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Indian High Court Recognizes Nonhuman Animals As Legal Entities

By Sonia Shad

With this decision, India takes another big step forward in the global struggle for recognition and protection of nonhuman rights 

On May 31st, 2019, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, in the case of Karnail Singh and others v State of Haryana, recognized all animals in the animal kingdom, including avian and aquatic species, as legal entities. All citizens of the state of Haryana were declared persons in loco parentis (in place of a parent), which will enable them to act as guardians for all nonhuman animals within the state of Haryana. This decision is the latest in a trend where courts are adopting eco-centric rather than anthropocentric views on legal issues concerning the protection of animals and the environment. The court also reiterated the NhRP’s argument that legal personhood has not and should not be restricted to human beings.

The basis for the Court’s decision

This decision relies on a 2014 decision issued by the Supreme Court of India, Animal Welfare Board of India v. Nagaraja and Ors, which inter alia extended to animals Article 21 (the Right to Life) of the Indian Constitution, conferring the right to live a life of intrinsic worth, honor, and dignity with the aim of preventing animals from arbitrarily and unlawfully being deprived of their rights. The High Court of Punjab and Haryana is the second High Court in India to confer personhood to animals. Justice Rajiv Sharma—the judge who presided over the matter in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana—was also a member of the bench of the Uttarakhand High Court, which conferred personhood to animals in 2018 in the case of Narayan Dutt Bhatt v. Union of India & Ors.

This decision referred to other cases and legal principles that grant personhood to corporations, idols, holy scriptures, and rivers. In so doing, the Court acknowledged that the concept of legal personhood has evolved with scientific discovery, evolving standards of morality, and human experience to not only include all humans, but also nonhumans.

The court rightly recognized that it’s a moral duty and legal obligation under the doctrine of parens patriae (the power of the state to act as guardian for those who are unable to care for themselves, such as children or disabled individuals) to protect the rights of animals and that the courts are uniquely positioned to change animals’ legal status based on changing morality and existing legal principles.

Article 51-A of the Constitution of India states that it is the fundamental duty of all citizens to have compassion for living creatures. Article 48-A of the constitution of India requires the State to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Although these articles of the constitution are not justiciable, i.e. subject to trial in a court of law, they allow the court to interpret the law through an eco-centric lens.

Further, the removal of the right to property as a fundamental right has allowed the court to place the basic rights of animals, in certain circumstances, above the right of individuals to own and use animals as things for their personal gain.

The impact of religious sentiments and cultural beliefs

The case was brought before the court to address the issue of 29 cows being transported in contravention to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and its subsidiary rules. The issue of cow welfare and slaughter is highly controversial in India, not just between different religious groups and social classes but also between animal rights and welfare organizations.

While the Hon’ble High Court recognizes Hindu religious values, the court does not focus on the scriptures that refer solely to cow welfare, nor does the court solely value Hindu religious ideologies.

The concept of Ahimsa or non-violence is engrained in Indian culture. Not only are references to Ahimsa found in other Hindu religious books like the Vedas, Upanishads, Smritis and Puranas, but the concept of Ahmisa is central to both Buddhism and Jainism, which is widely practiced in India.

Mahatma Gandhi, who is considered to be the father of India, also placed high value on the compassionate treatment of animals. As he has stated, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

In furtherance of these values, Justice Sharma wrote: “In Hindu Mythology, every animal is associated with god. Animals breathe like us and have emotions. The animals require food, water, shelter, normal behavior, medical care, self- determination.”

The idea that animals are beings with intrinsic worth, who have the right to a life with dignity and the right to self-determination, stem not just from developments in science, but also cultural and religious beliefs that have persisted and evolved in India since as early as 1200 BC.

How these decisions help the NhRP and the nonhuman rights movement

Together, these decisions constitute significant strides in the nonhuman rights movement within India. They focus on well-known theories in Indian and Western Jurisprudence and also factor in indigenous cultural beliefs that support nonhuman animal personhood and recognize the intrinsic right of animals to exist for themselves.

At the same time, the broad language means the tangible benefits to individual animals and particular species are not easily identifiable. The court has granted personhood to all animals, but it hasn’t clearly illustrated the rights that will accompany personhood. This can be developed through future litigation. Further, this personhood is limited to two states within the country; further litigation will be required either in other High Courts or at the Supreme Court to ensure personhood is granted to all animals within the country.

It is our hope that lawyers across India will continue the fight in court for animal personhood, so the rights of all animals across the country can be recognized and secured, with clear impacts on the lives of individual animals.

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