Of dogs, donkeys and democracy

The most outstanding feature of a democratic government is its focus on everyone’s rights, particularly the rights of weak segments of society

Discussion in private and public circles in Pakistan these days is revolving around the results of general elections and the after effects. A national level activity which decides the future course of policy preferences is bound to draw such attention. There are some positive signs regarding the development of political culture. General elections 2018 have proved to be a catalyst of change in many ways. Pakistanis have emerged as a people who have generally rejected extremist, parochial and misogynist groups. They have elected moderates over fundamentalists, women over men and a Hindu candidate as a member of the National Assembly through joint votes of Hindu and Muslim citizens. These are healthy signs of polity heading towards a progressive, tolerant, all-inclusive, enlightened and non-discriminatory social and political system. Besides all this positivity, there are still many points to ponder, lessons to be learnt and mistakes to be corrected. The worst dimension of an expression of political dissent and frustration has been the treatment of animals by a politically charged crowd. I would call it mob-terrorism. Social scientists have had a long debate on basic traits of human nature. John Hobbes’s theory of human nature being, “nasty and brutish” has often been challenged. There are examples given from the lives of philanthropists and humanists who have selflessly worked for the larger interest of humanity. The debate still goes on to analyse the stimulant factors behind criminal behavior of certain individuals. What makes a person resort to the crimes like beating, raping or killing others? What satisfaction is derived out of torturing others?

If you happen to visit a zoo in any part of Pakistan, you can observe the tendency of teasing the caged animals. Signs have to be installed around the premises requesting to avoid mistreatment of animals. There are guards on the watch to stop visitors throwing wrappers in cages that could be fatal for the poor animals, hitting them with pebbles or stones and disturbing them by shouting at them. Abusing them verbally is of course the discretion of the visitors; it’s good for the poor creatures that they don’t understand verbal expressions. They are kept in the zoo to entertain the very visitors who feel pleasure out of their agony. A psychologist might be able to present a medical explanation for this behavior pattern, but it stems out of centuries of an unsatisfied existence. The social discrimination levied against different ethnic, linguistic, gender, class and racial groups infuses a sense of disapproval of the system and anger against the suppressors. This anger and frustration is transferred from generation to generation and becomes almost a part of the genetic build up. There is a sense of being revengeful. The revenge for the deficiencies in life is to be taken from anyone. The socio-economic and political structures that institutionalise these discriminations are often out of the reach of the commoners. They find it difficult to eliminate or alter them but that desire for revenge keeps them restless. It’s the vulnerable sections of society that become victims of this venom. It could be women, children, religious minorities, marginalised ethnicities, lower stratum social groups and animals. It gives a certain sense of satisfaction if an innate feeling of helplessness is vented out on someone even more helpless than yourself.

The worst dimension of an expression of political dissent and frustration has been the treatment of animals by a politically charged crowd. I would call it mob-terrorism

There are traditional games associated with “manhood” and chivalry that encourage brutal killing of animals. There’s a game called buz kasha where a goat was hit like a ball in a competition. We have dog fights and cock fights that often end up at torturous death of one of the animals. In some places dogs are made to fight a chained bear and they all end up badly wounded. In all such events the spectators are humans who draw pleasure out of the pain and screaming of poor animals. Some of the animals like donkeys and dogs are considered particularly inferior creatures. Donkeys have served the mankind over millenniums. They are still a source of living for so many families in different parts of Pakistan. They are often treated quite harshly and are made to carry burdens beyond their capacity in spite of a bonding of survival between their masters and themselves. Dogs are yet another species of animals whose services to mankind are innumerable. They are the most reliable guards who perform their duty with utmost diligence and are never reluctant to lay down their lives for their owners. They are the best friends of visually impaired citizens and children with mental disabilities. They are one of the faithful allies of our law enforcing agencies in their fight against terrorism, crime and narcotics trade. The social stigma associated with these animals assisted by religious dogmas, makes them an easy target of venting out the anger against system. The grooming of children in rural areas and less educated communities teaches them that it’s okay to enjoy the pain of these poor animals as a sport and they are disposable entities who could be killed or left to wander around when no more needed.

There are shelters being established for such bewildered and betrayed animals but they are very few in numbers and not very resourceful. Talking of animal rights is considered just yet another fashion trend. The references of a dog who was friends with Ashab e Kahf in the Holy Quran and many instructions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) regarding kind treatment of animals, doesn’t help as we have become prone to using religion for selective and subjective purposes. The legendary Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah had narrated the Sufi traits of a dog in a most heart touching manner. He identified dogs as better than a bad human in so many ways. According to him dogs stay awake at night to perform their duty with commitment. They would bark tirelessly to warn you of any possible danger. They would stay faithful to their master until their last breath and won’t leave a friend in worst of the conditions unlike a human, But a Sufi poet’s eye opening verses fall flat on insensitive ears and hearts. Recently we saw the worst manifestation of this inhumane attitude towards donkeys and dogs in at least two reported and videotaped events during the election campaign. The tradition of crossing all limits of courtesy to show your conflict of opinion is a new low for our social system. Some of the leaders who themselves do a lot of “loose talk” and consider unruly behavior of their supporters towards opponents as a symbol of their popularity, fail to understand what a Frankenstein’s monster they have unleashed which can later destroy them as well. This politically charged crowds in their frenzy tortured two donkeys, one of whom died in a shelter later. In another event a dog was shot dead wrapped in the flag of an opponent’s party.

We understand that political leaders were not involved in these events directly but they are indirectly responsible for creating an environment of hatred for political differences. The already desperate mobs, frustrated with the social and economic insecurities and lacking basic education and civic sense have been given new stimulants for hatred and barbarity. There’s a serious effort needed on part of government and non-government sectors, the academia and the media to work on creating awareness about animal rights and civil behaviour. These are not just a few scattered events that are eye openers for us to understand the collective level of frustration among masses and their inability to respond through civic mannerism. They are revengeful and anyone weaker than themselves can be a victim of their rage.

Our transition to democracy is to be made through civic means. A mere focus on building democratic structures like parliaments, political parties, electoral processes is just not good enough. It needs to be complemented by education of masses. The most outstanding feature of a democratic government is its focus on rights, all rights, everyone’s rights and in particular the rights of the weak segments of society. We need to prioritise creation of rights awareness. Without rights, democracy is a façade. The way I treat animals shows how good a human I am. This is a lesson our children need to learn right from their early childhood, in all rural and urban, lower and upper strata. There’s no Bulleh Shah to mourn the donkey and the dog who lost their lives because there was a democratic election being held. They are the last species around who serve more, demand less and never betray.

Published in Daily Times, July 30th 2018.