At the end of June, I began noticing a slew of tweets about dog-eating on my Twitter timeline. The ones that made the most impact came from my friend Pritish Nandy, an animal lover and a vegetarian.
The tweets had a single theme. Nagas ate dog. This was terrible. We should all the petition the government of Nagaland to ban the slaughter of dogs for food.
When I saw that the social media campaign was gathering steam, I knew that three things would happen.
One: the government of Nagaland would react. There is a sub-text to so much of the commentary about the people of North Eastern India. It is sometimes suggested (even if it is not explicitly stated) that North Eastern tribes are essentially less civilised and not really like the rest of us.
This is nonsense, of course. I will happily take the North East over much of the Indian heartland. In my experience, North Easterners tend to be more literate, more considerate, better educated and more culturally sophisticated than many people in other parts of India.
But so deep is the prejudice against the North Eastern states in some quarters that many politicians from that region are over-eager to prove that they are just like their counterparts from the rest of India. And any suggestion that their tribal traditions are less civilised than say the Bihari way of life cuts them to the quick.
So, I was sure that the campaign would have an impact. And I was almost as certain that the eating of dogs would be banned in Nagaland.
Two: I knew that there would be widespread horror among people on Twitter at the thought that dogs – who we think of as pets who are virtually family members of middle class households — were being eaten in India.
Dogs have a special place in the hearts of many people (especially in the West but also in such countries as India). We treat them almost as honorary humans. And for people who have pets, the consumption of dog-meat is like cannibalism.
At an emotional level, I too am disturbed by the thought that people can eat dogs. I became a dog lover relatively late in life but I am now smitten. My favourite way of relaxing these days is to watch dog videos on Instagram and it is hard for me to pass a pet dog without wanting to reach down and pat it.
Besides, we have seen the horror that dog-eating has provoked in the West. Most people there are horrified that dog eating is relatively common in parts of East Asia. In Thailand, the trade in dog meat is banned because of pressure from dog-lovers, leading to a growth in the dog-smuggling market. (It is not a crime to eat dog in nearby Laos or Vietnam.)
So, I was pretty sure that middle class Indians who had no idea that dog meat was eaten in parts of Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram would be shocked and appalled that this was going on in Our Country.
Three: It was clear what would come next. The Nagaland government would ban the sale of dog meat — which it did on July 3 — and this ban would delight dog lovers in the rest of India even as they suppressed their horror that this had been Going On For So Long!
Then, the Hindutva supporters and the vegetarianism advocates would react. They would make two different but related points: if it is so wrong to slaughter dogs for food, then why is it okay to kill chickens, goats and other living beings for food? What makes dogs so special? Cuteness cannot be the basis of an ethical distinction.
Inevitably, the discussion would drift to beef. If it is wrong to eat dogs because so many people love them, then how can you oppose a ban on the consumption of beef? Not only do people love the cow, many Indians actually worship her.
In fact, you could plausibly argue that millions more Indians care about the cow than care about dogs. You could claim that keeping dogs as pets is mostly a middle class activity while worshipping the cow is a mass activity.
Every argument that has been used to oppose the beef ban can be demolished if beef-eaters (or at least those who believe that eating beef should not be illegal) simultaneously support a ban of dog-eating.
One argument used to oppose the beef ban is: if you don’t want to eat beef, don’t eat it. But don’t force your view on others.
Substitute dog for beef in that sentence. You will see the problem.
Another argument is: you can oppose the eating of beef but you can’t use the law to impose your beliefs.
But that is exactly what the dog lovers have done.
Some of those who oppose the beef ban say: there are communities in India that have always eaten beef. If you stop them from eating it now only because it is part of your religion, then you act against the pluralistic nature of India.
Ditto for the dog-meat ban. The Nagas have eaten dog for generations. Who are we to interfere with their eating habits? Doesn’t it show a lack of respect for the pluralistic character of India? Isn’t there at least a trace of colonial superiority in our certainty that we are morally in the right and that they are in the wrong?
You see the problem?
And it gets worse when the vegetarians get involved. There really is no logically consistent, intellectual argument for a dog-meat ban unless you argue for a ban on all meat and the killing of all animals/birds/fish for the purpose of food.
In fact, the intellectual argument for vegetarianism is strong and the argument for veganism is even stronger.
But there is no argument for selective non-vegetarianism. Argue for one particular animal and you have lost the argument. Argue for your beliefs about food to be imposed by law and you have lost the plot.
So, do I support the eating of dog meat?
No. I don’t.
Do I believe that dogs are very cute and especially dear to human beings?
Yes. I do. But I also recognize that there are cultures where people do not share my view.
So, was the government of Nagaland wrong to ban dog-meat?
Yes, of course it was. It acted against the tribal traditions of its own people, caring more for the approval of social media than it should and less for the culture of Nagaland.
What should dog lovers have done? Well, we should have campaigned against the eating of dogs. It was up to the Nagas to agree with us or to ignore us.
But once you trample over people’s cultures, impose your own belief systems on them, get the law to dictate what they should eat — all in the name of cuteness — you violate the basic principles of a pluralistic liberal democracy.
As a dog lover it gives me no pleasure to say this. But lose sight of your basic principles and you lose sight of the plurality of India.
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