The Sacred And The Dead: Notes On The Lives Of Animals

The Sacred And The Dead: Notes On The Lives Of Animals
Animals and earth have to be kept outside the zone of commodification.  That is possible if they are seen as ‘sacred’. Something ‘sacred’ is not to be treated as a ‘means to an end’ but an end in itself. They, like us, partake, in the divinity of creation. Creation tells us to care, nurture and protect each other. Let me explain this with an example.

A few years ago, outside Kasur city, I saw cows adored with red and green cloth over their horns and around their necks. They moved freely. I had never seen such a thing in central Punjab. They were moving in a group of four. Two female adult cows and two younger male cows. Their coats were shiny and their eyes glistened like the desert after the rain. They moved past the fruit and vegetable market stalls and as they did so various cart and shop owners offered them food. The cows also moved to the garbage dumpster and ate what they found useful.

Amazed at this sight, I asked a local fruit vendor, named Abdul Malik, about them. “Who owns them?” He smiled and replied, “God!”

“Who milks them?” He said he didn’t know. I further asked, “Why doesn’t someone steal them, people are always stealing cows and these are worth at least 6 lacs (600,000) if not more?” He laughed and replied, “That would be a big goonhaa (crime against god and community)” I persisted: “Cows are stolen all the time. People spend a lot of money to protect them, they build huge walls, carry guns and here these cows are roaming freely, I don’t understand Abdul!” He laughed and answered, “These cows are sacred, they belong to a shrine nearby, no one wants to be cursed so no one will steal them.”

Just as a Husky without its features has no value for the bourgeois of Lahore, so too ‘features’ that identify these cows as belonging to a ‘shrine’ transfigure them from commodities to the ‘sacred’.

With the sacred comes a commons. These ‘sacred’ cows could access the community's care, garbage and gifts - together these form a commons. Whereas, animals that are defined as ‘aamm’ cannot. In Istanbul, cats and dogs are considered sacred by the city's people and therefore you will see them given access to mosques, parks, the waste of restaurants and the community's care. Sufi shrines, sometimes, create such spaces for animals but we need to see all life as sacred and with it create and give access to a commons for its survival and flourishing.


Dead Labour

I want to consider another category of animals and with it make one last argument for the welfare of animals, this argument comes from the Marxist and labour rights tradition.

On a visit to my ancestral village in Sindh, I woke up with the sun and wondered about taking photos. The early hour meant there were no humans around, but three donkeys, one with a rope tied to both of its back legs, so that it hopped rather than walked, and another with a damaged hide leg, came along to a dumpster in one part of the village for food. They were in pain. I asked a milk person, Hamid Memon, a distant relative about them. He told me, “They have been abandoned and now live off the dumpster, kids throw rocks at them so they come at this time before it gets busy and some kids probably tied the rope on that donkey’s legs for their amusement, don’t worry I will cut it and remove it when I see it next.”

Equally gruesome and also for amusement of humans was the treatment of a donkey at the 13th April protest of the PTI in Peshawar. Donkeys, like horses, have a different role in our lives and the economy than huskies and Persian cats. If the latter decorate as ‘objects’ the houses of the rich, the former build them.

Humans have used animals for labour for centuries. The relationship has taken various forms - from mutual cooperation and respect to abuse. Capitalism reduces relationships to mere use functions. A donkey, horse or bull, for example, that can no longer labour is a burden and either is set free or killed for its meat. What it cannot be allowed to do is retire with dignity. Yet, I want to argue that just as workers are entitled to good working conditions, pensions and retirement, so too working animals are entitled to the same. For their labour is not short of or different from human labour.
It exists as ‘dead’ labour. Never compensated, and extracted by the use of carceral punishments and techniques of domination - whipping, beating, tying up and other forms of torture

Let me explain. In Lahore, on Gurumangat road, are 12 donkeys that along with their owners transport building material. One of the donkeys who has worked at this site for the past two years is Billu. Billu is 5 years old and his owner is Akbar. Akbar, who says he is between 50-60 years old but looks younger, got Billu from an animal market outside the city two years ago for 14,000 rupees. He raised him and now works with him. Akbar wakes up at 7 am and comes from near R A Bazaar in Cantonment to Gurumangat road each day. Billu, meanwhile, stays on the side of the road on Gurumangat road throughout the year and if you should pay attention, you will see him resting after a hard day's labour. Their work is contingent on contractors. Billu and Akbar take building material that is bought on the road to construction sites across Lahore. Billu takes up to 1,000 kg of sand and other material per trip. Depending on the distance, Akbar charges around 200 rupees per trip. He can earn up to Rs 1,600 per day or nothing. On the day we met, he had by lunchtime earned only 200 rupees. Billu doesn’t have many desires fulfilled. He is fed a diet of Berseem mixed with chickpeas that costs Akbar 250 rupees per day. Akbar, likewise, eats economically. He notes, “I get a few rotis with some sabzi sallan.” It costs him between 200 to 300 rupees per day. If Billu is ill or unwell, Akbar takes him to a government vet in RA Bazaar who treats Billu for free.

I asked Akbar what will happen to Billu when he can no-longer work. Akbar replied, “I will sell him or leave him far away in the countryside where he can fend for himself.” I continued my questions, “What about you Akbar, what will happen when you can’t work?” Akbar looked solemn and replied, “I don’t know, I have no pension, I will suffer and be at the mercy of my children.” Akbar has a young family of two daughters, one son and his wife. They all support and then rely on the labor of Billu and Akbar. I asked if I could take a picture of Akbar and Billu, both seemed happy and I took a picture and headed home in a rickshaw.

The driver of the rickshaw, Ahmad, and I started talking more about Billu and Akbar. Ahmad mentioned that donkey carts carry in each morning the fruit and vegetables all across the city from Mandis on the outskirts of the city, they operate with garbage collectors across the city collecting and sorting our waste and they labour carrying goods and particularly building materials across the city. From sand, bricks, cement, heavy metal rods to much else. The city, as such, whether a small skyscraper or a house has been built with the aid and labor of Billu and his fellows. Yet, while we live in the joys of our houses, Billu sleeps on the side of the road and can look forward to a harsh life in an unknown spot in the rural countryside where he will be abandoned, possibly abused by locals and maybe become one of those sad and injured donkeys we see wasting away on the side of a highroad. Akbar, too, has little to look forward to, despite working in the heat most of his life, labouring 12 hours a day six days a week. Neither will get a pension. I asked Ahmad about the going rate of a canal square yard in Gulberg. He replied, “It varies, it can be up to 5 crores (50 million).” 5 Crores for a small plot and 200 rupees for carrying 1,000 kg in the heat of Lahore per trip! I am a Marxist and this is why. Capitalism and with it the bourgeois will give AC rooms to husky dogs - because they like the fur and blue eyes - but give Billu and Akbar 200 rupees for their hard labour. What I am saying is that capitalism and the bourgeois class it empowers isn’t efficient, it is brutal as the feudal lords of yesteryears.

Billu’s labour and that of Akbar is hardly recognised, let alone rewarded. Both deserve fair working conditions, health care, a living wage and a pension. In the case of Billu and his fellows it will mean being given a commons, a hundred acres or so, where they can be protected and roam freely living off the grass and nature. Akbar, likewise, should be protected and supported through our collective taxes in his old age. As it is, Billu’s labour and that of other donkeys is neither recognised nor compensated with labour rights. Their labour is literally in every square foot of this city, from the building of Wazir Khan Masjid or the Minar-e-Pakistan to your house. It exists as ‘dead’ labour. Never compensated, and extracted by the use of carceral punishments and techniques of domination - whipping, beating, tying up and other forms of torture.

We need to ban the fetishes of the bourgeois (which really can only be done with the banning of the bourgeois itself). For the markets their fetishes create are sites of living hell for animals. The underside of every husky or a German Shepard in a house in DHA is their mother or sibling rotting in Tollinton market - and the bourgeois should have no moral comfort with their choices to pay breeders.

Caring work is what makes us civilised. Therefore, we need to engage in such work for our environment, animals and fellow human beings. Likewise, animals have to be kept outside the realm of commodification. To do this, we need to evoke again arguments of their ‘sacredness’.

As we fight for labour rights, we need to also include animals and their labour in our fight. Billu and such animals are part of the class, and therefore, the class struggle.

Qalandar Bux Memon is Editor of Naked Punch Review