White tigers and Gir lions. Republic Day thoughts: are wild animals citizens?

A giant filter coffee tumbler, white tigers, wild lions, forests, coffee plantations, human progress: the state and ministerial tableaux presented in India’s 67th Republic Day parade ranged from colourful to fantastic, from beautiful to downright bizarre.

Mind-boggling or not, all tableaux have one thing in common each year: they showcase what defines the state/agency best. A lot of this is vitally regional symbolism: arts and craft (like Uttar Pradesh’s rich zardosi showcased as a giant tableaux this year); a particularly fine custom (Bihar in the past has showcased a village that plants trees when girls are born); economic achievement (Kodagu’s coffee production shown this year); and occurring with great regularity: wildlife. This year, while many states showcased forests, Gujarat presented lions; and Madhya Pradesh showed off white tigers.

Madhya Pradesh tableaux showing white tiger on 67th Republic Day. [Screen grab from DD National.]

The fact that Madhya Pradesh showed its tigers as white, not golden, is an interesting choice, a choice tied to a statement the state is trying to make.Tigers are not normally white, and their colours vary from amber-orange to deep yellow. But regional exceptions – with more or less melanism – do exist. Thus, certain tigers in Odisha’s Satkosia area are blacker than others, and many tigers from Madhya Pradesh’s Rewa are a pale, bony white. Similar to Gujarat using the lion as badge of state honour – and an honour it refuses to share with any other Indian state-Madhya Pradesh is asserting its own “brand” of tigers.

 Gujarat tableaux showing Gir Lion on 67th Republic Day. [Screen grab from DD National.]

This leads us to an important issue. It is clear that wildlife is symbolically important; and it informs our citizenship.

If wildlife is part of the way we perceive our natural and regional pride, then a related question is: are wild animals citizens? As essential as they are to our nation’s experience, could you think of a tiger as Mr Khan, or a lioness as Miss Gir?

And then: do animals have citizen-based rights?

The courts have been trying to answer, at least partly, this second question. The Gujarat High Court has said that birds have the “Right to Fly” and thus should not be kept in cages. Similarly, this year, Supreme Court decreed that Jallikattu entailed cruelty to bulls and has put an interim ban on the practice. In 2013, the Supreme Court in its “Lion judgment”, said that we need to act in the best interest of species, particularly endangered species.

Thus, at least according to the courts and certain laws, wildlife appears to have rights; this implies they could also have some sort of recognition or allied citizenship. Perhaps then, tigers and lions are akin to second-class subjects, catered to when human needs are not so pressing. But like other human disadvantaged groups, not all animals are equal.

Many are more threatened or fragile than others; they need special attention, conservation action, and budgetary outlays. The Red List of species, which identifies critically endangered, threatened and vulnerable species is the basis of action on many wild species. The Red List for wild speciesflags off which “subjects” or “citizens” need more action than others, some requiring affirmative action and creation of new protection regimes, others getting by without much help.

Animals’ rights can’t be neglected any longer at the altar of human-centric development.

But within this understanding, a huge stumbling block is vision.

Most vitally, the manner in which development and wildlife is consistently positioned is antagonistic. “Development” and “wildlife” are pitted, teeth gritted, against each other. A case in point is the Supreme Court’s recent observation that roads are more important than tigers (the case was regarding the widening of National Highway 7 through the Pench-Kanha tiger reserve corridors). There are scores of other examples, wherein environmentalism – even if while voicing clearly, the ecological needs of an animal – is shown as obstructionist and downright stupid in much of public decision-making.

Whether animals are citizens, or even second-class citizens, is a matter of further understanding. Perhaps it is even a question that is only rhetorical. But in reality, we need to stop pitting wildlife against development, as our overarching understanding. Instead of assuming hostile, antagonistic positions, we need answers that are case-specific.

Animals do not ask for charters of independence, voting rights, or parliamentary representation. Tigers are too otherworldly and cool for that, even if they do end up as pulp under railway lines, and as prisoners in jail. While animals can’t be expected to fulfil responsibilities against humans (even if granted rights), the opposite is true for us. An Argentinean court, for example, said chimpanzees are non-human persons. Within our complex democracy, the fact that animals have only occasional rights, could either be folly or fool-proof. Because ultimately, it is up to voting humans to act for the non-voting.

Whether we want to extend citizenship, or second-class citizenship, to animals or not; whether we laugh at this or will give it a think; at least we can agree on this: animals deserve more than the battle-lines that speak only and repeatedly from the “environment versus development” trenches.

In short, a tiger or lioness deserve more than being decorations on tableaux.

(This first appeared in my column for DailyO)


One thought on “White tigers and Gir lions. Republic Day thoughts: are wild animals citizens?

  1. “Some day, will our descendants be mystified by how good and decent people
    in the early 21st century—that’s us—could have been so oblivious to the
    unethical treatment of animals?” – Nicolas Kristof.

    The sixth extinction (the holocene extinction) is now underway – considered by some to be the worst since the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event – and it’s all
    because of our actions!

    Is the answer to halting this extinction – and preventing unethical treatment –
    to make animals citizens? They would thus become members of our moral community: obtaining inviolable rights such as right to life, protection of property (constituting their habitats), liberty (no zoos) and right not to be tortured.

    The first question I have concerns which animals should
    become citizens? Should it be all animals? There is an a certain tension that would arise if livestock animals, such as cows, were granted co-citizenship. After all, you can’t kill and eat your co-citizens! If you did, you would be committing murder! Perhaps only the animals which are sentient should be made co-citizens? This would include all mammals, birds, cephalopods, and most likely fish: the list of sentient species seems likely to extend as we investigate further. I feel this becomes a kind of slippery slope argument, with critics of animals as co-citizens inevitably mentioning ants and so-called pest animals (e.g. rats). Really I would try to avoid getting bogged down in this, and just draw up a list of the first animals who should be made co-citizens.

    The second question is does the fact that animals are unable to participate
    politically (i.e. they can’t vote) disqualify them from citizenship? However, neither can children, and they are still our co-citizens! As is the case for children, guardians could advocate politically for the animal co-citizens. For example, in the case of chimpanzees, we would have an expert group comprising humans with knowledge of
    chimpanzee psychology, health, and habitat, advocating on their behalf.

    Do I think animals should be made co-citizens? Yes, because the current approaches are not protecting them from extinction and unethical treatment. Once they are gone, there may not be time for anything else as complex to evolve again on Earth.

    Obviously there a lot more questions than I’ve thought of here, and it is not going to be very easy to sell such an idea which will not resonate with most humans – since most humans do consider themselves special and better than the other animals.


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