Personhood to Animals – Way Ahead of its Time or Way Adrift of Reality?

“… that legal personality plays an important part in making a thing count in the eyes of the law. The conferral of legal personality upon rightless objects or beings carries with it legal recognition that those objects or beings have “worth and dignity” in their own right. Until we attribute personality to a rightless entity, we are likely to be unable to conceive of it as “anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those who are holding rights at the time.”

~ Professor Christopher Stone (as quoted in Karnail Singh v. State of Haryana)

On 31 May 2019, the Punjab & Haryana High Court in a detailed and historic judgment in the case of Karnail Singh v. State of Haryana[2] declared that “the entire animal kingdom… are thereby declared legal entities having a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.” The case dealt with around thirty cows which were heaped over each other in two trucks were being exported to the State of Uttar Pradesh.[3] It was contended by the prosecution that the animals were packed in a cruel and brutal manner without following the rules laid down in numerous statutes and that the petitioners were transporting the animals without valid licenses. The verdict given by the court expanded to over a hundred pages and covered innumerable statutes enacted by the Central Government. The verdict given by Justice Rajiv Sharma follows his own judgment that vouched for personhood to animals in another case while he was a judge in the Uttarakhand High Court.

In an article reported by LiveLaw[4], the author hailed the judgment as “lightyears ahead of our time”. Amidst the controversy around cow slaughter, Jalikattu and dog killing spree in Kerala, the judgment might be well ahead of its time, but whether it is in consonance with the time ahead or charts a different course is something that remains to be seen in the coming days. While Chimpanzees are recognized as legal persons in the USA[5] and dolphins are considered as legal persons in Romania[6], the High Court’s decision to grant personhood to the entire animal kingdom sounds bold but ambitious.

However, even in India, it is not the first time that an entity other than a human being has been provided the status of personhood. In 2017, the rivers Ganges and Yamuna became the first non-human entity to be granted the status of personhood, following the footmarks of the New Zealand court to grant the same to Whanganui river, worshipped and revered by the Maori tribes a week before.[7] The judgment also mentions the innumerable religious scriptures and Hindu idols that have been provided personhood in Indian legislative and judicial history so often in the past. In fact, way back in 2013 by virtue of an order of the Minister of Environment and Forest, India has already recognized dolphins as non-human persons whose right to life and liberty must be respected.[8]

However at the core of the issue here was the question whether it extended to vulnerable animals or pervades across all animals? While preserving the interests of non-human entities is easier for those which carry special meanings and emotions attached to certain communities and interests, the question is how do we protect the interest of such entities when it concerns but the entity that the court ends up providing personhood? While there has been outpouring support and praise for the judgment, few authors had the courage to be skeptical about the changes in terms of ground reality such judgments have on the fate of these non-human entities. While it is anybody’s guess that when we use terminology such as ‘animal rights’, those are not rights conferred upon the animals which can be enforced in the court of law but restraints to human behaviour and legitimate limits to their rights.[9]

Moreover, philosophers and animal rights activists have also stated that the very idea of legal personhood does not have a defined criteria and has a broad ambiguous meaning consisting of minimum intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, a sense of futurity among other things. The evolution of the idea of personhood came at the backdrop of issues of medical ethics including euthanasia.[10] Another problem that comes up with the idea of personhood is that it is based on the idea of rationality and the cognitive ability to make wise choices when decisions are to be made. It is an assumed theory which if applied does not grant personhood to all animals rather a select bunch of animals that are considered intelligent by human standards.[11]

Hence, the notion of “personhood” has always been revolving around the dignity of an individual. Applying the concept of personhood to animals carries the necessary corollary of the dignity of a human with the indignity of an animal.[12] The point of conferring personhood to non-human entities, and in these specific cases, to animals is to protect them from humans – be it religious sacrifice, laboratory research or unfettered animal trade. In an article by Verylyn Klinkenborg, she elaborately describes one of the problems to grant personhood to animals[13],

The push to create animal personhood within the law only goes so far. It happily includes primates, domestic and companion animals, elephants, dolphins, and the like. But it would enhance the legal status only of those animals that stand within the light of the human campfire, animals on whom it’s easy to project human qualities like “intelligence,” animals that have an obvious economic utility or that readily appear to be capable of suffering cruelty. It stops well short, to put it mildly, of insisting on something far more fundamental: that all species have an equal and equivalent right to their own existence.

She also extensively explains the practical reality of granting personhood to animals and the difficulty to internalize such a notion with the average human standard:

To ask humans to deny themselves for the benefit of any other species, especially those that lie outside our immediate awareness, seems to be asking what is nearly impossible. We’re blinded by our self-regard, or perhaps we’re just inherently blind. It’s profoundly difficult to feel our kinship with all other species, whether kinship is expressed as an overwhelming overlap of DNA or the shared occupancy of this earth or any other way you like. We have to imagine it, construct it in our minds, actively engage the thought. And even then, it remains a thought, and thought — compared with hunger and habit — is barely able to influence our actions.

At the same time, such a verdict fails to analyse how a symbolic gesture such as this leads to better implementation of the legislations protecting animals. In fact, it can be used as a shoddy cover-up to the dismal failures of governments all over the world to protect animals. Advocating for stricter animal protection laws and better implementation of such laws might go a long way to uplift the status of animals. While nobody doubts the intention of such a far-fetching judgment to grant protection to animals and elevate their status in the eyes of the society, it needs to be analysed what kind of potential impacts it casts on the interpretations of the fundamental rights in our country and the wide encompassing scope of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The chapter on fundamental duties of the Indian Constitution clearly imposes duty on every citizen to protect environment. Article 51-A (g) of the Constitution in the Directive Principles of State Policy says that “It shall be duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life and to have compassion for living creatures.” However, while the symbolic gestures provide solace of doing justice to the provision, it is also vital to reflect the same in the different legislations and provide proportional punishments for it.

The question we would need to answer is whether the personhood we so often brag about extends to the cows being poached in Uttar Pradesh or whether it also extends to bulls in Tamil Nadu, whether it only concerns with tigers in Jim Corbett or extends to rhinos in Kaziranga and whether it only concerns with the chimpanzees and dolphins of the world or the dogs being maimed in China or back home in Kerala? The answers to these questions shall go a long way to decide our sincerity towards animalhood, let alone personhood.

[1] Ritesh Patnaik is a second-year law student pursuing his B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at National Law University, Delhi.

[2] 2019 SCC OnLine P&H 704

[3] Ibid.

[4] Siddhartha K Garg, Punjab & Haryana High Court Judgment Giving Personhood to Animals is Lightyears Ahead of our time’ (Livelaw, 13 June 2019) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[5] Lauren Choplin, Chimpanzee recognized as legal person (Non Human Rights Blog, December 5, 2016) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[6]  Laura Bridgeman, ‘Romanian Dolphin Personhood Law is a Step in the right direction’ (OneGreenPlanet, 9 February 2014) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[7] Michael Safi, ‘Ganges and Yamuna rivers granted same legal rights as human beings’ (The Guardian, 21 March 2017) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[8] ‘Dolphins gain unprecedented protection in India’ (Deutsche Welle, 24 May 2013)<> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[9] Verlyn Klinkenborg, ‘Animal Personhood: Muddled Alternative to Real Protection’ (YaleEnvironment360, 30 January 2014) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[10] Jessica Pierce, ‘Animals and Personhoos’ (Psychology Today, 17 December 2011) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[11] Christian M. Korsgaard, ‘Personhood, Animal and the Law’ (Harvard Edu) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

[12] Supra (refer to Note 10).

[13] Verlyn Klinkenborg, ‘Animal Personhood: Muddled Alternative to Real Protection’ (YaleEnvironment360, 30 January 2014) <> accessed on 10 September 2019.

This article is authored by Ritesh Patnaik, student of B.A. LL.B (Hons.) at National Law University Delhi

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