Of Cows, Bacteria and 'Human' Rights - II

By Satya Sagar. Dated: 10/12/2018 1:11:48 PM

Let me point out that there is no shortage of great philosophy and wisdom that has been produced in India over the millennia. However, historically every noble idea or concept - from Buddhism to the Bhakti movement and anti-colonialism to Ahimsa, has been hijacked by those who run our societies to their own advantage.
Just to give one example, in mainstream Hindu society people worship many gods that have animals as their modes of transport -the mouse, peacocks, the bull, the tiger and so on. They also worship rivers like the Ganga, Narmada and Kaveri. In practice though, contemporary India shows a remarkable lack of real concern for anything to do with welfare of Nature. The filth that is dumped into all these 'holy rivers' on a daily basis is one instance of how much respect Indians have for the miracles of Nature around us.
The use of half-human, half-animal figures as deities in Hinduism is perhaps a result of the Adivasi influence on mainstream Hinduism long, long ago. But even this positive feature is shorn of any real empathy towards non-human species as far as practitioners of the religion goes in our times.
It has also always struck me as strange that though at least one Hindu god wears the head of an elephant, apparently done through plastic surgery in ancient times, there is little evidence of his ever having done anything for elephants anywhere. Every time elephant habitats are destroyed by logging companies or dam projects, I presume there must be elephants calling out to their closest relative in the pantheon of Hindu gods. And yet there seems to be no evidence of any real response from the deity - or I am sure sections of the Indian media - like Republic TV - would have surely reported it by now!
Forget about the Rights of Nature, in the Indian context, an even more fundamental problem is that the term 'human' itself does not have very deep roots. Traditionally in India, there were only two categories of two-legged creatures - there were the 'devas' and there were 'asuras'. All the rights belonged to the 'devas' and none to the 'asuras' - who were to be terrorized and vanquished - using every devious method possible. The idea of a 'human being', with universal rights, still remains alien to much of India unfortunately - which makes the task of promoting 'human rights' very difficult.
Around a decade ago speaking at another gathering of human rights activists I remember saying, we should forget 'human rights' for some time and fight to get the same rights as the holy cow. If we get that, we are at least assured of not getting murdered arbitrarily and who knows you may even get some grass to eat and a place to sleep in the gaushala too. I was quite serious about what I said but my audience laughed then at what they thought was a far-fetched joke. Today it has turned out to be a frightening reality - cows indeed do have more rights than most human beings in this country.
But more recently I have also come to realize, it is no longer sufficient to just ask for the same rights as a cow in general either. It turns out that there is a caste system operating within with world of cattle also, with the certificates being distributed by the same fellows who run the caste system among humans! Foreign cows, half-breeds cows are out - only those cattle which can prove ancestry going back to the Vedic period can be considered to be worthy of worship. Only these truly 'sanatani' cows can have urine or dung bottled and sold as remedy for all ailments, including the falling rupee and rising cost of petrol! Cows straying over the border from neighbouring countries are particularly suspect - and can be deported if they don't have national identity cards!
What I am of course pointing to is that, for all the worship of cows I don't think any of its self-styled champions are really interested in their welfare. The cow is exploited all its life by the very same people who proclaim its holiness. Not just in India but around the world, I believe the story of cattle offers a very good model to understand how human interactions with other animal species has shaped social and economic relations within human societies. Let me explain.
Of all the different four-legged animals that humans have domesticated - the sheep, goats, dogs - it is the cow that is not just the largest in size and most useful but also the most docile. It is in fact amazing to think that these large animals, many of them with sharp horns, can be rounded up, tied up anywhere, fed grass or leaves at one end to obtain nutritious milk at the other end! And all this without any protest at all- even when the act of milking a cow is essentially theft of what rightly belongs to the calf, which is pushed aside casually (when was the last time you heard of a 'revolutionary cow'?).
I want to reflect a bit on this human interaction with cattle because I think this is the original template for most of human relations, from time immemorial. Once the cow was tamed the idea must have surely arisen in some man's head -if such a large animal can be so easily turned into a slave - why not women, children and members of the neighbouring tribe? Can't they all be made to work for free or at bare subsistence levels - without any protest - just like the cow?
So in the world we live in this is how the 'cow model' operates. There are the chosen few who are 'cowboys' and the rest of humanity are supposed to be 'cattle'. If you accept being a cow you will be given your daily subsistence and even worshipped before being milked. And if you refuse to be 'cowed' down, you will be called all kinds of names and subjected to violence, torture or even death.
The problem of human rights violations comes from this fundamental attempt of some people to try and convert all others into cattle or slaves. Since many humans are not exactly cows and capable of some thinking there are also other strategies, apart from raw violence, used to achieve the same objective. These include imposing blind faith in the form of various religions or ideology; education that teaches you not to think at all; entertainment that numbs you like a narcotic and finally the magical lure of money, which blinds you to everything you may have learnt.
The cities we live in, factories, banks, schools, colleges, religious places, governments and other institutions - in one way or the other - all are manipulated to ensure that ordinary citizens get converted into cattle. We are indeed all living in one very large cattle shed and I see many, many cows and bulls walking on two legs all around and even talking on their smart phones. When the media sometimes claims we need a stable government or a stable economy - the term 'stable' I think has a different meaning from what is commonly assumed!
Recently I figured out that this ancient cow template is critical to the functioning of modern societies also. We know that cattle were considered as good as money and synonymous with wealth for a very long period of time in history. In the English language the term 'pecuniary', which means anything related to money, is derived from the Latin root 'pecu', which in turn means cattle. Again, the word 'chattel', that refers to personal property and is the precursor of the word 'capital' is also derived from 'cattle'. So when we say 'capitalism', to refer to the exploitative economic system we are part of in modern times, there is still the holy or unholy cow at the heart of the entire story!
In modern times, another problem we have is that, in all our dealings with Nature around us we use the techniques of engineering, which is a discipline that involves only the manipulation of dead objects but is indifferent to the fate of living ones. In engineering there is no space at all for uncertainties of any kind - which happens to be the chief characteristic of living organisms. An engineer is used only to dead certainties and when confronted with something living his impulse is to translate it into a corpse.
The cult of engineering is so deeply entrenched in modern societies that today we don't have politicians, doctors or journalists anymore - instead we have political engineers, medical engineers and data/information engineers - who don't really care what happens to real flesh and blood people because of their actions. And as for non-human living organisms there is even less concern for their fate in the world of engineering -even their genocide is presented as a routine part of the modern development process.
I work in the area of health on the theme of 'bacterial resistance', which is essentially the problem of antibiotics not working very effectively anymore because some genetic variants of infectious bacteria have become immune to their impact. This is a result of using antibiotics in large quantities over the last several decades since these 'miracle drugs' were discovered. This is a 'problem', of course, only for human beings but not for the bacteria themselves, who are doing what every living organism wants to do - survive.
However, looking into this phenomenon a bit more deeply one realizes that antibiotics were an indiscriminate and blunt weapon of war, used by humans to try and control bacterial infections. It was assumed that once we have identified a problem as being due to bacteria it is OK to kill all of them indiscriminately using antibiotics or whatever other poison we have at hand, irrespective of the long-term consequences.
The simple truth is that bacteria are not just the oldest but also the most numerous form of life on our planet. They are our ancestors in the tree of life. However, despite their amazing diversity and being indispensable to the existence of all life on Earth, bacteria are presented as being nothing more than disease-causing organisms.
Yes, bacteria do cause disease but that is only a very, very small fraction of the things they do. There is no important process on our planet that is not driven or mediated by bacteria - from photosynthesis, to the fixing of nitrogen in soil to waste recycling and the digestion of the food that all living creatures eat - and yet it turns out that bacteria are projected as pure villains who are only out to kill human beings.
—(To be continued)
Satya Sagar is a public health activist and writer. He can be reached at sagarnama@gmail.com
(This article is based on a talk delivered in Hyderabad on 7th October 2018 as part of the 9th memorial meeting of 'Remembering Balagopal', an annual event commemorating the late social activist K Balagopal)



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