Animal Personhood: Time to Push for Animals’ Rights in India


“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” (Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation)

India’s rich and varied heritage has long promoted compassion, tolerance and sometimes even reverence for animals in India. However, just as across the rest of the world, the animals we all work so hard to safeguard are ultimately regarded only as property. You can spend your days rescuing dogs or cows from abuse, but if you go to your local police or Municipal Corporation demanding any real liberation, chances are they will respond that animals are mere objects, with no intrinsic value or rights of their own. Ultimately, a cow is owned by a dairy farmer, and if the dairy farmer feels the cow should be tied all day, and if the law allows it, then that’s that.

Activists like you and I know that this property status is not just frustrating to our goals, but inherently unjust. The current definition of personhood, and therefore rights, excludes animals on the claim that only natural persons or legal personalities have rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. But the reality is that animals are sentient beings who can think and feel.

Whether we are doing vegan outreach for cows and chickens, sterilising dogs, or rescuing snakes, we all share the common hope that someday animals will be recognised as more than just property.

The idea of legal personhood for animals is still in its infancy globally. Few work directly for it, and fewer still are the victories. Thankfully, some legal rights have already been recognised for non-humans in India. The release of the wild elephant Sonu, who was held in captivity by the authorities of the Achanakmar Tiger Reserve in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, is one such example. The judgment highlighted the need for humans and the government not to interfere in the lives and territories of wild animals.

Another battle for animal rights was won when in 2013, FIAPO achieved a historic victory for cetaceans through its “Ban Captive Dolphins” campaign. India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recognised all cetaceans, including captive dolphins, as nonhuman persons with a right to freedom, deeming them “extremely intelligent” with “highly developed social structures.

Victories like these set important precedents, and herald a future in which respect for animals’ rights to life and dignity are the rule, and not the exception.

Inspired by past successes, FIAPO is now examining a campaign to pursue legal personhood for animals. We have put together all the available research on why animals should be considered persons: legal arguments and precedents, ethical arguments based in animal sentience, biological arguments (for example, based on some species’ close genetic relationships to us), and more.

You can view our full document here. But I know most of us don’t need research, when simply spending five minutes with any animal can tell us that they have rights that deserve to be recognised, not just by us as individuals, but by the legal system and society at large. The dominant paradigm of seeing animals as property needs to shift, toward seeing animals as beings with intrinsic value who, much like humans, nurture their young ones, build kinship, feel grief, and are worthy of basic fundamental rights.

Since personhood for animals underlies the work we all do – whether for cats, dogs, cows, donkeys, elephants, birds, reptiles, or other species – we want to run this campaign together with everyone in India who is standing up for animals. Achieving legal rights for animals will be a victory for us all. We are hopeful you will join this effort, and collaborate with the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations as we start work on this issue.

If the prospect of animal personhood in India piques your interest as much as it did ours, write to us and learn how you can help!

Featured image credit Bonny Shah.

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FIAPO is India's apex animal rights organization. As the collective voice of the animal rights movement in India, FIAPO is the catalyst that protects the interests and rights of animals on local and national levels - through education, research, lobbying, mobilization, networking, training and direct action. Created for the movement, by the movement, FIAPO is India’s only national federation. It has over 80 members and over 200 supporter organizations across the country. Click to see author's profile.

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