Almost everybody loves animals to some degree or another; while some are warmed by the sight of goofy puppies and fuzzy cats, others are inflamed into action by animal violence. However, translating this love and affection into everyday action is a challenging, and sometimes backbreaking, task that demands long-term commitment. Animal rights is not at the top of our priorities, and most of us would rather eat a fried chicken burger than ponder on the ethics of factory farming and mass production of meat.
Despite this, the fight for animal rights has never lost its momentum, however slowly it may be drudging through murky legal frameworks. Internationally, there is greater awareness and scholarship surrounding animal cruelty and ethics of the poultry and dairy industries. In India, the Supreme Court, in 2014, delivered a decisive and ground-breaking verdict on Jallikattu in the Animal Welfare Board of India v. A Nagaraja case. The Apex Court made moving observations on freedom and right to life vis-a-vis animals, and discussed speciesism, in light of the cruel practice of Jallikattu. These changes have been set in motion by the impassioned work of a brilliant few, and it is in this context that we explore the work of Gauri Maulekhi.
A fierce trailblazer that has walked the talk, Maulekhi was inspired by Maneka Gandhi to become an animal rights activist in the 1990s; she worked at People for Animals in Lucknow, and played a part in establishing Lucknow’s first animal shelter. In 1994, 17-year-old Maulekhi was moved to despair when she saw a maggot-infested dog at a veterinarian first-aid camp in Lucknow. The incident took a hold of her until, a year later, she came in contact with Maneka Gandhi. Over the course of the following two decades, she became Maneka Gandhi’s protégé and an acclaimed animal rights activist. The two women leaders have partnered to affect significant change in the animal rights landscape in India, with Maulekhi serving as a trustee at People for Animals and Gandhi chairing it.
Encouraged by her mentor, Maulekhi researched suffering of animals on account of ritual sacrifice. Lacking adequate funding, she represented herself before the High Court of Uttarakhand and secured a verdict stating that animals could only be killed inside a slaughter house. She went on to file over 40 cases, including the previously mentioned case seeking a ban on the practice of Jallikattu. Perhaps her most notable and controversial case is her campaign to ban the illegal export of cattle to Nepal for ritualistic sacrifice. In an atmosphere charged with socio-political discord, Maulekhi has taken on a cause that resonates with the beef ban. She is vocal about her Hindu religious beliefs being one of the driving forces in seeking the ban. However, her focus is not one-dimensional. She also seeks to introduce more ethical standards for the dairy industry.
Maulekhi also spearheaded the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Act 2017, an amendment to the 1960 Act, which was enacted in compliance with an order by the Supreme Court of India in Gauri Maulekhi v. Union of India. The Act aimed to regulate animal trade for slaughter, and introduced critical provisions to mitigate cruel conditions for animals at markets. The broad goal was to regulate animal markets to avoid trafficking and to ensure humane conditions in markets. The Act attracted heated controversy because it affected the sale of cattle for slaughter in markets, and was therefore subsequently diluted. In spite of that, the Act still ensures better conditions for animals in the market.
Despite these developments, the landscape of animal rights in India continues to be abysmal. In spite of a Supreme Court order that is almost a decade old, State Animal Welfare Boards have either not been constituted or are not functioning in all states. Maulekhi has brought much needed attention to this issue, and is poised to take further action. With women taking charge, one can expect nothing less.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)