In a controversial move, the Centre on Thursday issued a notification which essentially lifts the Supreme Court ban on events such as Jallikatu in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart races in other parts of India. To the uninitiated, Jallikatu is a popular rural event conducted during Pongal celebrations. Animal welfare activists have long demanded a ban on the event/sport for the extensive levels of cruelty and torture the animal undergoes. In a recent column, Poorva Joshipura, the CEO of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India, wrote, “During Jallikattu, bulls are deliberately terrified and forced into menacing crowds through various cruel means. They are purposefully disoriented through substances like alcohol; have their tails twisted and bitten; are stabbed and jabbed by sickles, spears, knives or sticks; have their nose ropes painfully yanked; are punched, jumped on and dragged to the ground.” Suffice to say, it is hard to see how such a sport can ensure the well-being of an animal, irrespective of its place in local culture. In Jallikatu-like events across India, many humans also suffer severe injuries or even die from participating or watching the sport. In this decade, until the ban came into force, there were reportedly more than 1000 injuries and approximately 17 deaths, including that of a child.
In its May 2014 judgment, the apex court had banned Jallikatu and other such bull-related performances. Therefore, it is an odd decision by the Government of India to revive these events, since the apex court had deemed them to be illegal. However, as far as Jallikatu is concerned, there is a political context to the decision. Last month, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to introduce a Bill which comprehensively amends certain provisions of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, to enable the reintroduction of Jallikattu. In a favourable response, Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had said that Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, bullock cart race in Maharashtra and Kambala in Karnataka, among others, have been traditionally and culturally practised for centuries. The minister went on to add that the Centre respects these cultural practices, although organisers must ensure that there is no cruelty. It is an absurd position to take considering that cruelty is inherent in these events. By their very anatomy, bulls are not suited to for these events. In ensuring a spectacle, organisers are expected to push the animal through immense pain and suffering. The apex court’s position on the subject is amply clear. If culture or tradition is not in sync with the law, then the latter takes precedence. In fact just last week, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) had also advised the Environment Ministry not to overturn the apex court’s judgment. Moreover, scores of celebrities, including the award-winning film star Vidya Balan and Indian Test captain Virat Kohli, had signed a petition supporting the ban.
However, there is the matter of politics. As far as Jalikattu is concerned, assembly elections in Tamil Nadu are scheduled to take place later this year. Therefore, it is only natural that political parties in the state are eyeing various vote banks. It seems as if the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the Centre believes that by promoting the sport, it can establish an electoral foothold in the state. However, it would be unfair to pin the blame only on the BJP. The ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and their regional rivals, including the DMK and PMK, have welcomed the Centre’s position on the matter. In a Facebook post on December 17, DMK treasurer M.K. Stalin wrote, “If the Centre and state don’t take steps for removing the ban and hold Jallikattu during the coming Pongal festival, I will lead a struggle against this after seeking approval from (DMK President) Kalaignar (Karunanidhi).” Supporters of the event often argue that there is evidence of it in ancient scriptures. Over the centuries, the village landlords had apparently converted this into a gallery sport and also grew sturdy bulls to participate in it. However, animal rights activist have argued that such cattle-related activities are in fact a cover for the betting and alcohol mafia that mint money during these events.