Question of ethics

Print edition : February 17, 2017

PETA activists campaigning against the slaughtering of goats ahead of Bakrid. A file picture. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Raveena Tandon Thadani advertising for PETA India.

Poorva Joshipura, CEO, PETA India. Photo: By Special Arrangement

PETA is perceived as a “foreign” organisation that has little regard for cultural plurality or local practices. Its ad campaigns only reinforce such perceptions.

THE yesteryear actor Raveena Tandon, she of “ Tu cheez badi hai mast mast” fame, is redefining passion. She is lending her voice and body—muted and voluptuous, respectively—to a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign against wearing exotic skins. Dressed in what appears like an exotic skin, she lies on her chest, her shoulders carefully fully uncovered, her back suggestively so. If anything, the picture is more likely to evoke base instincts rather than feelings of kindness, peace and non-violence. The posture and the wardrobe defeat the message. Animal rights can take a back seat. Now is the time to grab eyeballs.

Raveena Tandon, for all her attempts to bring glamour to wildlife preservation, is not the first actor of limited ability and fleeting popularity to attempt to raise awareness about animal rights. Earlier, PETA had Sherlyn Chopra, who had threatened to do the unmentionable if the Indian cricket team won the World Cup, bringing alive sadistic instincts in a campaign designed to keep animals away from the cruelties of the circus. Rather suggestively dressed, she says in the advertisement: “Whips and chains belong in the bedroom, not in the circus.” The advertisement, though, was less questionable than the one that featured the Khan sisters, Nigar and Gauhar, in jumpsuits inside a cage. All to raise a voice against zoos! If Sherlyn Chopra’s advertisement was not a campaign for sadistic pleasures, there was another bizarre case where the attempt was clearly a different ball game altogether. Lending her name and body to a campaign against leather was Liza Malik. She held out a suggestively placed placard, saying: “The best way to fix cricket is to stop using the leather ball.” And years before Liza Malik, beauty queen Lara Dutta had raised eyebrows by appearing in a dress made of lettuce leaves for a PETA campaign to encourage vegetarianism. Keeping such wise bodies company was Pooja Mishra of Bigg Boss and no fame. In a campaign to promote freedom for birds, all she had to offer, besides her scantily clad body in the name of freedom, was a non-punchline “Spare me”, a poor recall of her oft-heard remark on the show.

While the celebrities came and disappeared after their 15 seconds of fame, their constant involvement with PETA activities strengthened a lurking suspicion: the campaign to highlight the plight of animals is actually a battle for eyeballs. The more the number of celebrities posing seductively, the higher the chances of brand recall. It all smacked of Bollywood C-grade flicks, which are often guilty of commodification of women. Incidentally, in all the campaigns, the starlets came to address members of the media, posed in a certain manner for the cameras, mouthed a few homilies, and disappeared. Never was an attempt made at a cerebral discussion or an intellectual debate. An issue which was better dissected in seminar rooms was sought to be pushed through five-star corridors. The idea, apparently, was to get Page-3 coverage. And the presence of head-turners like Shilpa Shetty, Celina Jaitley and others guaranteed that; the issue seemed but an excuse to cater to male fantasies. Pray, what can be the parallel between a starlet crying for freedom and a bird flying out of the cage? Or another with whips, lashes and all, lying on her couch with bare arms and legs showing? Does it not take us ever closer to sadistic fantasies than to animal welfare? Yes, “spare” us indeed. Understandably, when PETA decided to speak about animal torture in the annual jallikattu event, there were sneers and derision in many quarters. Thanks to the so-called star endorsement, the seriousness of the whole issue began to be questioned. Of course, it did not help that some animal welfare activists questioned the intention of those who had gathered to protest at the Marina beach against the jallikattu ban. Among them was the noted animal welfare activist Radha Rajan, who was quoted as saying that “youngsters will gather on Marina beach if you offer free sex”. The remark unleashed an uproar on social media, with many celebrities joining youngsters to denounce the remark. Radha Rajan was quick to apologise, though arguing that her statement on free sex was not a “factual statement”. “I know this statement has hurt Tamil people for which I tender an unqualified apology,” she said in a statement. However, the damage was done.

Distanced from reality

And one could not help recall Pooja Mishra’s choicest two words: “Spare me.” The words came to mind when PETA decided to counter Kamal Hassan on the jallikattu ban. The veteran star, not attempting to be politically correct, had earlier stated his priorities clearly, saying: “I am a big fan of jallikattu.” “It is about taming the bull and not creating any physical harm by breaking its horns,” he had said. In a tweet soon after, he dared PETA “to go ban bull riding rodeos in Mr Trump’s U.S. You’re not qualified to tackle our bulls. Empires have been made to quit India.” What he stated was obvious: he wanted the age-old bull-taming fest to go on unimpeded. What he left unsaid was critical: PETA had little Indian connect. It was largely a foreign concern with little to recommend it by way of cultural identification. It saw everything through the same lens without allowing for regional variations of reality. PETA, after a vociferous campaign against jallikattu, which coincides with the festival Pongal in the southern State, chose to be more cautious in response to Hassan. “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, as is indicated by its name, helps animals in India only and is an Indian entity. PETA US, on the other hand, has been working to stop animal abuse in the United States since 1980, where bullfighting is illegal and cruel activities associated with the rodeo, which Hassan refers to, are also against the law in many states.”

Hassan’s seething anger is understandable. There are references to Eru Thazhuvuthal (embracing the bull) in ancient Tamil poetry dating back to the Sangam era. It is often said that the feat of embracing the hump to slow the bull down showcases a man’s dexterity, agility and physical prowess. In years gone by, kings and emperors used to patronise the sport. The Nayak kings were known to wrap gold coins around the horns of the bull— jalli means coin and kattu means tied. It was a brave man’s job to untie the knot around the horns and claim the prize. It was more about the achievements of an alpha male than about an animal being tortured; after all, the bulls were all reared at home with love and a healthy diet throughout the year. The CEO of PETA, Poorva Joshipura, however, dismisses the argument, claiming: “Jallikattu celebrates bullying of animals and machismo though there is nothing manly about hurting bulls. Bullying is what the animals endure when they are chased by men who pounce on them.”

Poorva Joshipura has little time for history. “History is never a good excuse for continuing abuse.” Turning over a new leaf, she says: “All religions call for compassion, and ahimsa is an important spiritual doctrine shared by Hinduism and other religions. There is nothing compassionate or non-violent about what has led to human and bull deaths during the jallikattu events held in the last several weeks.”

That, incidentally, brings us to another campaign by PETA where people’s sensitivities were not taken into account and an agenda of vegetarianism was sought to be pushed. Around six months ago, during the Eid ul Azha, or Bakrid festivities, the festival that celebrates the sacrifice of Prophet Abraham, PETA advised people to shun goat sacrifice and cut melons and apples instead! And, maybe, give vegetables and lentils to the poor. At an event in Hyderabad, goats were the guests of honour. In Bhopal, an attempt to promote vegetarianism around Bakrid resulted in a physical assault on some activists near Tajul Masajid. The police had to intervene to protect the activists from the mob. A case was registered against the activists under Section 295 for outraging religious feelings.

Swift response

The response of the Muslim community was swift, though much more restrained in comparison with the jallikattu events. “Stay away from religion,” advised various Muslim bodies, dismissing the attempt to introduce new elements to traditional celebration.

The imam of the Bhopal masjid termed it “a nautanki, a drama. These are all baseless things. They do not know about Bakrid, its significance. This [vegetarianism] is just a fad. You cannot decide what people will eat, how they will celebrate, what they will wear.”

That is also the line taken by the jallikattu activists, who have been saying rather vociferously that any attempt to ban the event in the name of animal rights smacks of a simple agenda: turning the country vegetarian through the back door.

The movement for the ethical treatment of animals has also been criticised for following the one-size-fits-all policy where cultural plurality is seldom taken into consideration. And Tamil pride, unlike the much-hailed Gujarati asmita, has been ignored altogether. Says Poorva Joshipura: “First do no harm should be everybody’s policy. Hurting someone else, whether that individual is an animal, a child, an elderly person, a woman, and so on, is never okay. India’s culture is one of kindness, not cruelty. Article 51 A (g) makes it the mandate of every Indian citizen to have compassion for animals. We do not use words like culture and tradition to justify cruelty to humans anymore. We must stop using it to justify cruelty to animals,” she says, and then takes recourse to religion! “Hindus commonly worship bulls by gently touching the forehead of Nandi’s idol. Why not support real life bulls of Lord Siva?”

But is not PETA India’s opposition to jallikattu divorced from the social reality of Tamil Nadu where millions take pride in it? “Many Tamils take pride in their compassion for animals. Groups like PETA India do not make the law. The law is made by the Indian government,” Poorva Joshipura says. And are not film stars used in PETA campaigns to grab more eyeballs? “There may be stars who are unaware of just how much animals suffer during such spectacles, but jallikattu supporters have also been bullying celebrities, especially on social media,” she says. With Poorva Joshipura avoiding to comment on celebrities’ involvement, a Tamil musician based in New Delhi came up with a clincher: “Being pro-jallikattu does not mean being anti-animal. If jallikattu should be banned, as PETA wants it, why not ban horse racing too. After all, horses are flogged while they are trained. Jallikattu is all about the supremacy of the man in a man-animal combat. Any day, it is better to have a real-life hero drinking from the fount of history than shallow celebrities striking suggestive postures in the name of animal welfare.” As for the celebrities, if there is one cause that is helped by their seductive poses, it is theirs. Animal welfare is another story.

All said and done, PETA’s campaign for a ban on jallikattu cannot be countered with a polemical counter-campaign for a ban on PETA, as sections of jallikattu campaigners have been doing. For a government raring to ban all NGO activities, this will be a godsend. What needs to be countered, with arguments, is the principles that drive organisations like PETA rather than the organisations themselves.

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