The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated

By Catherine Masters

In Sydney last week, the waitress moved to get rid of an ant wandering about on the rim of the Indian man's glass of orange juice.

"No, no," the man told her, "he's a friend of mine, just let him be, he's not bothering anyone."

When the waitress came back to take the glass away, she asked "is your friend there?"

The man had a look at his juice and when he saw the ant was still there he popped it gently on a finger and put it on the floor.

"Oh, you can't do that," said the waitress, and he replied "what do you mean I can't do that, he's got equal rights, I don't see any reason he can't be on the floor."

Meet Raj Panjwani, a once high-powered corporate lawyer now turned legal champion for all creatures. He sits outside the Hyatt hotel in Auckland in the little woollen hat his wife knitted, shivering a bit against the biting wind he is not used to in his own country of sweltering heat but which he is willing to endure so he can have another cigarette. He's not perfect, he smiles.

Among his court battles for elephants, stray cows, abattoir and zoo animals, and all manner of other animals, Panjwani also takes seriously the rights of an ant.

This comes from the heart, and from his Hindu beliefs which are heavily based on compassion.

The ant, he says, is not poisonous and it wasn't biting anyone, "it's just saying `please let me live.' Just because it's an insect doesn't mean it has no right to exist."

The night before, Panjwani had given a lecture to law students as part of speaking engagements in Australia and New Zealand, hosted in Auckland by Auckland University's Law Faculty and by Arlan, the Animal Rights Legal Advocacy Network.

He says he came not to preach, simply to tell how he has achieved improvements to the lives of animals in India through the use of the law.

He is helped by the fact that India has enlightened legislation relating to animals. Sadly, the reality is that the legislation is flouted and broken and the suffering of animals is great.

Better though that the legislation is there, says Panjwani, who has had notable successes enforcing animal rights in court battles in his home country.

Helping his cause is the Indian constitution. India has one of the world's largest populations of vegetarians, its people largely committed to the principle of non-violence, known in ancient lore as ahimsa.

Mahatma Gandhi, famous for his stance of passive resistance, called ahimsa the highest ideal and an attribute for the courageous.

The Indian constitution reflects ahimsa. In a section on the duties of citizens is a mandate that every person must have compassion towards "all living creatures".

Indian law even has a statute to make abattoirs a kinder environment. "No animal shall be slaughtered in front of another animal," says the statute.

The laws are there but you would need a policeman for every person to enforce them, says Panjwani. This doesn't stop him trying, and frequently winning.

During the lecture, Panjwani pulled no punches about the appalling side of India's animal record.

Though cows are holy in India and cannot be killed, many are left to wander the streets where they starve and scavenge at rubbish dumps.

Sometimes they eat plastic then die a painful, choking death.

Panjwani is heavily involved in the "the stray cow case" in Delhi, intended to get stray cows off the streets and into a sanctuary called a goshala, a cow retirement home where they can live out their days.

But though cows are holy, other animals are not. Panjwani showed students horrific slides of blood-spattered slaughterhouses where, despite the law that an animal is not to be slaughtered in front of another, animals can be seen watching.

He talked about the cruelty of debeaking chickens and the terrible fate of animals forced to exist crammed side by side in sheds, living in their own waste.

There were close-ups of sores on bullocks used for transport, of broken tails, of elephants with wounds from where they are prodded with sharp irons.

He talked of bull racing where bulls are forced to drink alcohol beforehand, of dancing bears and snake charmers and experiments on animals.

The law is one thing, he said again, but the reality is another.

So why should New Zealanders listen to this Indian man talk about his country's sensitive animal laws which are so blatantly violated?

Because the law is about empowerment, Panjwani says.

He counts among his many court wins the banning of tigers, lions, panthers, bears and monkeys from circuses. He has gained the right for school students not to dissect or experiment on animals. He has put behind bars Sansar Chand, one of India's most notorious wildlife criminals, a ringleader in the grisly trade of tiger and leopard skins.

Through Panjwani, animal-derived food products must be labelled _ vegetarian food is now identified with a green dot.

Another battle he is proud of is an order requiring permission from the courts for any modification within India's 600 protected wildlife areas, be it a dam or an irrigation project.

This is huge, he says. The protected areas represent thousands and thousands of square kilometres and many more animals.

He tells me he thinks at times that the moral values of New Zealand are superior to India. We wouldn't, for instance, leave a cow to die an agonising death choking on plastic in the streets.

But other aspects are more difficult, such as New Zealand's fierce competition in the industrialisation of animals and animal products.

Here he stops though. As a guest in this country, he will go no further.

"It's for every society to have its own standards and raise their own level of conscience," he says.

He does wonder how well those who kill animals in front of other animals sleep at night, though.

He suspects that deep down they know it is wrong to cause any kind of suffering and bets those who kill do not have the courage to look into the eyes of the cow.

"Why? Because the eyes tell you exactly what the cow is saying, all you have to do is have the patience to feel it."

But Panjwani says he's not here to preach _ which brings us to Hinduism.

"Hindus don't preach for the simple reason there is no conversion. You are a Hindu by birth, you can't be a Hindu otherwise, so Hindus have never preached, it's as simple as that."

Rather, he hopes his words may inspire or an idea click with someone.

"Something may happen in the process of law making in New Zealand which may be able to take the good points from Indian laws."

The laws in India are not a god given gift, he points out, saying neither are they magic. They have been made by Indians and to a large extent have been drafted from similar laws in other countries.

The current constitution came about in 1975 after a period in which a state of emergency had been declared. India was going through the period of nationalism and discussions were held about the duties of citizens.

Initially, the constitution talked of the fundamental duty of every citizen to protect the environment and wildlife but stopped there.

When the document reached the select committee stage, politicians said "wait, there is something more in our culture". That something more was compassion and the duty of every citizen to have compassion to all living creatures was added.

Panjwani says to a large extent compassion is the Hindu religion itself.

Hinduism talks about saving cows and feeding animals, and much more, and includes many superstitions which double as conservation messages.

When Panjwani was a boy growing up in a small village in Bhopal, his grandmother would make rotis [bread] and give the first roti to the crow, because the crow is supposed to bring good luck.

The next three roti went to the cows living on the street and the next two to the stray dogs.

Gods are linked to the animals _ Krishna is closely linked to the cow and there is also a goddess of the cow. There are gods for rats and there is even a superstition that if you want a son, you must feed the ants, "so you'll see people walking round and feeding ants".

Panjwani would not kill any insect. There are ways of dealing with them, he says. If ants are in the home, people can take a mixture of flower and boric powder and paste up the hole where they are coming in.

"You just block that portion, [you say] `please, find your place, you're not welcome, maybe you can find another place in this house which is not inconvenient to us, if so please go ahead."'

Panjwani sees this as a different attitude; he is not telling anyone what they do is wrong.

Simply "if you, by seeing me, feel that what I'm doing is right and want to adopt it, please adopt it. Otherwise, you carry on doing what you feel like and God bless you."

- NZ Herald

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