Bullfighting isn’t uncommon, particularly among rural farming communities, and the tradition of Jallikattu has been cited as having been practised in the Mullai division of Tamil Nadu for centuries. Early references to the sport term it as “Eru Thazhuval” which literally translates to hugging or embracing the bull. Carried out on the second day of Pongal festivities in the southern state, Jallikattu was meant to be a mark of reverence for the bull, a testament to the strength and virility of the animal.
Tradition is an evolving entity, and like many traditions in India, Jallikattu has morphed over the years to a spectator sport, that derives entertainment from the “taming” of the bulls, with large groups of young men competing to grab hold of the animal, even wrestle it to the ground, as it runs out of the holding area. What was supposed to serve as a respectful display of the bull’s strength has now degenerated now into a cruel way to show the dominance of unruly men over a frightened, terrified, distressed animal, supposedly evidence of the bravery of the men involved.
The cruelty of Jallikattu begins way before the bulls even enter the corral. To ensure that the bull runs when it is released, the animals are worked into a terrified, pained frenzy by prodding them with spiked sticks, rubbing chilli powder and other irritants into their eyes, and forcing them to drink what is believed to be alcohol. As if the noise and chaos of the crowd and the men tackling it weren’t terrifying enough, the bull’s tail is yanked on, twisted and even bitten by participants—often resulting in fractures or painful wounds.
By the time the animals are thrust into the arena, they are already in agony, desperate to get away from the noise and pain, and they begin to run. The participants will then attempt to hold onto the bull’s hump for the entire distance that he is supposed to run. Cash and material rewards (along with a supposed mark of honour and valour) await anyone able to do so.
The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), along with several animal welfare organisations, launched an in-depth investigation into the practice of Jallikattu years ago, and that is what they found—animals are wounded, run into the streets and throw themselves into ditches, off roads and into oncoming traffic in a desperate attempt to escape the aggressive blood-thirsty crowds.
Based on these findings, the government was persuaded to see Jallikattu not for the tradition it used to be, but for the cruel and barbaric and heartless performance and cheap entertainment it had become reduced to, the blatant defiance of the law—The Prevention Of Cruelty to Animals Act,1960. The Supreme Court issued an order banning the festival, and 2014 saw its first cruelty-free Pongal in years.
Now, the government at the Centre has uplifted the ban on Jallikattu in the state of Tamil Nadu, with complete disregard for the Supreme Court’s decision, with local parties attempting to politicise the matter citing a respect for culture and “tradition” as the reason for reinstating the cruel practice. Suspiciously enough, the move comes right before the state election, shedding some suspicion on the real motive behind the decision. It is claimed that Jallikattu will be carried out in an ethical manner that veterinarians will be asked to provide health assessments of the bulls while members of the AWBI and other organisations will supervise the sport to ensure it remains “cruelty-free.” Tradition must be preserved, they argue.
Culture may be defined as something that uplifts a society, or something that identifies one society as being different from another. Torturing an animal can never uplift society, it is no testament to strength or bravery if hoards of young men tackle a disoriented, agitated lone animal. It sets that society apart only as being unfair and cruel, as being a society that has no regard for the life and rights of another living being. Jallikattu is certainly not a sport anymore. Neither are the opponents equally matched nor can the suffering of an animal watched by spectators be considered justifiable entertainment. Earlier attempts at regulating the practice to ensure the prevention of cruelty have been unsuccessful, and there is no guarantee that it will be (or for that matter can be) carried out in a manner that ensures no harm or pain is inflicted upon the animal.
Having worked in India my entire life in the field of wildlife conservation and also animal welfare, I have seen the torture of animals being justified in the name of custom and tradition far too often—from snake-charmers who gouge out a snake’s venom glands and shatter its fangs, to endangered owls being sacrificed during Diwali and spiny-tailed lizards boiled alive. My organisation, Wildlife SOS, worked for 17 years with the government to eradicate a cruel tradition to help conserve an endangered species called the sloth bear where “bear dancing” communities poached young sloth bear cubs from the wild and piercing their delicate muzzles with hot iron pokers and forced them to perform on the streets. The progressive laws of India, the work the AWBI and animal welfare organisations in India do, regarding the prevention of cruelty to animals in India will all be undermined if Jallikattu is allowed to continue, with tradition becoming an irrefutable defense for cruel practices like bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and snake-charming.
It is thus essential that the government, and the country as a whole, do the right thing and stand by the decision to ban Jallikattu and keep our traditions untainted by the bloodshed of an innocent animal.
(The author is a co-founder of Wildlife SOS, the head of Forestwatch, and a member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and Central Zoo Authority. Views expressed are strictly personal)