Explained | Jallikattu: cultural practice or cruelty? 

Why did the Supreme Court quash the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009 in 2014? What has been the stand of the government on jallikattu? Can the event be recognised as a collective cultural and traditional right of the State of Tamil Nadu?

January 04, 2023 10:49 pm | Updated May 18, 2023 11:19 am IST

A youth tries to tame a ferocious bull during a jallikattu event at Palamedu in Madurai district.

A youth tries to tame a ferocious bull during a jallikattu event at Palamedu in Madurai district. | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

The story so far: With the Supreme Court recommencing its work after the winter vacation, all eyes in Tamil Nadu are on the verdict of a five-member Constitution Bench of the Court on a batch of petitions seeking to strike down a 2017 Tamil Nadu law that protects jallikattu, a traditional event involving bulls. As the conduct of the event will coincide with the Pongal festival, the Bench, which reserved its judgment on December 8, is expected to give its ruling next week.

How did the current litigation begin?

A massive agitation erupted on the Marina beach in Chennai in January 2017, demanding that the Central and State governments come up with a law that would annul the Supreme Court’s ban on jallikattu which was imposed, through a judgment in May 2014 in the Animal Welfare Board of India vs A. Nagaraja case. Apart from demanding that the event be allowed again, the protesters had raised the issue of “redeeming Tamil identity and culture.” Many prominent personalities, including film music director A.R. Rahman and chess maestro Viswanathan Anand, voiced their support for the bull-taming sport. It was against this context that the law in question was then enacted originally in the form of an Ordinance — the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Ordinance 2017. The Assembly had subsequently adopted a Bill to replace the Ordinance which resulted in the Court being moved and the case referred to the Constitution Bench in February 2018.

Also Read | Jallikattu hearing | Will be dangerous if Court makes impression based on photographs, says Supreme Court

How is the case being presented now?

The primary question involved is whether jallikattu should be granted constitutional protection as a collective cultural right under Article 29 (1) — a fundamental right guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution to protect the educational and cultural rights of citizens. The court examined if the laws — the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act of 2017 and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Conduct of Jallikattu) Rules of 2017 — “perpetuate cruelty to animals” or were actually a means to ensure “the survival and well-being of the native breed of bulls”. This assumes relevance in the context of the Court quashing 2014 the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009, which had allowed jallikattu. The Court had then talked of how bulls were being “tortured to the hilt” in the process of performing for the event. The apex court then scrutinised the question of whether the new jallikattu laws were “relatable” to Article 48 of the Constitution which urged the state to endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines. The Constitution Bench also looked into whether jallikattu and bullock-cart race laws of Karnataka and Maharashtra would actually sub-serve the objective of “prevention” of cruelty to animals under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960.

What were the arguments adduced for and against jallikattu?

In Tamil Nadu, jallikattu is both a religious and cultural event celebrated by the people of the State and its influence extends beyond the confines of caste and creed. “A practice which is centuries-old and symbolic of a community’s identity can be regulated and reformed as the human race evolves rather than being completely obliterated,” the State government submitted. It added that any ban on such a practice would be viewed as “hostile to culture and against the sensitivities of the community.” Describing jallikattu as “a tool for conserving this precious indigenous breed of livestock,” the government argued that the traditional event did not violate principles of compassion and humanity. It contended that the traditional and cultural significance of the event and its intertwining with the sociocultural milieu was being taught in high school curriculum so that “the significance is maintained beyond generations.”

The petitioners’ line of argument was that animal life was inextricably connected to the lives of humans. Liberty was “inherent in every living being, whether it be in any form of life,” an aspect that had been recognised by the Constitution. The Tamil Nadu law was brought to circumvent the ban on jallikattu imposed by the Supreme Court. Placing their position on media reports about deaths and injuries caused to humans as well as bulls which had taken place in several districts of the State while conducting jallikattu, the petitioners contended that contrary to the arguments advanced by Tamil Nadu, several tamers pounced on bulls. According to them, “extreme cruelty” was inflicted on the animals. Also, there was no material to justify jallikattu as a part of culture. The critics had equated the event with practices such as sati and dowry, which were also once recognised as part of culture and stopped through legislation.

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