The story so far: Jallikattu, the traditional rural sport involving bulls, has received judicial approval. A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court has ruled that the amendment made in 2017 by the Tamil Nadu Assembly to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, facilitating the smooth conduct of the sport with stringent regulations, is valid. The court has, thus, settled the question whether the sport should be disallowed on the ground that it involves unnecessary cruelty to animals and violates animal rights. The verdict is also applicable to other sports involving bovines such as Kambala (buffalo race) in Karnataka and bullock-cart racing in Maharashtra.
What are the controversies over jallikattu?
The main conflict over the sport, which involves sturdy bulls being let loose into the arena and being chased by men who are considered winners if they manage to hold on to the humps of the animals without being thrown off, is whether it entails unnecessary cruelty. Animal rights activists have been arguing that the manner in which it is held is cruel because it inflicts pain and suffering. What appears to be a bull’s ferocity in the arena is actually a flight response born out of fear. Specific acts that allegedly took place in the past — before the events were regulated by law — such as beating the bulls or twisting their tails and other acts that inflict pain so that they are more ferocious in the arena, are now rare.
In 2006, a Madras High Court judge, when a petition for permission to hold a rekla race (a kind of bullock cart race) came up before her, barred the conduct of any such event including jallikattu. On appeal, a Division Bench set aside the order, but asked the government to take steps to prevent any kind of violence or cruelty as well as ensure the safety of the participants and spectators. It favoured regulation over an outright ban. The State Assembly adopted the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act in 2009 to strengthen its case for holding the event by adopting regulations and safety measures. In July 2011, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a notification including ‘bulls’ in a list of animals that are prohibited from being exhibited or trained for any performance. Efforts to organise the sport as a regulated event failed and jallikattu could not take place for some years.
The ban caused a bitter divide in society between two camps: those who believed that jallikattu should be organised without any hindrance as it was part of the State’s tradition and culture, and that its continuance was needed to preserve the native breeds of bulls on the one hand; and those who believed it cannot be regulated at all as it amounted to cruelty and ill-treatment of animals in any form. Further, the number of human casualties during the events every year also raised concern about the safety of the participants and spectators.
Why did the Supreme Court ban the sport?
In a landmark verdict that established a rights jurisprudence for animals under the Constitution, the Supreme Court imposed a ban on jallikattu and similar sports involving animals in 2014. It held the Tamil Nadu law regulating the sport as repugnant to the Central legislation on preventing cruelty to animals. It said the Act was “anthropocentric” in the sense that it sought to protect the interests of organisers, spectators and participants and not the animals. On the other hand, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (PCA) was an “ecocentric” law. The Bench ruled that the provisions of the State law were contrary to provisions of the Central Act in three ways: it went against the statutory duty of anyone with the care or charge of any animal to ensure its well-being and prevent infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, the bar on using animals solely for entertainment and inciting them to fight and the restrictions on the training and exhibition of performing animals.
The court cited the ‘Five Freedoms’ recognised for animals by the World Health Organization for Animal Health — 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 and said that these freedoms should be read into the provisions favouring animal rights found in the PCA. In addition, these rights and freedoms flow from the Fundamental Duties in the Constitution, viz., Art. 51A(g), which imposes a duty on citizens to protect and improve the natural environment and to have compassion for living creatures.
What was Tamil Nadu’s response?
A massive agitation broke out in January 2017 against the government’s failure to facilitate the conduct of jallikattu for successive years, with tens of thousands of people, especially youngsters, occupying the sands of the Marina in Chennai for days. This led to a surge of support for jallikattu. The government of then Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam agreed to take legislative measures. With the Union government’s cooperation, it obtained the President’s prior instruction to issue an ordinance that sought to remove the basis for the 2014 Supreme Court judgment.
To avoid repugnancy with the Central law, the ordinance, which was replaced by an Act within a few days, was adopted as a State-specific amendment to the PCA itself. It was framed in a way that would define jallikattu as an event organised to promote and follow tradition and culture and to preserve the native breeds of bulls. Its clauses were worded to remove the applicability of the PCA provisions to jallikattu. It added the sport as another exception to the list of acts the PCA itself allows as those that do not amount to cruelty (other exceptions include dehorning, castration and destruction of stray dogs and other animals). It made the restriction on use of animals for performances inapplicable to jallikattu, besides including the sport to the list of ‘exemptions’ from the rule against using some animals as performing animals. With the President giving his assent, the amendment became law in Tamil Nadu.
What does the SC ruling now say?
In its latest ruling, a Constitution Bench has accepted the basic argument that jallikattu is part of the cultural heritage of Tamils. It observed that the judiciary cannot examine the question whether something was part of tradition and culture, and that it would defer to the legislature’s view in this regard. On this point, it differed from the 2014 verdict which had rejected the claim that the sport had cultural and traditional value. It upheld the Amendment Act, saying it has now legitimised the bovine sport and that it cannot be termed a piece of colourable legislation. The court recalled that the 2014 judgment had banned the sport by citing acts that amounted to cruelty then. However, the situation was now different, the Constitution Bench said, as the State amendment has been followed up with stringent regulations for conducting jallikattu. It ruled that the State legislation should be read along with the rules framed for holding these events. Therefore, there are no statutory violations now that warrant a ban on jallikattu. In particular, it said the stringent rules made by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra have eliminated the “offending elements” of jallikattu, Kambala and bullock-cart racing in the respective States. These changes minimise the potential for cruelty, and address the concerns about animal rights violations, it said.
- The main conflict over the sport, is whether it entails unnecessary cruelty.
- In a landmark verdict that established a rights jurisprudence for animals under the Constitution, the Supreme Court imposed a ban on jallikattu and similar sports involving animals in 2014.
- In its latest ruling, a Constitution Bench has accepted the basic argument that jallikattu is part of the cultural heritage of Tamils. It observed that the judiciary cannot examine the question whether something was part of tradition and culture, and that it would defer to the legislature’s view in this regard.