Long ago, the EC banned using animals in elections. But politicians carry on regardless, flouting the rule either out of ignorance, or out of sheer carelessness, says Aparajita Ray
Even as the EC bans using animals in elections in 2019, Dudh Kumar Mondal, BJP contestant in Birbhum constituency in West Bengal rode a bullock cart to compete with rival Shatabdi Roy, Trinamool Congress’s sitting MLA from the same battlefield, who rode an e-rickhshaw for campaigns. Raju Shetti of Swabhimani Paksha filed nomination papers for Hatkanangale Lok Sabha seat in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, by travelling on a bullock cart. Nearer home, Karnataka’s Mandya district saw two new faces from strong political lineages, Sumalatha (wife of actor turned Congressman Ambareesh) and Nikhil Gowda, son of CM HD Kumaraswamy, canvassing on bullock carts. Some independent contestants in the fray across India have also been spotted using bullock carts to file their nomination papers.
All this despite the fact that in 2012, after an appeal by PeTA India, the Election Commission of India issued an advisory in the Model Code of Conduct that animals should not be used during election rallies or campaigns. A few state election commissions also followed. But animals seem to be an integral part of the ritual of electioneering in India and the manual on the code of conduct is read only to check the limitations on political expenditure.
Glaring examples keep popping up without parties realising that they are violating the code of conduct. In 2015, a few volunteers of the National Students’ Union of India (the student wing of Indian National Congress) rode a bullock cart while canvassing in Jammu leading to the collapse of the animal drawn vehicle and injuring the bullock grievously. Associate director of policy of PeTA India, Nikunj Sharma remembers, “After this incident was reported by the media, we took it up with the then national president of NSUI who acknowledged it and readily issued an advisory to all NSUI teams in states to refrain from using animals during elections. But the trend continues because riding a bullock cart or horse to file nomination papers or campaigning is a fashion for the politicians. They try to woo their voters giving the latter an impression that he/she is one of the locals.”
In 2019, the ECI has categorically banned usage of animals in the Lok Sabha election.
The manual on Model Code of Conduct states, under the heading ‘Use of Animals in Election Process’: The Election Commission has advised the political parties and candidates, to refrain from using any animal for election campaign in any manner. Even a party, having reserved a symbol depicting an animal should not make a live demonstration of that animal in any election campaign of the Party/any of its candidates. Under “Regulation of Road Shows during Elections”, the manual also states, “Display of animals in road shows is totally banned.”
Nikunj wrote an open letter to all the chiefs of national and regional parties recently, urging them to follow the code of conduct. In one of the letters, (addressed to Amit Shah, BJP president), accessed by The Heyvan Times, it says, “I’m writing from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India on behalf of our more than 1.2 million members and supporters to inform you about a ban on the use of animals in election campaigns in the Manual on Model Code of Conduct (MMCC) by the Election Commission of India (ECI)…During these campaigns, animals are terrified by being forced into the middle of screaming crowds. They’re often beaten, whipped, kicked, and terrorised while being paraded through the streets and shoved by shouting mobs. They’re also often forced to carry loads in excess of their physical capacities, denied adequate food and water, and seriously injured in the mayhem. We request that you issue directions to your party cadre in order to comply with the provisions of the MMCC by running eye-catching and creative campaigns that don’t subject animals to frightening, frenetic crowds.”
The letter also appeals to the citizens of India to report any violations of the MMCC, particularly use of animals in the general assembly through the cVIGIL mobile application of the ECI. It allows people to document violations with pictures or videos in order to establish the veracity of a complaint and offers a fast track complaint redressal system. PeTA has also given out a web link to contact and report about cruelty to animals and an emergency contact number — 98201 22602– to help distressed animals.
But it is business as usual for the people in the year’s biggest slugfest. In May 2018, during the Karnataka assembly elections, HV Madalli, president of Dharwad district unit of Congress succumbed to injuries after falling off from a bullock cart he was riding, while canvassing for another candidate. Rahul Gandhi also gave speeches from a bullock cart during the same time, while campaigning in Kolar district.
But Nikunj says PeTA’s emergency response team has not received a single report on violation. “Using bullock carts or horses or even garlanding donkeys with shoes in India are just such normal scenes that they do not raise an alarm. For people, it is cruelty on an animal only when it is beaten. Forget citizens, even political parties and their candidates in the contest are not aware of this ban by the ECI. The issue needs awareness first and that is our agenda,” he says.
Historically, Indian political warfare has used animals for its own benefit. Protesting on a bullock cart for that matter is the most commonly used one. Be it Sharad Yadav, patron of Loktantrik Janta Dal standing on a bullock cart to protest the fuel hike in June 2018 in Patna or union minister Vijay Goel demanding reduction in VAT on fuel in Delhi in October, riding this animal drawn vehicle is mark of solidarity with the common man’s woes. Karnataka’s habitual agitator Vatal Nagraj, leader of Kannada Chalvali Vatal Paksha is known for riding a horse or bullock cart, and indulging in many more stunts to protest against the fuel hike, demanding a wage hike on behalf of BMTC bus drivers and conductors or against the Rajnikanth-starrer film 2.0 to be screened in Karnataka. As Nikunj rightly says, it is fashionable for them to use animals for their political benefits.