Zealand’s method has received the approval of animal science expert Dr. Temple Grandin who brings an interesting perspective to the issue. She is autistic and this, she says, makes her unusually aware of the physicality of processes, such as how an animal might react to slaughter systems.

In a fascinating paper, “Religious Slaughter and Animal Welfare”, Dr.Grandin records the suffering caused to animals by traditional kosher and halal butchers, not just due to the method of slaughter, but in the way they were badly handled up to then, leading to high levels of stress. In contrast, she noted, that when, as in the New Zealand system, everything was designed to keep the animals calm, “most cattle entered the stunning box voluntarily and quietly placed their heads in the stanchion… Immediate electrical stunning is required to prevent the animal fighting the stanchion. When this system is operated correctly the cattle were quiet and calm.”

Dr. Grandin’s efforts have won the unlikely support of Ingrid Newkirk, the firebrand founder of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “PETA would prefer, of course, that no animals be killed for food,” she writes, but that didn’t mean they can ignore the horrors of slaughterhouses and Dr.Grandin’s efforts did minimise this. This is exactly the sort of realistic activism, even if it means compromising on pure principle, that is needed in this debate over religious requirements and animal welfare.On the other side, some orthodox Muslim scholars (and most Jewish ones) aren’t entirely satisfied that reversible stunning meets religious requirements. The exact reasons would require another column, but the point is that many agree that this an acceptable enough compromise for meat processed this way in New Zealand to be labelled halal.

It is also an attitude that directly contradicts the repressive tactics of the MP government. The fear is that, rather than learning from the compromises of New Zealand, zealots in India might prefer just to follow the hidden agendas of the anti-minority and civil-rights politicians of Europe. India’s leading animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi is already in the BJP, and one can see how much this approach might appeal to her.

Even under the UPA government, an attempt was made last year to sneak a religious slaughter ban into animal welfare guidelines published by the Ministry of Environment, and this was only stopped after religious groups appealed to the then minister, Jairam Ramesh. Cow slaughter bans might seem something only limited to a few Indian states, but under the camouflage of animal rights, the bullying spirit behind them could expand in unprecedented ways.

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