Yamini Narayanan - “We have no understanding of what cows endure as dairy animals ” - Hindustan Times
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Yamini Narayanan - “We have no understanding of what cows endure as dairy animals ”

ByArunima Mazumdar
Nov 25, 2023 05:58 AM IST

The author of Mother Cow Mother India talks about how cows are both commodified for dairy production and deified as a mother and goddess, and how dairy products are intensely connected with cow slaughter

You’ve written extensively about dogs, pigs, camels, etc. What drew you to research bovines?

Author Yamini Narayanan (Courtesy Navayana)
Author Yamini Narayanan (Courtesy Navayana)

My foray into animals in my research was unexpected – a video taken by undercover activists documenting the screams and almost unseeable suffering involved in the live plucking of rabbits for angora fur came my way. The screams of the rabbits were not of this world – it comes from a timespace of pain from torture that no sentient being should have to endure. I was shocked and started to follow animal protection organizations, which revealed no less than a planetary scale of animal suffering for all sorts of products we consume unthinkingly, daily, and take for granted – including dairy.

As a scholar, I started my research with bovines. From the outset, I have made it my mission to take my cues from the animals themselves or humans who advocate for them. Early in my discovery about human torture of other animals in farming, I had a long conversation with Pradeep Kumar Nath, who founded the Visakha Society for the Protection and Care of Animals. He was recounting story after story of his rescue and advocacy work for animals ranging from cobras and pigs to emus, goats and buffaloes. I sat stunned for several days as I learnt in excruciating detail about the unfathomably cruelty that humans perpetuate on other animals as a matter of course. In the end I told him, “just tell me what to do. What would be most helpful at this time?” And he thought for a while and said, “focus on the cows.” This was in 2014, and the cow was the starkest example of how we can lose sight of the animal entirely even as she is ostensibly in full focus. The cow is so visible as a political, religious, and economic symbol that we really never stop to think what her life or that of a buffalo, goat, or other animals in dairying might actually be like. And there started my laser focus on unveiling the realities of all animals used for various types of consumption.

Why is the animal rights movement incomplete without a discourse on caste?

One of the unexpected things I learnt through my research is that animals are born into caste in the Hindu imagination – other animals are not located out of caste in India and are fully embroiled in lifeworlds that are shaped by what caste they are ostensibly born into. The key difference is – animals born into so-called “higher castes”, such as the desi cow for example, are not protected by their supposedly privileged status, and not spared extreme and almost spectacular violence that is inherent in being commodified and exploited for dairying – which still involves her forcible impregnation, and which necessarily requires her to be separated from her newborn, an act of extraordinary trauma for the mother and calf, and an intentional act of deep distress perpetrated on them by us humans. Domesticated animals are innately condemned in being human property, whether born of a “high” or “low” caste. In being performative symbols of particular castes, animals continue to be used as both consumable commodities, as well as weapons of oppression or reification, depending on which animal and which caste we are talking about. And regardless of “their” caste, a cow, a pig, and a horse all have high capitalist value as domesticated animals, and so ultimately, they all get sent to the slaughterhouse (or killed in other slower but equally violent ways such as starvation) for the fullest extraction of profit from their bodies.

424pp, Rs599; Navayana Mother
424pp, Rs599; Navayana Mother

Tell us a little about the regional animal rights activists from marginalised communities you met during your research. How is their work different other upper caste animal rights activities?

The work of regional and urban activists is not necessarily fundamentally different in their care for animals. Modes of operation, knowledge practices, ideas of care, and availability of resources might differ. However, I have seen the ferocity of determination, broken-heartedness and loneliness that accompanies any form of activism – but particularly characteristic of animal advocacy I think – in animal activists and advocates across the caste and class spectrum. I am clear however, that activists doing the actual “dirty labour” of advocacy – deeply risky and traumatising undercover exposés, heartbreaking rescue and rehabilitation work, actively and in person fighting the law, bureaucracy, and corruption – deserve recognition in a manner that is safe for them. Often it is simply not safe for activists of any stripe to be publicly recognised – but often, large organisations use their work for social media advocacy, their senior representatives go to big conferences, and their “lowest” rung of activists are disappeared from recognition. This needs to change, for the simple objective of being fair and ethical, but also to showcase the frontline work that people from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds willingly do. Often, they have voluntarily taken pay cuts, coming away from human-focussed NGO work that pay somewhat better. Their care for animals is political, and deserves political recognition. It also overturns the false narrative that animal activism is an upper-class project.

Last, I don’t think it is helpful to use caste as a sole lens in reading animal politics – reading animals purely through caste becomes obscurantist as far as the animal is concerned, and again becomes all about a human-centred politics. When it comes to animal activism, we may start with caste but ultimately need to move past caste – toward an anti-caste and anti-anthropocentric lens – in other words, our focus should be around a politics that emphatically questions and rejects human supremacism.

Your book establishes that there is a thin line between cow vigilantes and animal rights activists, which makes the animal rights discourse highly misunderstood. Talk us through your research about animals in India being allocated to caste and race as political subjects.

Anthropocentrism, or our unselfconscious beliefs in the sole legitimacy of purely human ways of being and thinking, plays an interesting role in how we think about other animals. It means that we are less – or not at all – attentive to who other animals are as species, and instead casteise or racialise them. In the case of cows, despite the prolific attention to what we call “cow politics” in India for a few hundred years at this point, we have virtually no understanding of even the basic experience of what cows and other animals endure as “dairy” animals. This understanding of animal suffering is where cow vigilantism and animal activism splinters in India, though of course, no political binary is ever that stark. The cow vigilante is participating through their understanding of the cow as a “Hindu animal”, and as representing a Hindu state. Whereas the cow herself is absolutely nothing of the sort – like any animal mother would (including humans!), she is trying valiantly to protect herself and her newborn from the assault of those wanting her lactate as “dairy.” In a broad sense then, the animal activist is trying to protect the cow as a vulnerable animal, rather than a Hindu state.

These differences can blur sometimes when it comes to tactics of liberation. For what it is worth, in a world where there is virtually no protection whatsoever for farmed species, many Indian states do have this extraordinary law that ostensibly protects a farmed animal from slaughter – this is nothing short of a miracle when viewed from animal liberation politics. Where there are virtually no victories in animal activism, these laws spell out some hope in liberating at least one species from slaughter.

So, animal activists in India will often utilise the same anti-slaughter laws as the vigilantes might, albeit with entirely different motivations. I should also state that I have met at least a few (definitely not all) cow vigilantes who I can only describe as genuinely confused. They are in that space out of a care for animals, rather than humanist political agenda. However, they often tap into cow vigilantism as the most accessible approach or movement, for animals. Animal activism broadly, is as disjointed and fragmented in India as elsewhere, and in this landscape, cow vigilantism often provides the most coherent and consistent representation of what a certain type of animal advocacy can mean. So, they often default to vigilantism, rather than intentionally select this as modus operandi – this spells the need for an Indian animal movement as it were, to achieve unified coherence and wide representation.

The Gaushala chapter brings forth the most critical theory of milk and meat production being interconnected. That dairy and slaughter go hand in hand, and is inevitable. Will there ever be an exposé?

Nothing that I have written about – whether the cruelty of the dairy industry, or the role of gaushalas in sustaining the violence of dairying, is unknown. Mahatma Gandhi talked about the brutality of dairying for mothers and infants, way back in the 1920s, and in fact took a vow never to consume the infant lactate of bovine mothers. He later acknowledged that he had broken the spirit of his vow when he took to consuming the infant lactate of goat mothers. What we neutralise as “milk” is a new born’s colostrum and lactate, after all, intended for babies who must starve for us to eat cheese, paneer and ghee. More recently, we have any number of undercover videos by activists exposing the traumas that buffaloes, cows, bulls, and their calves go through in all types of dairy farms, regardless of scale. The fundamental requirements of dairying – incarceration, forcible and repeated impregnation, repeated mother-child separation, slaughter – are by no means restricted to industrial farms. These exposés are widely available for anyone who cares to look, in virtually every social media platform.

The challenge here is for us to be willing to really look and know – to be willing to confront what we put animals through, when we claim their lactate, their ova (eggs), their skin, their bodies. I refuse to accept the idea that most people don’t care about animals – I truly think it’s the total opposite, in fact. Most people are fundamentally terrified of how much they would care, they are terrified about being unable to cope if they knew and accepted what really happens to farmed animals, and therefore, prefer to protect themselves from the kind of heartbreak that might be almost impossible to bear. So ironically and unfortunately, they simply choose to look away.

We humans are also deeply institutionalised as species, no matter whether we claim to be of the Left or Right politically – basically this means that we are institutionalised into human exceptionalism, the violent ideology that humans are not animals. Thus, another reason for us being unwilling to know, is our political and cultural stakes in exploiting animals. Unfortunately, this means that even those from the Left who ostensibly care about social justice, think that (other) animals are outside the bounds of who we need to care about. There are apparently the “animal activists” and then the “human activists.” This convenient siloing of social justice issues, across any type of activism, is a front to allow our complicity in the ongoing violence toward, and oppression of “other” beings, human or non. We need to look at the mirror and come to terms with our hypocrisy when we silo any type of social justice as “relevant to me” and “not relevant to me.”

What challenges do you see in your advocacy for veganism being a somewhat rational solution to this problem?

Veganism as a liberatory political praxis is a critical approach to addressing the violence that domesticated, farmed animals suffer. There is no other animal politics that as emphatically rejects that notion that other bodies are ours to own, claim and exploit. The challenge in mainstreaming veganism per se, is acknowledging the profound harms that human supremacism has unleashed. The challenge is in undoing human entitlement to the bodies of (other) animals, and indeed, recognising that as homo sapiens, we can choose what type of animal we could be – kind, gentle, non-exploitative, respectful. Humans as a species, however, are so, so far gone in our disregard and contempt for, and entitlement to the bodies of cows, chickens, pigs, fish, goats, among so many others, that it seems an impossible task to come back from that – that is the challenge that veganism confronts. The challenge is fundamentally our sheer panic at “giving up” animal products that we have grown attached to – however the idea that we have any entitlement in the first place to (other) bodies is one that we need to confront. If we want, we can absolutely put our minds to creating rich, alternative livelihoods for marginalised humans, and remake our markets and political economies after all.

Veganism emphasises that (other) animals’ capacity to suffer – and resist this suffering – makes them political beings. We are acutely aware of the need for consent from other bodies, in our desire for those other bodies within our own species. This arises out of an innate animal aversion and profound trauma to being touched in invasive ways (much less violated or harmed or killed) without consent – we rightly recognise this as a criminal offence when we do it to members of our own species. Animals of other species, likewise, do not consent to our unsolicited assaults upon their bodies. They resist – though terror, aggression, cowering, brokenness – and this resistance is as deeply political as Homo sapiens resistance to non-consensual contact. We need to open our minds to the reality that animals suffer extreme emotional, psychological, and physical terrors to end up as our “food”. Veganism, in essence, is a profound acknowledgement of the bodily autonomy and sovereignty of other species. Since animals are repeatedly violated and killed the most to be eaten, the widest translation of veganism is in countering oppressive multispecies “food” politics. I intentionally put “food” in quotations here to challenge the notion that other animal bodies are “food”. The idea that human bodies might be farmed or hunted as “food” provokes horror and revulsion, and this recoiling arises out of a very specific, visceral terror of being killed to be eaten. Other animals experience this same horror, and recognising this means that their bodies are no longer easily objectified as “food”.

Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.

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