Taming bulls, maiming rights

Allowing jallikattu to remain a sport because it represents Tamil tradition would legitimise cruelty against animals and have serious implications for the right to life.

January 04, 2016 01:25 am | Updated September 22, 2016 09:55 pm IST

"What started as a simple act of bravado has become an act of cruelty towards animals." Picture shows jallikattu bull tamers in Palakurichi village, Tiruchi district, Tamil Nadu.

"What started as a simple act of bravado has become an act of cruelty towards animals." Picture shows jallikattu bull tamers in Palakurichi village, Tiruchi district, Tamil Nadu.

As the harvest festival of Pongal approaches in Tamil Nadu, the clamour for legitimising the brutal sport, jallikattu, has grown louder yet again. The pressure this time includes the added weight of the political context, with ‘Tamil tradition and culture’ being invoked to stir up a frenzy ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections.

The entire political spectrum has come together demanding the restoration of a sport that has its roots in feudalism and has, over the years, maimed and killed humans and bulls in equal measure. While Chief Minister > Jayalalithaa penned a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking the Centre’s immediate intervention, either through a comprehensive legislation or an ordinance, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised that the “good news” of legalising jallikattu would be delivered to Tamil Nadu very soon.

It is not very hard to deduce why politicians are proactive in this issue. Jallikattu is considered a matter of pride for the Thevar community and other numerically strong communities in southern Tamil Nadu. These groups carry >social clout that could tilt the fortunes of parties in many constituencies. While most Thevars, in recent times, have been considered sympathisers of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the BJP has tried hard to woo them and Other Backward Classes and Dalit communities, such as Yadavas and Devendrakula Velalars, in the Madurai belt. In fact, the power equations in the conduct of the festival (bull owners largely come from intermediate castes), in subtle ways, exposes the caste hierarchy even though jallikattu is presented as a ground for various communities to mingle.

The court’s view But what has been swept under the carpet, in constructing arguments in favour of jallikattu, is the > assertive view that the Supreme Court took in 2014. The court spoke of how this uncivilised event violates the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA) and militates the constitutional duty of treating animals with compassion, Article 51 A (g). It also reiterated the expansive reading it had given in the past, to Article 21 (Right to Life), which prohibits any disturbance to the environment, including animals, considered essential for human life.

Jallikattu is derived from the words ‘calli’ (coins) and ‘kattu’ (tie), which means a bundle of coins is tied to the bull’s horns. In older times, the tamer sought to remove this bundle from the animal’s head to win gold or silver. He would be called ‘brave’ and ‘valourous’ and would also sometimes be rewarded with a bride. The southern parts of Tamil Nadu witness bull-taming the most, with Alanganallur near Madurai hosting the largest and most famous of these events.

The aura around bull-taming was magnified when it became an essential element of the rural hero in Tamil cinema. From the iconic M.G. Ramachandran to superstar Rajinikanth, there is hardly any Tamil film hero who has not single-handedly tamed a bull on screen.

But what started as a simple act of bravado has become an act of cruelty towards animals. The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI)’s report submitted before the court in this case lists unimaginable forms of torture inflicted on the beast meant to help in farming — tails twisted and fractured, chemicals poured into the eyes, ears mutilated, sharp-edged weapons used to poke the animal, and intoxicants forced into its mouth. All these and more take place right under the watch of officials, in flagrant violation of court dictates. The enclosures in the arena deny the bull food, water, or even space to stand. As the tormented bull takes flight, a typical symptom of stress, from the vadi vaasal (the chamber from which it leaps out), it meets an abusive crowd which latches on to it in dozens for prizes as petty as utensils and garments.

But in essence, what is being presented is the misplaced notion of pride as a reward. Over the years, as Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan points out in the verdict, innumerable human lives, both of the participants and the audience, have been lost, as the bulls try to flee from the pain.

Taking into consideration all these aspects, the Supreme Court ruled that not only did jallikattu inflict “unnecessary pain and suffering” on the animal and thereby violate the PCA Act, but the whole sport in the form in which it exists today has nothing to do with the traditional bull-taming of yore. “Welfare and the well-being of the bull is Tamil culture and tradition; they do not approve of infliction of any pain… Yeru Thazhuvu , in Tamil tradition, is to embrace bulls and not overpowering the bull to show human bravery,” the order says.

The court exhaustively cites international rights jurisprudence to stress the need to correct anthropocentric views and the fact that animals too have the right to live dignified lives. This position counters shallow arguments in favour of the sport, such as its purported role in protecting certain indigenous breeds of bulls. Neither can the sport be regulated, as some say, as regulating an abuse would be akin to legitimising it.

But what is more significant in the verdict is how the court dealt with the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009. The court held that the State law was repugnant to the PCA Act, given that it bestowed on the organisers a right to conduct the event by invoking ‘tradition’ (sans any religious value) rather than guarding the guaranteed right of the animal to be protected against torture. The court then banned the use of bulls as performing animals, reiterating that any custom, even if in existence since the pre-constitutional days, should be in consonance with the values of the Constitution.

This keeps in line with developments across the world. Often, the tradition of bullfighting in Spain is cited to legitimise the conduct of jallikattu and present it as a viable tourist attraction. It is significant that the Spanish state of Catalonia banned the sport in 2012 after a prolonged ‘culture versus rights’ debate. In 2002, Germany took animal rights to a new level by giving animals constitutional protection.

For a dignified life Those who want the sport to be legalised have called for an amendment to the PCA Act and measures to revoke the 2011 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) which barred the use of bulls as performing animals. This logic seems to suggest that the Supreme Court verdict could be circumvented or reversed if the notification it upheld is rendered null and void by a new legislative action. But the authority of the verdict does not stand merely on the technicality of exclusion of bulls from the list of performing animals. Rather, the apex court went well beyond and delivered a judgment that essentially upholds the right to a dignified life for all animals. Any law that attempts to reverse this carefully evolved jurisprudence cannot stand the test of constitutional propriety. By its very nature, as the verdict elaborates, jallikattu provides for “unnecessary suffering” to the bulls. Furthermore, it also involves the question of human rights and whether the state can be allowed to legalise an event in which human lives are at stake. The AWBI has categorically told the MoEF that jallikattu cannot be revived. Trying to allow an event that legitimises cruelty would be a direct insult to the carefully reasoned writ of the Supreme Court, a complete negation of the PCA Act and its objectives, and would take the country back by a few steps in the crucial area of Right to Life.


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