The Supreme Court has given primacy to the safety of human participants and animals rather than the argument that jallikattu has cultural and religious significance for the Tamil community.

By banning jallikattu, the popular bull-taming sport associated with annual harvest festivities in Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the law on prevention of cruelty to animals “overshadows or overrides the so-called tradition and culture.” The Court has given primacy to the safety of human participants and animals rather than the argument that jallikattu has cultural and religious significance for the Tamil community. The proscription flows from two principal considerations: the avoidance of cruelty and the continued inability of jallikattu organisers and authorities to avoid injuries and fatalities to human participants and bulls, despite regulations. In the case of jallikattu, it is inherently violent and involves letting bulls run wild with the sole objective of allowing some intrepid youth demonstrate their valour by holding on to the fleeing animals. If Tamil tradition, religion and culture were invoked to justify the continuation of jallikattu, its association with cultural pride had made it politically impossible for local authorities to stop it altogether.

In 2009, Tamil Nadu enacted a law to regulate jallikattu. However, despite its stringent provisions, animal rights activists and the Animal Welfare Board of India continued to see it as nothing but a bull-baiting exercise that perpetrates cruelty. Reports from the field apprised the Supreme Court about deaths and injuries on and off the arena and the different forms of cruelty the animals were subjected to in their training. Organisers and bull owners often argue that they keep the prized animals pampered, comfortable and well-fed. However, it cannot be denied that on the day of the event, the same bulls are kept for hours without food or water, dragged into the narrow passage through which they enter the arena in a terrified or angry state. In this phase, animal rights activists say, the bulls experience cruelty, discomfort, fear and distress. Expanding the notion of rights to animal welfare, the Court has held that the State’s regulatory legislation is merely anthropocentric and has to be struck down as it is repugnant to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, an eco-centric Central law. It is true that jallikattu has imparted colour to culture and tourism in Tamil Nadu and banning it altogether will cause consternation and dismay. There may be sporadic protests and attempts through the political leadership to seek a review of the verdict and arguments that many other practices involving cruelty and danger to life are allowed to continue. However, as in the case of many old traditions that have been given up as repugnant to modern day standards, the State would be better off without this relic from a feudal past.

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