Debates over food

The politics of dog meat ban in Nagaland

Print edition : August 14, 2020

A local dog market in Dimapur, Nagaland. A file picture. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Nagaland government’s recent ban on the sale of dog meat has not only polarised conversations about what is and what is not food but also shows how we have turned animals’ bodies into battlegrounds for our politics and biases.

On July 3, the Chief Secretary of Nagaland, Temjen Toy, announced on Twitter the State government’s decision to ban the commercial import and trading of dogs, prohibit dog markets and sale of dog meat. At the end of the tweet he tagged Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, and Maneka Gandhi, Member of Parliament and the founder of People for Animals (PFA). According to the government of Nagaland notification issued on July 4, any person violating this ban will be punished under Section 428 and 429 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals Act, 1960. Besides these two Acts, the government has also invoked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) Regulation, 2011, specifically sub-regulation 2.5.1(a) which defines animals that are safe for human consumption. Now, dog meat is categorised as food outside the food safety standards in India.

Conversations after the government’s decision have escalated into a binary of pro-dog meat consumers who condemn the ban and anti-dog meat voices that celebrate it. What is distinct about the debate is the extreme narratives put forward by those who speak of cultural rights to consume dog meat and those who raise the ethical issue of animal rights. Unlike the cow debate, the one on dog meat does not centre around religion but on a civilisational logic. Of all animals, stray dogs in contemporary India are the flagships of ethics, care and rights. It is also street dogs whose experiences and existence blur the boundaries between the domestic sphere and the outdoors.

Everyday food choices force us to deal with broader issues of caste violence and ultra-nationalism in India. For instance, the cow is most revered and those who clamour for its protection has gone to the extent of weaponising the animal. Cow protection vigilantes have promoted a militaristic Hindutva nationalism. The dog joins this list, adding to an already fraught debate about civilisation, purity and love in India. The dog has become an instrumentalised being whose defenders may now hunt down those who violate the ban, while groups propagating dog meat as delicacy may fight back. The tragedy is that the politics of rights has become one about retributive justice.

At the heart of the debate is the issue of the “right” to consume, or stay away from, dog meat. Parties identifying themselves varyingly as animal rights activists, nationalists, omnivores, anti-caste activists and cultural representatives have spoken up. The ban has polarised conversations around values, cruelty, disgust, taboo, racism, and so on, about what is food and what is not food.

Meat in the time of COVID

Particularly during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on meat as a likely cause of spreading the virus in India has become sharper. Across north-eastern India, including Nagaland, there have been government notifications banning the import of pigs. In the case of banning dog meat, the argument for animal welfare (saving dogs from suffering) was accompanied by the description of dogs as filthy, potentially ridden with disease and, therefore, unfit for consumption. Even in pre-COVID times, under the advisory issued by the FSSAI, a variety of foods, including dog meat, remained outside the definition of food categorised as safe to consume. Now, the logic of clean and safe animals is invoked to justify the ban. Yet, the ban on dog meat is being celebrated as the result of a successful campaign launched by animal rights activists in India.

While the State government is yet to present the fine print of its ban move, this is the second food item to enter the prohibition list. In 1989, the Nagaland Liquor Prohibition (NLTP) Act banned the sale and consumption of liquor in the State. Today, the black market is a booming business and alcohol is available widely across the State. Ironically, we might be looking at a similar future for the dog meat trade in Nagaland too.

For animal rights activists, though, this is truly a moment of legal triumph. The campaign to ban dog meat in Nagaland was an ongoing project. Numerous documents and videos from local markets showcased how dogs suffered miserably and were victims of horrifying cruelty. The tone of both parties—pro- and anti-dog meat consumption—in the post-ban period has been accusatory. Comments about vegetarianism and omnivorism as the morally righteous choice have become shrill.

Tool for racism

To begin with, dog meat is not central to Naga diet. It is a rarity, and a large number of Naga households do not consume it. Yet, the dog meat narrative has become a tool for inciting violence, hate and racism against tribal communities from north-eastern India. Instances of portraying the entire Naga community as one of dog-meat eaters, an essentialised racist imagination of barbarism and primitivism, have flourished in India. So much so that the Naga collective identity and dog meat have dominated the construction of a human-animalistic citizenry, a narrative in which the Naga subject is morally inferior and needs to be tamed. This account has given rise to a nationalist agenda where one’s assertions of rights—cultural rights to consume dogs and the moral right to protect dogs—is to be done by sinking one’s teeth either in meat or in plants. This binary shows how our understanding of rights and what practices ought to be delegitimised are driven by the idea of of prohibition. This kind of ethics-making and moral politics further sharpens the animal-human distinction and creates a deep divide between animal rights groups and human rights advocates.

In Nagaland, decades of armed conflict and human rights violations have created deep insecurities and fear. That the ban on dog meat has come on the heels of the extension of the Armed Forces Powers Act (AFSPA) seems to send out the message: “We will protect the dogs but not Nagas.” Amidst resistance to the dog meat ban, the issue of food choices as part of tradition and culture has been invoked.

With the banning of the dog meat trade in Nagaland, animal rights groups may well feel that this would bring about an end to the miserable treatment of dogs in the State. I fear that will not be the case. The anger and outrage in the aftermath of the ban cautions us of the possibility of unfolding of a different reality—the urge to eat dogs to prove one’s culture, to corrupt the moral victory that has been pushed down one’s throat, to resist and disrupt the hegemonic order. A politics of moral victory and counter-attack is crafted on the bodies of dogs.

State machinery’s surrender

There is a simmering anger on the ground. How is it that a particular kind of activism is able to have the state machinery legally ban dog meant at such remarkable speed, say in less than 24 hours? For ordinary citizens in Nagaland who are unable to obtain basic rights like health and education, the ban on dog meat has come as a culmination of a humiliating move in which the state machinery caved in to the demands of animal rights groups who are far removed from Nagaland but are able to control the cultural practices of Naga people. The ban highlights how the lives of dogs and Naga people are central subjects in this nationalist civilising project. The politics of right-wing Hindu nationalism is particularly crucial here. If ban on cow slaughter became a legitimising move to persecute religious minorities, the dog meat ban represents a moment of civilising savages, one where animalistic humans/tribals are being taught about clean and safe food.

Should we pitch animal rights activism and other forms of activism as opposed to each other? Or can we think of inclusive politics, and perhaps, lay stress on doing away with binaries? Should we think of an environment where the animal world, the human world and the spirit world—the values of our ancestors—allow us to share ideas about care, responsibility, and accountability? Can we have a shared goal for the planet without being wholly dependent on legal measures emphasising criminality?

Need for new conversations

What the debate on dog meat has blurred are the lines between the voices of right-wing Hindu nationalism and animal rights activism. This is important for us to reflect upon, because if at all we seek solidarity and open new conversations about value and ethics, it will be with the latter group. In what ways can we navigate our way in the politics of animal rights where caste, class and Hindutva projects appear entangled? Can caste and class hierarchies of those espousing animal rights and those who uphold ethnic and racial values of food practices find ways to forge conversations about killing, slaughter, and eating meat? Should our plates be either all plants or all meat to prove a certain political point?

If there is something we can learn from the ban on dog meat, it is the suffering and cruelty that animals sold at open markets experience everywhere. Eating the meat of animals is a messy affair and the act of killing is central to this process. I am a non-vegetarian. When I was growing up in Nagaland, I learnt how to kill an animal and clean the meat I was going to eat. These moments were rare, but I learnt that my existence is entangled in forms of responsibility and sacrifice. These are values I try to practice: to take only so much that I can eat, and not to waste. What I am alluding to is a world where the act of killing and eating meat is made visible, and not hidden or dismissed as barbaric and inhuman. In the same spirit, the conditions of workers suffering poverty and structural violence on plantations growing plants and crops (including organic brands) are also demystified. This will help us to grapple with the social and political realities of our daily meals.

What the Nagaland markets failed to do was conceal and distance dogs from other animals meant to be prepared for consumption. Dogs were tied next to chickens, ducks and pigeons. Nor was their meat packed in fancy bags or branded as ‘organic’ or ‘free range’ products. Yet the civic national outrage was limited only to the dogs, irrespective of the fact that all live animals sold in open markets across India suffer similar conditions. Rescuing the dog from the marketplace in Nagaland has been relatively easy. However, this is not an escape for the dogs. This will be the beginning of a booming black market where the logic of profit and suffering will continue. It only brings us to the realisation about how animals—in the marketplace, slaughterhouses, animal shelters and rehabilitation centres—continue to be deeply instrumentalised and deployed, as humans seek to establish rights, exhibit compassion and create order. The debates from the dog meat ban should force us to introspect how we have turned the animals’ bodies into battlegrounds for our politics and biases. In India, this has only further polarised the politics of rights.

Dolly Kikon is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Melbourne. Her current research is on the politics of fermented food in the broader Himalayan region.

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