28 November, 2009
NOV 28 - In a gathering at my Kathmandu house where we incidentally sat around and ate buffalo momo dumplings, I said, “I wonder what psychological trauma the people around Gadhimai feel through all the pain of the sacrificed animals!” My logic, that somehow the violence inflicted on the animals must reflect on the humans, and that somehow this would lead to more violence, was smartly counteracted by a learned friend (he asked me not to use his name but identify him, tongue-in-cheek, as “learned friend”) who said, “But think about their beliefs. This is a deeply engrained tradition of animal sacrifice that goes back hundreds of years. They believe that the sacrifice brings them good luck, and you can’t beat that.”
The talk then moved to gruesome descriptions of animal sacrifice in Aacham where men make 500 cuts on an animal before slaughtering it, and another event in which people get the bulls drunk before leading them to a blood-soaked death fight in Bhaktapur. “The people are at fault for the violence, not the bulls!” said one listener indignantly, when we were trying to figure out, in our ayla-muddled states, whether the bulls or the humans were more cruel.
For the urban elite in Kathmandu, who get their meat from butcher shops where the slaughtering is safely hidden out of sight, the 15,000 slaughtered buffaloes was cause for an outcry. And so too for the people in Europe and the U.S.A. But as my friend explained to me, the deep workings of human belief may make these sacrifices less of a terrible animal massacre and more of a profound moment of connection with the universe for the participants of this festival.
If the debate is about how civilized we are, then the debate comes down to animal rights versus human rights, said my learned friend. The rights to follow traditional faith-based practice is enshrined in the Constitution. If we are saying that Muslims and Christians should be allowed to follow their own faiths, and so should the indigenous groups, surely the deeply engrained ancient practice of animal sacrifice, which goes back a very long way, should also be respected. People come to make promises to the goddess and use other animals and plants — rats and coconuts — as part of this faith-based practice. This is not just a random slaughter, but a massive show of faith.
In Kathmandu last year, the Newars rioted when the government stopped funding the 108 animals needed for a sacrifice. The government had to give in and fund them to stop the public unrest. Surely, if the state recognizes sacrifice in this matter, it should do so also in this new matter?
And besides, said my learned friend (you see, he should really be writing this op-ed, not me), the Dalit groups, spurred by NGOs, did an andolan at the last sacrifice, in which they said Dalits would no longer pick up the meat associated with the sacrifice since this was demeaning. This year, after a private company had been contracted to pick up the meat at a fee of Rs. 5,100,000 (around US$ 65,000) and had hired 700 workers to get this done, the Dalit groups stopped the company, saying it was their traditional right to collect the meat. Surely, asks my learned friend, this kind of political machination has to stop, and people living in a democratic country must allow private companies to fulfil a business contract.
Besides the local intricacies of what goes on at Gadhimai (frankly I don’t know a whole lot about this event, and would hesitate to write about this issue if it weren’t for the way it is being promoted as the biggest animal slaughter of all times in the international news), there is the international response. I am being asked my opinion on this by French news outlets and Swedish radio stations, and my response is: Ugh… I got a degree in anthropology, and I would have to study this event a bit more in depth before I can make a comment.
Of course, culture doesn’t excuse everything. But for those of us jaded by the hidden stories of slaughterhouses of the U.S.A. and Europe, where animals are stunned with electric stun guns and killed in much larger masses everyday, the Gadhimai sacrifice can appear to be just a tiny blip of self-righteous protest from the Western world. How many Gadhimai-like sacrifices happen every single day on cattle farms across the meat-eating Western world? Nepal, incidentally, has a poor population for whom meat remains a luxury — for many of those doing the sacrifice, this may be the only meat they will eat throughout the entire year. So there is just a tiny bit of hypocrisy associated with those who protest this event — if only because the global footprint of meat consumption is so much more gigantic on the Western world.
Gadhimai brings to surface what happens every single day on cattle farms across the planet. People sacrifice gigantic numbers of animals everyday, especially for those populations that eat meat more than twice a day. The only difference in this is that we see the crudeness with which animals are killed in this event. I, an aspiring vegetarian, almost support sacrifices for this reason — because it provides a crude mirror for the world to see what exactly goes into their plates when they eat some dumplings.
(The author is trying hard to eat less meat)