Animals are in the news.
Last month, the announcement of the final nominations for the 95th Academy Awards (the Oscars, in popular lexicon) received more than its usual share of media attention in India. This was due, in no small part, to the unlikely global phenomenon that RRR has become – and it lived up to the hype by scoring a nomination in the Best Original Song category.
RRR’s menagerie of wild cats may have grabbed more eyeballs but they are not the only animals that will be making their way from India to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
A happy outcome of the intense media gaze on RRR was a much-deserved moment in the sun being afforded to a couple of animal-centric, Indian movies that also made the cut for the Oscars nominations: All That Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers. The former has been nominated in the Best Documentary Feature Film category and narrates the story – on the surface, at least – of a pair of bird-rescuing brothers in Delhi. The latter (a nominee in the Best Documentary Short Film category) is a heart-warming account of a couple raising elephant calves in the breath-taking, verdant wilderness of the Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu.
With so much attention being lavished on these other beasts, how could our (un-)official national animal be left out of the spotlight?
On February 6, the Animal Welfare Board of India (an advisory body under the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying) took upon itself the task of remedying this situation by issuing the “Cow Hug” notification.
In this brief but remarkable notification the Animal Welfare Board bemoaned the “extinction” of “Vedic traditions” on account of the “progress of west culture” and “dazzle of western civilization”. It extolled the many virtues of “Gaumata” (cow mother) – describing it as the “backbone of Indian culture” – and then proceeded to make the most intriguing claim that “hugging with cow will bring emotional richness”.
Having made this sensational revelation, it avuncularly urged “all the cow lovers” to celebrate February 14 as “Cow Hug day” to make their lives “happy and full of positive energy”.
The February 6 notification, quite naturally, hit the headlines and the not-too-subtle attempt at appropriating Valentine’s Day as “Cow Hug day” served as fodder for endless jokes and memes on social media.
Some raised the issue – not unreasonably – of whether hugging a cow without its consent would be appropriate. Others were more concerned about the risk of goring and the physical well-being of would-be-huggers. As civic society deliberated on these critical issues and prepared to celebrate the nation’s first “Cow Hug Day”, there was a disappointing development.
On February 10, the Animal Welfare Board issued a terse notification declaring that its appeal “for celebration of Cow Hug Day on 14th February, 2023 stands withdrawn.”
With one fell swoop, the never-to-be-celebrated “Cow Hug Day” was consigned to the trash bin of history, and in the eyes of this writer at least, this amounted to a great tragedy.
It is a crying shame that so many commentators who had ridiculed and mocked the “Cow Hug Day” initiative – which had perhaps triggered its demise – had failed to appreciate its subtler nuances and the immense potential it possessed to bring about societal change.
Cows and Valentine’s Day are both seemingly benign topics that have, for years, served to rile up a host of right-wing, vigilante outfits to egregious bouts of violence. By preaching a message of “emotional richness” and “positive energy”, the February 6 notification was, in fact, an impassioned appeal to these elements to choose the path of peace and harmony.
The textual directive to hug cows may have appeared comical and bizarre but its brilliance lay in the manner in which it sought to disseminate its subtextual message of non-violence and pacifism; particularly amongst those who identify as ‘cow lovers’ but often morph into violent ‘cow protectors’, as well as those who assault young couples and vandalise private property, in the name of preserving Indian culture.
Indeed, even if this intended audience had failed to appreciate the underpinning philosophy of the notification and had acted upon its literal instructions after taking it at face value, it would have still led to a positive outcome. Self-professed cow-lovers and saviours of Indian morality could hardly have ignored the establishment’s urgent instructions to fete the bovine mascot of our ancient civilisation.
On February 14, they would have been far too busy hugging cows to engage in wanton acts of aggression against coffee shops and couples. And who knows, perhaps some of them may have even felt the surge of that promised “positive energy” that would have persuaded them to lay down their arms against an imagined enemy and choose a more peaceable, wholesome approach to life.
Unfortunately, the short-sighted critique of the “Cow Hug” notification and its subsequent withdrawal, robbed us of the opportunity to experience its full impact.
As with many other ground-breaking ideas before it, perhaps the February 6 notification too, was ahead of its time. One can only hope that the next time the authorities issue a similarly revolutionary edict, we, as a society, are ready to embrace it.
Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.