Pongal was less sweet this year in Tamil Nadu with the Supreme Court (SC) refusing to lift the ban on jallikattu. The bull-taming sport, a part of rural lifestyle and Tamil folklore for over a thousand years, witnessed a see-saw battle between the government and the court. While the Pongal festivities have passed, some are still hoping that jallikattu can still be revived as the court is set to hear a review petition on Thursday.
The controversy around jallikattu emerged some 10 years ago when the Madras High Court passed orders curtailing its conduct in Tamil Nadu. The state government, soon thereafter, enacted the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu (TNRJ) Act, 2009. This law brought about a regulatory framework in organising jallikattu for the first time: Organisers had to be vetted, barricades were made compulsory, participants had to register and the health of bulls required to be checked by government veterinarians before and after the event. The state law, along with the parent legislation — the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act 1960 — thus formed a protective framework for jallikattu.
However, the present ban arose out of two inter-connected events in 2011. First, an amendment to the statutory rules under the parent legislation, made when Jairam Ramesh was the Union minister for environment and forests, barred bulls from being “exhibited or trained as performing animal”. Second, a writ petition filed by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) in the SC questioned the legality of bulls being a part of jallikattu and bullock-cart races.
A landmark judgment, in the AWBI case, was passed in May 2014 upholding the 2011 amendment, striking down the TNRJ act and, ultimately, banning jallikattu and bullock-cart races. Consequently, no jallikattu was held in Tamil Nadu during Pongal 2015. With the petition for review of the AWBI case judgment not being heard, the Union government opted to unilaterally remove the jallikattu ban. On January 7, 2016, a week before Pongal, a notification was issued to exempt jallikattu and bullock-cart races “practised traditionally under the customs or culture”. The notification drew immediate criticism for sending confusing signals; on the one hand, allowing the bull to continue as an animal prohibited from being exhibited or trained, but simultaneously providing a backdoor route for jallikattu.
When the notification was challenged, the SC seemed only too eager to stay its implementation. In its interim stay order on January 12, the court quoted extensively from the AWBI case to justify the reimposition of a ban on jallikattu. The AWBI case viewed the PCA act through an “ecocentric” perspective as distinguished from an “anthropocentric” angle. Specifically, the court held that this act outlawed “infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering on the animals”. In a first, the court also drew from international principles of animal welfare and read the “five freedoms” of the World Organisation for Animal Health into the Indian laws. By doing so, the court has brought out strong reasoning in favour of a jallikattu ban.
However, jallikattu supporters are not fazed. They are confident that the court will see that the inclusion of bulls in the category of performing animals is ill-founded. The other animals in that list are monkeys, bears, lions, panthers and tigers — wild animals that have never been part of the rural, agrarian ecosystem.
The other line of argument is the cultural one. In some parts of the world, the more gruesome bull-fighting event has been legally protected on grounds that it is an “unquestionable part of intangible cultural heritage”. Even the SC, in recent times, has heeded to choosing customs and sentiments as compelling reasons. In a case dealing with the appointment of lower-caste men as priests in Hindu temples of Tamil Nadu, the court weighed in favour of religious treatise (agamas) to allow only certain caste denominations to qualify for priesthood. Another bench of the court rejected a petition seeking a ban on animal sacrifice while observing that “centuries-old traditions” were involved.
The debate, thus, seems far from settled. With both sides getting ready for the next round of court battles, the judiciary will have to carefully weigh the competing interests of emotionally charged sentiments against a liberal interpretation of animal rights. A
solution may be found in the form of a strictly regulated and independently audited jallikattu, where suffering caused to animals is minimised.