dog meat india nagaland controversy
Dog meat is a traditional food and even considered a delicacy in the Indian state of Nagaland. But many outsiders raised objections to it. Photo by Caisii Mao/AFP
Food

How a Dog Meat Ban in This Indian State Exposed the Country’s Cultural Biases

Former Indian minister Maneka Gandhi claimed credit for the ban, but people of Nagaland say they were not consulted by the government.
July 29, 2020, 11:13am

On July 9, a member of the Legislative Assembly of the Northeast Indian state of Nagaland uploaded Facebook photos of him with his dogs. In his post, Dr. Chumben Murry said, “I am a Naga and I do not eat dog meat but even if I do, so what? It’s my culture. Learn to live to respect other cultures.” 

Murray was among hundreds of people in Nagaland who flooded their social media accounts with pictures of them with their dogs after the state government banned the sale and trade of dog meat in the state on July 3.

It did not help that, in the wake of the ban, Mumbai-based animal rights activist Hema Choudhury called the Nagas “bastards” for consuming dog meat and threatened to slit their throats. Chowdhury has since been arrested by the state police.

Speaking to VICE News, Dr. Murry said, “People like Hema Choudhary think that all Nagas eat dogs and that we have our own version of the Yulin festival going on, like the one in China. I wanted to clear that misconception.”

Dog meat is widely consumed by several tribal communities in India’s Northeast, which comprise eight states that have cultural traditions that share more similarities with ethnic communities in South East Asia than South Asia. Bano Haralu, a Nagaland-based conservationist and former journalist, said that dog consumption is not a “daily affair.” “While no data exists, it can still at best be considered a delicacy. Some even believe it has medicinal properties,” she told VICE News.

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Arkaprava Bhar, a researcher with the animal rights group Humane Society International (HSI) who worked in the northeastern state of Mizoram, told VICE News that up to 2,000 dogs used to be killed for meat every month in the state pre-lockdown. 

The Nagaland state cabinet banned the “commercial import and trading of dogs and dog markets” and the “commercial sale of dog meat in markets and dine-in restaurants.” 

The notification came on the heels of a campaign by the New Delhi-headquartered People for Animals (PFA) India, which calls itself India’s largest animal welfare organisation. Maneka Sanjay Gandhi, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and former Union minister, is the founder and chair of the PFA.

On June 30, PFA’s Instagram profile posted an image of dogs tied up and stuffed in gunny bags, allegedly taken on June 26 outside an “animal bazaar” in Nagaland’s Dimapur city. Gandhi asked her followers on social media to write to Nagaland’s Chief Secretary Temjen Toy, to ban the killing and consumption of dogs in the state.

In three days after the PFA’s tweet, 125,000 emails were sent to Toy. On the day the ban was notified, PFA celebrated an “unprecedented” victory.

The BJP, of which Gandhi is a member, runs a coalition government with the regional Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party in Nagaland. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, as he is not authorised to speak to the media, a source in the government told VICE News that the ban was not ordered solely because of the PFA campaign.

“Given the threat of transmission during the pandemic, we had restricted the import of dogs along with pigs because of the African swine fever,” he said. “So we thought, why not ban it?” 

Gandhi maintained that the ban was a result of a sustained campaign. In an emailed response to VICE News, she said that the COVID-19 pandemic had little to do with the ban, since the issue had been a long-standing one.

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In 2016, Gandhi had urged the Indian government — of which she was a part, as Minister of Women and Child Development — to ban dog meat in the Northeast. In response, the Additional Chief Secretary of Nagaland said that enforcing a ban would be “difficult.” 

“Yes, it [the pandemic] has heightened people's consciousness that meat eating can be a dirty, messy thing and likely to give infections and lower the immunity of the human body,” she said. 

Dr. Murry, a member of the Opposition Naga People’s Front, said that the ban on dog meat had caught him unawares. “I do plan on raising a question in the Legislative Assembly meeting as to why such an order was rushed without any consultation,” he told VICE News

"Dog meat is very much part of Naga food and valued as one of the most healthy foods for the body," K Elu Ndang, the General Secretary of the Naga Hoho, a tribal apex body that is seen as a custodian of customary laws and practices, told VICE News. "How can India impose its choice of food on the Naga people?"

More than 16 Naga tribes of Indo-Mongoloid descent are spread across the Indian Northeast in states like Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur as well as neighbouring Myanmar. Since the British colonial rule, over two million Nagas in these contiguous areas have collectively asserted their identity for a Greater Nagalim, showing no affinity towards the Indian union since the British colonial rule. 

On August 14, 1947 — a day ahead of India’s Independence — the Naga National Council declared an Independent Nagaland in a telegram dispatched to the Secretary General of the United Nations in New York. Despite the Council’s protests, the state of Nagaland was annexed into the Indian Union following the partition of the country into India and Pakistan.

Nagaland is protected under a special provision — Article 371A of the Indian Constitution — where the state Legislative Assembly exercises some autonomy over the application of Indian laws, especially those pertaining to Naga customary practices. Secessionist groups in the state have fought what has been described as the oldest insurgency in India to assert their independence from the Indian Union.

After years of peace talks, a framework agreement was signed in 2015 between the Government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah). Both parties, along with six other Naga organisations, have since been in talks to finalise a peace accord to end the insurgency. At the time of signing the framework agreement, the Government of India said it, “recognised the unique history, culture and position of the Nagas and their sentiments and aspirations.” 

On July 25, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest outfit in talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, slammed the dog meat ban, calling it a move “just to please some political celebrities.”

The source in the Nagaland government told VICE News that Gandhi had been making impassioned pleas to the state government on animal welfare issues much before she joined the ruling BJP government. “But after becoming a minister, her tone has considerably changed,” he said.    

Earlier this year, an email exchange that began on February 22 between a Northeast-based animal rights activist and Gandhi was leaked to various WhatsApp groups. The activist, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal from local groups, confirmed the exchange to VICE News. 

The activist had written to Gandhi about his failed attempt at asking sellers in the dog meat market to be “compassionate with the dogs…and at least to untie their mouths so that they can breathe properly.” 

Animal rights activists in the region told VICE News that this was part of an effort to avoid involving law enforcement officials, keeping in mind local livelihoods are dependent on the sale and trade of dog meat. 

Gandhi wrote back, “You seem to be the stupidest human being ever. You learn no laws, you save no animals. Like some hopeless moronic creature you slide through the animal markets counselling people to treat the animals they have brought for killing to treat them better before killing.”

On February 27, Gandhi wrote to the Chief Minister of the northeastern state of Manipur N Biren Singh, alleging that Tamenglong district has ‘the worst wildlife trade in India’ and had markets openly selling dogs and wild animals.

The Deputy Commissioner of Tamenglong denied the claim, saying that the district was home to the migratory Amur falcon and that many residents had been convinced to give up their air guns

A researcher investigating illegal wildlife trade in the region, who asked not to be named since a report on wildlife trade in the region was yet to be made public, told VICE News that Gandhi is known to shoot off letters without any proper evidence. “This is why she is not taken seriously by state governments as well as the conservation community,” she said. 

Mizoram had become the first state in the Northeast to ban the sale of dog meat when it passed an order on March 5. Unlike Nagaland, the announcement was not followed by public outrage. 

Bhar, the HSI researcher, said that the amendment came after four years of his organisation’s engagement with the locals in Mizoram and advocacy with the State Animal Welfare Board.

“We faced a lot of resistance from people who differentiated themselves from Indians in the mainland but we also managed to find a lot of animal lovers in Mizoram”, he said. 

Bhar said that despite their best efforts, HSI could not work in Nagaland due to its “socio-political reality.” 

Conservationists working in the Northeast say that enacting laws will not necessarily lead to a change in age-old practices, especially in the interior parts of the region. 

“There are internal rules within certain villages, which gives protection to wildlife that may not be in agreement with national or international laws,” said Satem Longchar, a conservationist based in Dimapur city. “In Nagaland, village laws anyway hold precedence over any government rules or regulations,” she said.

The investigative wildlife researcher summed up the dog meat ban as a “classic case of politically powerful people telling minorities what to do and what not to do.”

“Even if you apply the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act [to enforce the ban], the complainant has to see the act as mischief, which may not be the case when you see dog meat as food,” she said. “Legally, it makes no sense.”

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