The Father of Modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, once said: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’.  Decades after Gandhi pronounced these words Indian law makers in the states of Punjab and Haryana have passed groundbreaking legislation, ruling that all animals are legal ‘persons’, entitled to legal rights like human persons.

Echoing an order passed by him while sitting at the Uttarakhand High Court last year Justice Rajiv Sharma’s order stated:

The entire animal kingdom, including avian and aquatic, are declared legal entities having a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person. All citizens throughout Haryana are hereby declared persons in loco parentis (responsible for a child in parents’ absence) as the human face for the welfare/protection of animals.”

Justice Sharma also stated: We have to show compassion towards all living creatures. Animals may be mute but we as a society have to speak on their behalf. No pain or agony should be caused to the animals. Cruelty to animals also causes psychological pain to them. In Hindu Mythology, every animal is associated with god. Animals breathe like us and have emotions. The animals require food, water, shelter, normal behaviour, medical care, self-determination.”

In most of the world, if they have a legal status at all, animals are classed as ‘property’.  Animals were recognized as property in Law at a time when the general belief was that God had given humans special rights – they had ‘dominion’ over the animals.  Animals did not possess moral standing because they lacked rationality and autonomy.  They were mere machines, acting on instinct, incapable of thinking or feeling the way humans do.  As little as fifty years ago this belief (that quite obviously lacked common sense) still had currency.  For example, scientists were cautioned not to ‘anthropomorphise’ when studying animal behaviour.  However, much has changed since then.   Back in the 19th century Darwin made the irrefutable case that humans had evolved from animals, clearly asserting that emotions and not only physical forms had shown continuity through species.  Thousands of scientific studies conducted over the last forty years have now proven without doubt that animals feel physical pain and positive and negative emotions just like us. Consequently, assert philosophers such as Peter Singer, the interests of humans and animals should receive equal moral consideration.

Yet in the most places an animal has the same legal status as a ‘thing’ – a car, television set, or toaster for example.  What kind of law states that animals are more like a house or a pair of headphones than a human being?   It is clearly ludicrous.  Animals are not inanimate objects.  They have the capacity to suffer, and engage in intelligent thinking.   By categorising animals as property the law is treating them as non-sentient objects, making it more likely for us to treat them as if they were.

An animal is not a toaster!

The very welcome Punjab/Haryana ruling comes as there is a worldwide push towards recognising animals as ‘sentient’ under the law.  A number of countries and cities, including France, New Zealand, Brussels and Quebec now have formally recognized animal sentience.  This is the first step towards recognizing animals as ‘non-human persons’ – which should, by the way,  replace the word ‘animal’.  If pigs and chickens in factory farms were called ‘non-human persons’ and given rights more commensurate with people than with things, then it will be a lot harder to imprison, torture and slaughter them in their billions every single year.

In Justice Sharma’s ruling fish and birds will also benefit.  Plundering the ocean’s inhabitants, cramming fish so tight in tanks in polluted water where they can hardly move; keeping wild birds in tiny cages without ever being allowed out, or blasting them out of the sky to hunt them,  will also be difficult to justify when they have personhood status.

According animals ‘person’ status will make an enormous difference.   For example Justice Sharma included 24 individual welfare codes that would take immediate effect.    Animal activists in India, such as Karuna Society for Animals and Nature, Haryana-based Teachers Association For Animal Rights, and Government Minister Maneka Gandhi – a powerhouse who has done more for animal rights in India than any one person – will be rejoicing at this news.   Having recently returned from Haryana and witnessed for myself the reality of animal suffering in that state as it is all over India, I join them in their rejoicing.

The judgement still has to be ratified by India’s Supreme Court, but if all goes well a precedent will be set.  India has paved the way, and now it is up to the rest of the world to follow suit.     According personhood status should be a campaign priority for all those everywhere who work to relieve sentient beings from their sufferings.

Sandra Kyle