Humans are the most evolved species of animal kingdom. They have created the institution of ‘State’ that has in turn given rise to the concept of ‘Rights’. Certain interests were recognized as so important that they were designated as Rights i.e. something which is correct, or rightfully belongs to the bearer or something that is to be lawfully permitted to be done. The human construct of rights is unique to humans alone. However, these rights cannot exist in vacuum. To put it simply, a right is meaningless unless it imposes a corresponding duty on someone else. There should be someone against whom a person, enjoys the right or someone who is prohibited from interfering with an individual’s enjoyment of right.
The exercise of rights and duties requires a moral agency i.e. a rational mind capable of differentiating between right and wrong so as to be held accountable for its actions. Since humans are capable of making choices, they can also be held accountable for the consequences of the same. But can this corollary be applied to animals? Is it fair to expect animals to understand rules laid by humans? It is often argued that animals act on instinct rather than logic. But, humans can also not deny that they rely on their instincts most of the time and similarly animals also abide by the laws of the animal kingdom (unwritten).
Animals lack personhood. They do not fit into the category of natural born person. Whether they are legal persons is subjected to varied interpretations. But can we say that they are a ‘thing’? We all know that animals also feel pain and pleasure. They express happiness, they respond to their surroundings. Cows, dogs, elephants, monkeys, dolphins are some examples of animals who display social intelligence. This makes us question whether personhood is associated with human body or with moral agency. Can lack of rationality be a ground for stripping personhood of humans suffering from mental disability, or are they to be given a qualified legal capacity that safeguards their innate dignity?
During ancient times some civilizations punished animals for wrongs committed by them. But with time, the argument relating to Moral agency evolved and it was realized that punishing animals was wrong, since they lacked the rationality to distinguish right from wrong and thus punishment would serve no use It was understood that Animals lacked the capacity to comprehend firstly they were being punished and secondly why they were being punished. Thus, laws evolved and animals (like minors and persons of unsound mind) were held to be bearer of interests that needed to be safeguarded by the law sans any obligation to perform any corresponding duties. The present legal regime penalizes pet owners for any damage resulting from the negligent handling of their pet.
India has a culture that promotes tolerance and respect for all life forms. Hindus regard Cow as their sacred animal. Snakes, bull, garuda, rat, monkey, elephant, tiger etc. find mention in religious texts. Buddhists and Jains preach non-violence towards all living creatures. We have various moral and religious practices that urge people to feed dogs, cows, fishes and birds. Vegetarianism is a way of life for majority of us. In contemporary times people have shown reservations against animal sacrifices.
Now we have laws that punish cruelty against animals in any form. The law also permits the creation of a charitable public trust for the benefit of a class of animals. In the case of Animal Welfare Board of India v. Nagaraja (2014) while striking down the practice of Jallikattu (bull-wrestling) and bullock cart racing in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, respectively, The Supreme Court had ruled that the right to dignity and fair treatment as enshrined in and arising out of Article 21 of India’s Constitution is not confined to human beings alone, but animals as well. In July 2018 the Uttarakhand High Court and in June 2019, Judge Rajiv Sharma of the Punjab and Haryana High Court observed that animals have a distinct legal persona with corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person and subsequently declared all the citizens throughout their to be persons in loco parentis as the human face for the welfare/protection of animals. This all citizens of Uttarakhand and Haryana were declared to have legal responsibilities and functions similar to those of a parent vis-à-vis minor children for the welfare and protection of animals within their respective States.
Our laws safeguard animals against cruelty. This means that animals have a right against cruel treatment. They have right to liberty since law declares it illegal to hold them captive. Article 51A (g) of the Constitution of India imposes a fundamental duty on us to safeguard the wildlife and have compassion for all living creatures. This means that a corresponding right vests in animals to be treated with compassion.
Our legislative provisions and judicial pronouncements make an effective case for animal rights. But, no rights can be absolute. Like human rights, regulation of animal rights is a must. We need to strike a balance between safeguarding the interests of animals without compromising on the safety or well-being of humans. Animal abuse has to stop. Humans need to shed their condescending approach of patronizing other species. Mere intellectual superiority of human kind cannot be allowed to supersede living rights of another species. Co-existence of all life forms is absolutely essential to prevent an imbalance of our eco-system.