By a coincidence that is entirely explainable, the Arabic word Baqar, meaning cow or ox, gets fudged into the word Bakra, originating from the Sanskrit varkar.
Thus in India, Baqr Id, the festival commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice, quite often becomes Bakr Id. As I noticed this time round, even as Bakri Id, it makes absolute sense of course, since it is goats that are the primary object of sacrificial affection, and mutton is the prized meat anyway.
Through another onomatopoeic twist, in the purabiya region Baqr Id is also known as Barki Id — the big Id. People would sometimes enquire whether this is the big Id or the small Id or whether it is the sewain Id or the meat Id. For youngsters, though the fixating charm of watching animal slaughter is leavened by the disappointing fact that as far as Idee (or tyohari) — the money gift that is customarily doled out to them by seniors — is concerned, they come off much the worse on Baqr Id.
There is, therefore, more to Baqr Id than simple disgust at this wanton, and public, loss of life and blood. Just as halal meat has become a by-word for wanton cruelty, recently a High Court judge used the word to describe torture committed by an accused, Baqr Id has come to be known as the occasion when Muslim fanaticism displays itself in resplendent indifference. It appears particularly galling because it is presented as a sacrifice. Why must a helpless animal be killed to please caprices, we ask.
The issue really is not about killing animals, but killing them for a motive that seems highly irrational. It is far more rational to rear and breed animals, in billions, on an industrial scale, and in warehouses where they may never even see the sun only for the purpose of eating them. That is rational capitalism.
It is the same with halal as a mode of slaughter, if the thing has to be killed, be nice to it and kill it in one fell swoop. There is, it seems, a humane way of taking a life and a barbaric way of killing an animal. Isn’t this a debate that we are familiar with in the context of hanging people, whether we should gas them or hang them or give them a lethal injection.
Which is the most humane, and scientific way of doing this? Underlying this debate of course, is an idea of pain, of physical, bodily pain, as well as the psychological trauma of facing a slow approaching death.
I don’t particularly enjoy the sight or sound of thousands of goats being herded and paraded around, well aware of their imminent end, bleating and crying, sometimes for days. I don’t enjoy either the sight of blood flowing in people’s houses, of intestines and other rejected effluents, collected in heaps, sometimes for three days as the festival runs itself out. For some reason the hides of the slaughtered animals are always the preserve of fundraisers from Madarsas who collect it and display it in heaps at street corners in the area where I live.
But I also recognise the superficiality of the criticism that is mounted on both of these practices. Even if each and every Muslim household sacrifices an animal on Baqr Id, the total number of cattle involved would not be a significant addition to the number of animals that are slaughtered everyday in our world. The real cruelty and industrial sacrifice of animals happens not in these parts but in the western hemisphere, where the real horror lies.
I will conclude with a longish quotation from Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated chef and food writer. He says in salon.com, which I got through the Sarai reader-list, in the context of foie gras, a French duck delicacy, being banned in the United Sates because of its ‘inhumane’ mode of preparation — “Telling people what they should and shouldn’t eat is cultural imperialism — and deeply disturbing.”
That a group of people could say, “You know, how you eat and how you’ve been eating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years — traditional Jewish cuisine, Western European food since Roman times — that is wrong and should not be allowed,” I find that offensive, ethnically insensitive, jingoistic, xenophobic, anti-human and disrespectful of the diversity of cultures on this planet, and for human history. But that’s just the kind of law that has been passed — in Chicago, our second city, no less. It’s a win for the forces of darkness, willful ignorance and intolerance.”
And so, unless we ban the consumption of animals in any shape or form, and we can do that only after we have defined what animals are, which must include the Jain definition of jeev, and once we have banned all cruelty and harm to animals, we may reserve our disgust at Baqr Id and at halal. Being humane towards animals may be a good idea once we have made sure that we are no longer human to them.
[First published in Mid-Day on 5 January.]