Explained: In Jallikattu, questions of tradition and cruelty to animals

The Supreme Court will hear appeals against the Centre’s decision to allow Jallikattu on Pongal in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Express explains the issues involved the case.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Updated: January 12, 2016 2:16 pm
The southern districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul are Tamil Nadu’s main Jallikattu belt, where bulls are bred for the sport. (Express Photo by: Jyothy Karat) The southern districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul are Tamil Nadu’s main Jallikattu belt, where bulls are bred for the sport. (Express Photo by: Jyothy Karat)

Why is the Supreme Court hearing a petition on Jallikattu, the traditional bull-taming sport of Tamil Nadu?

Modifying its 2011 order that included bulls in a list of animals that “shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animal”, the Environment Ministry last week issued a notification saying Jallikattu, a sport traditionally played in Tamil Nadu during Pongal celebrations, can be held this year.

The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and some others on Monday moved the Supreme Court, seeking urgent hearing of appeals against the Centre’s order. The court will hear the petitions on Tuesday. The harvest festival of Pongal will be celebrated from Friday to Sunday.

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But hasn’t the Supreme Court already banned Jallikattu and bullock-cart races on grounds of cruelty to animals?

Yes. In May 2014, the court said “bulls cannot be allowed as performing animals, either for Jallikattu events or bullock-cart races in the state of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere in the country.” The Centre’s notification last week sought to overturn the SC ban.

The SC order also identified “the five freedoms” of animals, including freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition, freedom from fear and distress, freedom from physical and thermal discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour. It asked Parliament to “elevate rights of animals to that of constitutional rights, as done by many of the countries around the world, so as to protect their dignity and honour”.

Back in 1991, the Environment Ministry had banned the training and exhibition of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs. The notification was challenged by the Indian Circus Organisation before the Delhi High Court, and after prolonged litigation, the legality of the notification was upheld. The ministry issued a fresh notification in 2011, which specifically included “bulls”, paving the way for the Jallikattu ban. The May 2014 order upheld the 2011 notification.

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So why did the Centre decide to overturn the judgment by the apex court?

It is largely political. The Jallikattu belt is dominated by the politically powerful OBC Thevar community, which has politicians and considerable clout in several parties. All parties in Tamil Nadu welcomed the Centre’s decision.

It was important for BJP to be seen as being with the “people” ahead of the Assembly elections in April. Tamilisai Soundararajan, state president of the BJP, has said lifting the ban would help the party in the polls. Soundararajan said party chief Amit Shah had had several meetings with Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to ensure the ban was lifted.

Is there anything other than political considerations in this?

Organisers of Jallikattu and bullock-cart races argue that these are traditional practices closely associated with village life, especially in the southern districts. The bulls are specifically identified, trained and nourished for these sporting events, and their owners spend considerable sums on their upkeep. No tickets are sold for Jallikattu or bullock-cart races, and not much pain or suffering is caused to the animal. Thus, they argue, while these events may be regulated, they ought not to be completely prohibited.

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And what are the AWBI and organisations such as PETA arguing?

Through various reports, affidavits and photographs, the AWBI has argued that Jallikattu bulls are physically and mentally tortured for the pleasure and enjoyment of human beings. They have also produced visual evidence for torture and cruelty to bullocks in Maharashtra’s bullock-cart races. According to AWBI, Jallikattu or bullock-cart races conducted in this way have no historical, cultural or religious significance in Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra, and that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, must supersede any such practice.

Is this debate then essentially between those who enjoy a medieval bloodsport, and the progressive votaries of animal rights?

It is probably more complex than that. There is a clash of worldviews, and the disagreement reflects the absence of an inclusive approach to the problem. The Jallikattu belt — mainly the districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul — still breeds pure native studs, and Jallikattu was always more a way to honour bullowners than a competitive sport. Jallikattu events do not offer any major monetary benefits, and prizes are mostly a dhoti, towel, betel leaves, bananas and token cash — that is rarely more than Rs 101 — on a silver plate. Mixer-grinders, refrigerators and furniture have been added to the list of prizes at some events over the last few years. B Raja of Madurai, who sold his Jallikattu bull after the SC ban, complained that the activists “who make brief visits to villages from the cities and allege cruelty to animals” have very little idea of how the animals are reared. “They are like our children. These critics have never seen that. It is not the same as having a pet dog at their apartments,” he said.

However, AWBI and PETA pictures and video footage do clearly show the animals having their tails twisted or bitten, and being poked with spiked instruments as they are forced into the arena.

What is going to happen now?

The Supreme Court will hear the case on Tuesday. The AWBI, which is the lead petitioner, is an independent statutory body that functions under the Centre — and even though the government can plead helplessness in the face of a possible adverse court order, there is a degree of nervousness and disquiet. There is votebank politics involved, and in the long run, unless common ground is found between the arguments on the two sides, neither of whom has any stake in the way the other leads its life, the issue is not likely to die down.

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