Tamil Nadu is being taken by the horns over Jallikattu

Saranya Chakrapani
Saranya ChakrapaniJan 14, 2016 | 17:15

Tamil Nadu is being taken by the horns over Jallikattu

In Tamil Nadu, the bull finds itself in the eye of a socio-political storm that would have on any other day - if not for an impending state election - been enough to send the world cracking up over the human drama swirling around it.

Although notifications were issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), in 2011, removing bulls from the performing animals list and essentially banning the sport, the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act of 2009 – a state law – allowed it to take place year-after-year in the sport’s three primary epicentres in Tamil Nadu - Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram.


The sport and related ones like bull racing, were banned by a bench of Justices K S Radhakrishnan and Pinaki Chandra Misra of the Supreme Court in May 2014, under The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 – which is an act of the Parliament.

Activist-petitioners like Radha Rajan, have over the last few months argued squarely that the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act 2009 does not have presidential assent, which subsequently implies that when a conflict arises between a law of the state and that of the Parliament, the latter naturally prevails.

But what brought about the ban, according to the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) – one of the petitioners against Jallikattu - was also the extensive groundwork of evidence presented by them to Supreme Court on all the times the first-issued safeguards were violated.

AWBI activists argue that the recent notifications issued by the MOEF on January 8 permitting Jallikattu, fundamentally flout an existing Supreme Court judgment - which an executive order cannot and should not do - and secondly aren’t any different from the safeguards that were initially issued by the Supreme Court to be implemented between 2011, 2012 and 2013.


These they say, were consecutively violated, leading to the ban of the sport in the first place, in 2014.

"The first time the safeguards were issued, all the major Jallikattu events were monitored by independent observers; they were videographed, photographed and recorded. And yet the kind of cruelties we saw were blatant," says Chinny Krishna, vice-chairman, AWBI.

"We’ve been fighting this battle for 50 years. The act passed in 1960 specifically bans animal fights. The battle then went through various levels and came to the Supreme Court in 2009. In 2011, it issued notifications, and in 2014 it heard a bunch of petitions and ruled what? That yes, we guys were right all these years. Do you think the bulls got justice?," he asks.

Everyone wants a piece of the political pie:

But the people, and more significantly, almost every political party in the state has put up an obstinate display of patronage for Jallikattu this year. Pongal 2015 went by with tolerance over the absence of Jallikattu.

But Tamil Nadu goes to elections in less than four months and the political agenda is clear from the word go; of the BJP that chose to dig out this skeleton from the closet by issuing notifications over a matter that was resolved and locked away by the highest law-making body in the country - up until last week, of course; of the state political parties that are hurriedly joining the fray to appease their Tamil-culture harping vote bank in these districts. This interestingly excludes the Dalit community, which is traditionally discouraged from participating.


In the last two days, the Supreme Court has issued a stay on Jallikattu, been approached to vacate it by a group of self-proclaimed Tamil culture conservationists, and refused - four days ahead of the scheduled event.

Meanwhile the BJP at the Centre – which interestingly has a two percent vote share in the state – crumbles under the pressure of its own state unit as well as that of the regional parties, to somehow miraculously clear the way for Jallikattu this year.

The Central government’s desperation has taken an unforeseen intensity with reports of it pushing for the resignation of AWBI chairman Maj. General (retd.) RM Kharb.

It is significant to note that the AWBI, being a statutory body of the government of India and yet independent of it, can still be revoked by the latter to form a new board that mandates it its favour.

But it’s not that straightforward, says Anjali Sharma, legal sub-committee convener of AWBI, rather self-assuringly.

"While the government of India can reconstitute the board, it can still not arbitrarily revoke it to form a new one. There is a procedure that has to be followed and there has to be a credible reason stated. And AWBI’s opposition to Jallikattu isn’t one. But considering this has been a very emotional issue, we wouldn’t be surprised by this move, if it were to happen," she says.

Regional television channels hosting Jallikattu debates are repeatedly finding themselves in a fix over the last week, after they realise the folly of bringing perceptive legal experts on both sides, animal activists and subject matter experts together with crude Tamil culture conservationists who solely contribute to the show with conspiracy theories and high decibel speeches on the beef ban and how the unique identification number issued on state registered cattle is more inhuman than having a man (or a bunch of men pouncing) on a lone bull in Jallikattu.

However, at the other, more sensible end of the pro-Jallikattu spectrum are long-time natives of these districts who have grown up with the bulls in their homes, and watched them being nurtured, fed and even worshipped every Pongal. "I’ve seen bull owners in my village ensure that their animals are fed heartily even on the days their own family went to bed without enough to eat. I’ve seen them spend more than they can afford to, every time their bull came home injured after a fight," said an educated third generation Maduraiite living in Chennai.

Shalini Sundar, a liason officer in Madurai Kamaraj University and wife of the head of a Jallikattu group in Alanganallur, a Panchayat town in Madurai, reiterates the claim of pro-Jallikattu activists that the days of rubbing chilli power on the animal and force-feeding it alcohol, are long gone.

"The activists’ main point of contention is cruelty on the bulls, which we too are against, but these are stories from before 2009. If they see the records of Jallikattu post that year, they will realise that every rule issued by the Supreme Court has been followed by the book. Bulls are medically examined by government-appointed veterinarians before they enter the ring and tamers too are checked and examined to ensure they aren’t carrying any weapons or intoxicated. Medical examinations also take place after their round is over. Now only one man is allowed to tame one bull," she says and adds, "We are in fact, willing to incorporate more rules, should they be brought in."

"The culture of Jallikattu runs way deeper than any shallow understanding that’s doing the rounds now and it must be treated that way. It is a Tamil villager’s only source of entertainment and a reminder of his roots. Realistically speaking, just how much violence do you think can be inflicted on an animal within a highly regulated 50-metre radius?" she asks.

Jallikattu bulls are often reared and bred for the purpose, with these communities investing the seasonal income they earn from the sport (from betting, ticket fares and match victories), in the upkeep of the animals. They come from a lineage of fighter bulls, with the good ones often used as breeders.

Abruptly withdrawing them from the sport and using them for agriculture is impractical, say veterinarians, as the cattle used for agriculture is typically castrated at an early age to keep its aggression levels low - a vital necessity for labour.

Jallikattu bulls, on the other hand, are adult bulls way past the appropriate age for this procedure and have a highly narrow utility value if not for this sport.

What’s in it for the bull:

"But that said, bulls don’t need undue methods such as using violence or chilli power for instigation. These are unneutered animals with high testosterone levels, which essentially means high aggression.

Large crowds, shouting, loud music and any sort of violent human contact are enough to traumatise him – if that’s what we’re trying to address," says Chennai-based veterinarian Priyadarshini Govind.

"Any sport that involves man and animal doesn’t make sense. An animal doesn’t come to fight with the man to prove its might over him. It runs out of fear, not anger. No matter how you look at it, there’s no fun for the bull in this, it’s a human-oriented game," she adds.

Animal enthusiasts and sympathisers also want the AWBI and the like to see through the battle they started by ensuring that these utility-based Jallikattu bulls, if removed from the circuit, have the necessary scope to be rehabilitated for breeding and retirement, the lack of which invariably lands them in a slaughterhouse.

"But this community of bull owners, which claims to love its animals like its own children, send repeated losers to slaughterhouses anyway," argues Krishna.

"However, we understand the larger implications of this ban and are working with a few organisations to provide rehabilitation for Jallikattu bulls. We already have a functional goshala in place in Coimbatore that accommodates more than 120 of them," he says.

Or as those like Govind suggest: Jallikattu bulls, which are well-nurtured and gorgeous to look at, could rather participate in cattle shows – much on the lines of dog shows – where people pay to visit and there’s no violence or force involved. "This would serve the purpose for everyone," she says.

But for now, even as political groups and pro-Jallikattu activists find themselves fast running out of luck, they are publicly determining to brave the heat and conduct the event this year – with or without the law favouring them.

AWBI too stands firm facing them and unprepared to relent. "We have a very strong Supreme Court judgment favouring us. Culture and tradition cannot override a law enacted by the Parliament. We will do whatever we can to legally protect the animals," says Sharma.

With all the major political players uniting for the cause on the other side, Pongal 2016 could be a roadblock or a milestone to this battle of the AWBI and scores of other animal activists.

For now, the bulls just have to pound their hooves and wait to know which way to run.

Last updated: January 15, 2016 | 19:13
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