Head and shoulders picture of Yamini Narayanan smiling

“Mother Cow, Mother India” – Yamini Narayanan – International Development Asst. Prof – Sentientism Ep:160

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Dr Yamini Narayanan is Senior Lecturer in International and Community Development at Deakin University. Her work makes substantive contributions to the rapidly emergent field of South Asian Animal Studies through a twin focus on animals in political and urban life in India. It addresses species as an explicit identity category in Indian national politics through the intersections of anthropocentrism, sectarianism, and casteism. Her book Mother Cow, Mother India offers one of the first empirical critiques of India’s cow protectionism discourse and politics from a critical animal studies standpoint. Yamini’s work on urban animals is the first to theorise species as part of populations in urban informal spaces. Her work is published in leading journals including Environment and Planning A, D and E; Urban Geography; Geoforum; Hypatia; and South Asia.

Yamini is the founding Convenor of the Deakin Critical Animal Studies Network and is a lifelong Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. In 2019, Yamini was awarded Deakin University’s Vice Chancellor’s Award for Mid-Career Research Excellence. Yamini serves as Special Issues Editor of Urban Geography; Associate Editor of Environmental Humanities; and South Asia Editor for Asian Studies Review. Yamini publishes widely in media on issues related to animal rights, including the Animal Liberation Currents, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Huffington Post and Animal People Forum. She has been interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, BBC Brazil, and for documentaries on cow protection politics and animal advocacy in India.

We discuss:

00:00 Clips!

1:49 Welcome

3:56 Yamini’s Intro

– Researching gender-sensitive urban development (e.g. urban transport in New Delhi & risks to women)

– “It was entirely by mistake… a twist of events suddenly led me to the world of animals”

– Animals and urban planning… then animals and nationalistic & identity politics in #india

5:06 What’s Real?

– Being asked “how do you know?” when researching non-human animals

– “It’s also a question we need to reflect on ourselves… how much of projections… biases… are we bringing into our analyses”

– “To do justice to the subjects of the work… we actually got to be very carefully reflective on this question of ‘what is real?'”

– Confronting “scenes of really visceral extreme physical violence & suffering”… #dairy  farming, animal labour in brick kilns

– Humans with “the flimsiest of protections… virtually none… but in the case of animals they have been completely disregarded as labour subjects at all”

– “For me it has always been the eyes… of an animal… it is impossible to sustain any form of differentiation when we look at the eyes”

– “The eyes are possibly one of the most real aspects of connection between two #sentient beings”

– “When I’m talking to a butcher… or to a self-identified Hindu right-wing cow vigilante who is actually practicing a very #fascist form of politics… when I look into their eyes… it is again difficult for me to cancel or reject them completely… a window of an opportunity of connection… the eyes are a pathway into something real.”

– Critical studies: valuing the subjective other “any being with a perspective”

– “In an Indian dairy farm animals are heavily restrained constrained… almost like concentrated animal feeding operations (#CAFO / #Factoryfarm ) of the west”

– “There is very limited avenue for… expressing individual behaviour… and yet they manage…” curiosity / repulsion / impatience “almost tired of futile interventions”

– Subjective and objective value and truths

– The “charge of emotionalism” levied against dairy researchers (vs. rationaity and intellect)… “The separation of the mother and the infant… the visceral suffering that both the infant and the mother experience as a result… when you’re seeing it on a farm it is undeniable… how loud and how charged a calf’s bleating for its mother can be”

– “The rest of us are pulled to the calf’s cry as well”

– How researchers use euphemisms to dull the salience of animal experiences “the cow’s discomfort” or observations of behaviour vs. “these acts of observation as witnessing… there’s something more political about witnessing”

– “#Witnessing demands response the way observation doesn’t necessarily demand a political response”

– “In an observational situation I am still exercising control… in a witnessing situation I am surrendering some control… allowing myself a greater degree of vulnerability”

– Meeting 11 donkeys, tied up awaiting slaughter “In that moment he had nothing – he was broken”

– “… that I feel like I’m the pain body… got to be so careful… I am not experiencing that”

– #empathy and #posttraumaticstressdisorder

– The detachment & lack of compassion that can come with objectivity

– Inferring sentience vs. “looking into their eyes”

– “India’s secularism is being disintegrated… being replaced by this very authoritarian, fascist, right-wing model”

– “We were raised in secularism” in the 70/80/90’s “festivals were celebrated together… I cannot honestly recall a single anti-Pakistan comment…”

– “We weren’t necessarily as anti-casteist as I would have liked us to be… we grew up in very privileged schools… populated by very privileged caste people”

– “Capitalism aided in that… everybody’s rupees are equally valuable”

– Moving to animal studies “This was a fully emotional, subjective decision… some people actually told me it would be a career destroying decision”

– Watching a PETA video “I said ‘not in my name’”

– “When I look into an animal’s eyes… you no longer see a difference… no meaningful significant difference between a chicken and myself… I trust my body feeling – it is not a conclusion of rationalism”

– Secularism and religion

– Coming to Australia “lots of people asked me ‘are you a practising Hindu?’… I’d never heard of this concept before”

– The risks of making an identity normative “The Hinduism I grew up with makes no such demands… I don’t do anything at all that could be remotely distinguished as a practising Hindu… when I’ve gone to temples it’s mostly been to fight with priests”

– “We had a very flexible, very egalitarian view… there was no normative requirement”

– The rich, flexible, pluralistic history of Hinduism “yeh – not if you ask the Hindu right at the moment”

– Political Hinduism vs. Hindu philosophy… reflecting on reality vs. illusion (Maya)

– “When you can’t stay with this question… dogmatism becomes the answer”

– Karma yoga and an “action oriented life” of Dharma… justice and just action “but there’s no proscription”

– “Hinduism will tell us that reality is what is unchanging and then illusions are constant…” & practices to go deeper e.g. fasting, meditation

– “Hinduism does endorse that all living beings are divine… all human beings… venerating plants… tree worship… animal worship”

– “This does become very difficult in the current political climate which is actually mobilising the sacrality of an animal… to fascist ends”

– “Not just because of the potential for right-wing fascism… but also because of what it means for sentient beings”

– Visiting Nepal – a temple with a 6-8 year old girl as a living goddess “the reality of a young girl being worshipped… in India it would be considered child abuse… she is robbed of her childhood completely… it messes with their minds”

– “A politics of identity… my identity that I present to the world… also a politics of identification… the identity that I impose on you!”

– “What the cow experiences is a politics of identification… I have imposed a particular identity on the cow that directly relates to my own identity… When I worship a young girl I’ve imposed an particular identity on a young, vulnerable girl that directly comes back to framing my own identity.”

– “Sacralisation is a form of objectification… any form of objectification is a form of violence… devalues in the name of potentially valuing”

– “Child worship is… an act of child rights violation… it still happens, I’m sure, in many parts of India”

– “Indian feminists have been talking for a long time…” linking oppression of women to their exalted status as a mother or wife “it actually pins them down”

– Martha Nussbaum: Informed consent is “the only exception to objectification being violent” & “other animals do not have the capacity to provide informed consent”

– “I would absolutely call myself a Hindu… I would also call myself a devout Hindu… but virtually everybody from the Hindu right would disagree”

– “Is there a god… I don’t know… Hinduism allows for atheism, agnosticism, rationalism.”

– “After close to 20 years I actually went to a temple as a devotee – I just had this urge and I went in pure faith… but this happens once in 20 years”

– “Do I believe in cosmological sentience of the stars and the sun… I don’t know… these are all lie in the realm of unknowables for me”

– “Here religion would say take a leap of faith… and here I take a leap of faith and say ‘I don’t know’”

– “I don’t think there is anything distinguishing a Hindu from any other human being…”

53:05 What & Who Matters?

– “The only takeaway that I would take from Hinduism… is the inherent divinity of all living beings… I fully accept that… sentient and non-sentient” (plants, microbes)

– “My only caution would be to not take this notion of sacrality into practice – because it harms sentient beings when we start practising our sacrality on them in an objectifying way… in a way that institutional religion demands… that you build a temple to a cow… build a temple to a living child”

– “Living with chickens… I shouldn’t and I cannot clear my garden of weeds anymore”

– “Weeds… is a racial construct in the plant-world… the idea of the weed is very political”

– Urban planning of “garden states” where “you pull out the weeds…you pull out the poor people”

– JW: “Are the chickens harming those plants by eating them… is that a morally negative thing?”

– “Chickens and I share that quality of eating plants… the neuro-biological system of plants is so different… from forms of animal life… therefore I don’t feel hesitation in allowing myself or the chickens to eat plants as they will”

– “But I also see inherent value beyond that as well”

– “We need to… divest ourselves from trying to put value onto everything… if there is no usable value, instrumental or utilitarian value attached to a living being I think it’s really critical to see value in them inherently”

– “What worries me about human beings is that we are so easily given to extraction… to institutionalise it… very efficiently”

– JW: Risks of “ethical flattening” via spiritual, religious and environmentalist / holistic ways of thinking “everything matters… then the poor old sentient beings end up being brutalised”

– Mountain worship, river worship… rivers and mountains also suffer enormous ecological degradation when sacralised. The most sacred rivers are among the most polluted “many experts think they’re dead”

– “There’s a huge amount of religious waste going into these rivers”

– “We have a huge tradition of sacred groves in India and we have no forests left”

Emma Tomalin’s “Biodivinity and Biodiversity: the limits of religious environmentalism

– “The ‘cow as a mother’ sounds nice… most people are shocked to hear about the state of the cows in India”

1:06:12 How Can We Make A Better Future?

– “The framing of ‘the cow as mother’ is one of domination and control… you control and dominate the cow when you call her a mother”

– 2014 when the Hindu right first came to power & started to mobilise cow protection ”The cow is our mother, the mother of Hindus… those who butcher the cow (Muslims) are committing a crime basically against Hindus as well.. and they do not belong to the Hindu state… because if you belong to the Hindu state you must revere the cow as your mother.”

– Butchers who are frequently Muslims or of “lower” castes / Dalits

– “The poorest, the most marginalised, the most vulnerable are the ones that take on butchering jobs – because who else wants them”

– “The slaughter end of dairy production in India is populated by Muslims and Dalits… when the Hindu right came into power there was suddenly a resurgence of lynching, killing, raping, beating of members of these communities – who were accused of killing the cow and implicitly trying to kill mother India – because the cow is a stand-in for the mother nation itself.”

– “I wanted to understand the realities of the cows themselves”

– This puzzle: “How does India become the largest beef producer in the world… a country where 20-25 states have a ban on cow slaughter”

– “We don’t have a national ban on cow slaughter… Nepal is the only country that has a national ban on cow slaughter.”

– “The Indian beef sector is largely composed of water buffaloes” (not considered sacred) “but that is not the complete story”

– “It’s only the native Indian cows that really are considered to be sacred”

– To produce dairy at scale “you have to make some cows not sacred… these are the foreign breeds… and the cross-breeds”

– “A lot of gaushalas [cow shelters] will only accept native cows”

– “In every other country that produces dairy… it’s very clear the dairy cows eventually end up in the slaughterhouse”

– “In India somehow this is disrupted… cows are bred for dairy, they go through the cycle of production… somehow the story goes that these animals [not lactating] are not slaughtered. Supposedly gaushalas accept them. They are not capable… so cow slaughter simply goes underground.”

– “We have the largest scale of cow slaughter anywhere in the world – it’s completely underground. There’s no other way for India to sustain itself as a dairy producing country.”

– “Cows and cow milk are central to the Hindu identity. Milk, butter and ghee are considered very sacred in ritual Hinduism… you need dairy to fully compose the Hindu identity – but you need to distance yourself from the slaughter.”

– “Condemning cow slaughter while celebrating cow milk – while the two are intertwined.”

– Clashing vulnerabilities “the butchers who slaughter the cows are also vulnerable”

– Abandoned cows on the streets. Struggling to survive, often harmed terribly by eating plastic waste. “It is very difficult to euthanise a cow in India so they just die abject, prolonged deaths.”

– Associations between western far-right nationalism and animal agriculture: Anthropocentrism / dominion / might makes right / colonialist land-hunger / pride in lactose tolerance among milk-chugging white supremacists / will to power / my freedom to harm & oppress others

– JW: Socially conservative views of women: “Women are worshipped… but you have to fit in your traditional role as a wife and mother… you’re put on a pedestal… but actually you’re being controlled and exploited and restricted and oppressed”

– “In the use of cows Hinduism is as anthropocentric as the Abrahamic religions – sacralisation is anthropocentrism”

– “If you think about who is sacralised it is always the most vulnerable subjects – it is children, it is women, it is animals, it is nature”

– “Anthropocentrism is about an idealised human whether it is the white male, whether it is the Brahmin male, whether it is the Brahmin female… an idealised, privileged, racialised, casteised human”

– “Sacralisation is an extractive model”

– JW: The usual #JustTransition approach assumed for rich economies (industry transitions, demand shifts, tech fixes, policy / regulatory / subsidy switches…). How would a transition for India need to differ?

– “I’ve just shown you how terribly cows are abused in India… what’s next… my inspiration for what’s next is actually India’s dairy industry”

– 1950’s “food security was one of India’s biggest priorities post independence.” Hence strengthen plant farming and revitalise dairy farming.

– “Dairy farming in India was instituted as poverty alleviation programme. It had nothing to do with nutrition. It had nothing to do with cultural imperatives.”

– “India is not actually a traditionally dairy consuming country – we are the largest dairy consumer and producer now…”

– “It was all centred around the emancipation of farmers – the largest poverty alleviation programme in the world”

– “This is what gives me hope… prioritising the farmers needs. Farmers weren’t naturally wanting to produce dairy. The industry was heavily subsidised. The state undertook an obligation to buy every last drop. We have a glut of milk – it is dehydrated as milk powder.”

– “The pathway forward is to put the farmer first… and subsidise and support… this can be done really thoughtfully…” e.g. heavily subsidising and really cleaning up [abusive labour practices] the cashew farming industry. “That’s how dairy farming took off”

– “Jackfruit used to go to waste in India – until veganism took off in the West and jackfruit farmers could export”

– “Subsidising all these plant-based imperatives… instead what is happening is that all the animal industries are being subsidised to the extent that animal-based products are much cheaper”

– “It’s a source of enormous shame in India that chicken is cheaper than lentils now”

– “This is not a natural outcome – this is a political outcome… that can be changed”

– JW: “Can we convert the worship into compassion?”

– India’s constitution was the first in the world to state: “Every citizen has a fundamental duty to be compassionate to other animals”

– Compassion’s etymology: “to co-suffer” and being vulnerable vs. the objectification and oppression of others

– Learning from the Indian independence movement re: what will work in India

– Mahatma Gandhi’s focus on ahimsa (do no harm), non-violence, commitment to the truth… “does it require a charismatic leader? We haven’t got that yet for non-human animals… we don’t have a Nelson Mandela… a Mahatma Gandhi… a Martin Luther-King.”

– “Most movements have in some ways gathered around these sorts of figure-heads”

– “We need some sort of charismatic leadership… while being suspicious of charismatic leaders”


Yamini at Deakin

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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