Wildlife & Biodiversity

Lock & hold

The jallikattu bull row in Tamil Nadu provokes the law v culture debate

Photo: Thaya Nanth__

Lock & hold

The jallikattu debate is playing out much like the game itself, with each side trying to gain the upper hand: animal rights groups alleging animal cruelty, the Tamil people insisting on tradition and future of native cattle breeds, and governments eager to assuage feelings of discontent. Who will tame whom?

It is January 29; almost a week after the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly unanimously passed the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2017. The Act allows people to conduct jallikattu, the state’s traditional bull taming sport, as a means of promoting Tamil culture as well as ensuring the preservation of native breeds.

In Karungulam village of Tiruchirappalli district, the area in front of St Ignatius Church is packed with hundreds of people. Many of them are perched precariously on top of neighbouring buildings to catch a glimpse of the first jallikattu event after a gap of two years. More than 300 veerans or bull tamers, in blue T-shirts with numbers printed on their backs, are gathered in the main arena, their eyes glued to the vaadivaasal or the narrow entrance. As animated commentary blares from loudspeakers, the mighty Kangeyam bulls enter the arena one by one and charge straight into the huddled participants. Some bulls run right across, giving the veerans no chance to tackle them. Some others barely allow the tamers to grasp their hump. But then there are those who get caught, with the veerans’ hands locked around their hump in a tight embrace. The animals bend their heads and jump, and shake violently from side to side as they struggle to break free. The crowd cheers and commentators shout for the tamers to hold on. Eventually, the bulls free themselves and flee.

R Siva, 31, a bull tamer who used to participate in the Palamedu jallikattu in Madurai district until it was banned in 2014, describes the atmosphere. “You should see the energy there,” he says. “When the vaadivaasal is opened, the bull comes charging out, aggressive and ready to attack. We have to run with the bull and hold on to its hump. One miss and it will gore you to death with its sharp horns. The person who holds on the longest is declared the winner.” The Karungulam event leaves 35-odd tamers injured, none seriously, a relatively small price to pay if one considers the massive outpouring of support from different quarters of Tamil Nadu which made the resumption of jallikattu possible.

Hordes of
students and IT
camped on
Marina Beach
to demand an
ordinance for
jallikattu (Photo: R Parthiban)

In response to reports of cruelty towards the bulls—involving feeding them alcohol, breaking their tails, poking them with knives and sticks and throwing chilli powder into their eyes—the environment ministry, on July 11, 2011, added them to the list of animals which will not be allowed for exhibition or training under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (see ‘A bitter fight’,). The then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, has since maintained that jallikattu is a “barbaric practice”. When animal rights organisation PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) approached the Supreme Court, the court banned the use of bulls for any kind of sport or performance in May 2014, stating that such sports inflicted unnecessary pain and suffering on the animals. Jallikattu is fraught with danger for human beings too. An article in The Hindu states that between 2008 and 2014, 43 people were killed and 5,263 participants and spectators were injured during such events. But supporters of jallikattu are not convinced of the need to ban the sport.

Symbol of Tamil pride

Jallikattu has a history of at least 2,000 years, with references to bull taming or bull chasing having been found in poetry of the Tamil Sangam period, on a seal from the archaeological site of Mohenjo Daro and even in rock paintings from 3,500 years ago. It was an opportunity for men to display their strength to women, who chose their spouses based on the men’s performance in the arena. Modern-day jallikattu is held from the Pongal festival in January until May and is now subject to rules of the game as well as supervision by district, police and animal husbandry officials. Given jallikattu’s long history, the sport has attained symbolic status in Tamil culture and tradition.

Since the Supreme Court ban in 2014, a feeling of discontent had been building up among a few sections of the state’s population. Days before Pongal in January 2016, the Centre had attempted to allow the sport by issuing a notification exempting bulls from the performing animals list. But PETA and another organisation promptly challenged it in the top court, which stayed the notification. Since then, Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, managing trustee of the Senapathy Kangeyam Cattle Research Foundation, rapper Hiphop Tamizha Adhi, and P Rajasekar of the Jallikattu Peravai (movement) began an intensive social media awareness campaign to put pressure on the Centre and state to restore jallikattu.

Apart from Tamil pride, they insisted on the importance of saving the state’s indigenous cattle breeds. “There are nine native breeds of cattle in Tamil Nadu,” says Sivasenapathy. “Kangeyam is the mother breed of the livestock here. If jallikattu is banned, farmers will not raise the bulls anymore and the breed will become extinct.”

On his part, Hiphop Tamizha Adhi released a stylishly shot music video titled Takkaru Takkaru in 2016. The video not only displays brute male strength—of both man and bull—but also pits Tamil traditions against the “evil” multinationals wanting to impose foreign cattle breeds on the people. The lyrics state: “We think of our bulls as sons. How could we think of hurting them?” Animal rights activists decried jallikattu in television debates and newspaper editorials, inciting Tamil supporters further. Their anger finally boiled over when the apex court said it would not be able to give a verdict on holding jallikattu by January 14, 2017, the day of Pongal this year.

Source: 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th livestock censuses, Union Ministry of Agriculture

Two days after the festival, a protest began in Alanganallur in Madurai district. On January 17, hordes of protestors descended on Marina Beach in Chennai. R Nandini, a law student at the Ambedkar Law University, who hails from Madurai, says, “Each home there rears a jallikattu bull—that is the tradition. Since jallikattu was banned, many farmers have sold their bulls. This will lead to the breed dying out.” Among the protestors are also many who have never seen a live jallikattu event before. R Saravana Kumar, a PhD scholar at Madras University, hails from Vellore, a district where jallikattu is not traditionally held. He says, “We were angry with the Centre for removing Pongal from the compulsory holiday list. We view this as an attack on our Tamil culture. I participated in the protest because if we let jallikattu go now, then in the future, they (the Centre) will continue to ignore us and our demands.”

The protests continued for almost a week and people’s discontent took many forms: from jallikattu and the Centre’s perceived neglect of Tamil Nadu, they started voicing their anger against water shortage, the Cauvery water-sharing issue, agribusiness multinationals, and foreign cola companies, among others. Pro-Hindu groups and those demanding a separate Tamil Nadu joined in and people complained that the protests had been “hijacked by anti-social elements”. The peaceful protests turned violent on January 23, and as the police tried to drive away the protestors, alleged police brutality left several injured and everyone embittered by the experience.

Conservation claims

Under public pressure, the state government was able to clear an ordinance and pass a Bill, making jallikattu legal and enabling people to conduct the event. But it is necessary to examine the claims in favour of the traditional sport, especially when it comes to its role in conserving traditional breeds.

Tamil Nadu is home to indigenous cattle breeds such as the Kangeyam, Umblachery, Alambadi, Bargur and Pulikulam. Their population is on the decline due to the mechanisation of agriculture and transport as well as a sharp tilt in favour of exotic and crossbred cattle for higher milk yields. Devendra Kumar, a former veterinary scientist, says that in the absence of the economic viability of rearing native breeds, sports such as jallikattu can provide an incentive. “Saving these indigenous breeds is important for millions of poor people who cannot afford the high cost of maintaining cross-breeds. These people need just one or half a kg of milk. This is possible only with indigenous breeds which can survive in Indian climate and on open grazing, unlike cross-bred cattle,” he explains. But Kumar agrees that jallikattu alone cannot save indigenous cattle. Though the sport has been conducted for several years, it alone may not be able to arrest the decline in their population.

In 25 years from 1987 to 2012—between the 14th and 19th livestock censuses—the indigenous cattle population in Tamil Nadu has decreased by 70 per cent from 8.2 million to 2.4 million animals (see ‘Native decline’,). In the same period, the population of exotic or crossbred cattle has risen from 1.1 million to 6.3 million. Of all the cattle in the state today, as per the 19th livestock census, indigenous cattle constitute only 28 per cent. This is true in case of many other states too. However, Swapna Sundar, an intellectual property and patents expert, likens indigenous breeds to brands and says sports and the milk productivity of different breeds are two separate issues. “Culture has its place. Based on their merits, some breeds should be promoted. But as far as saving Indian breeds is concerned, only a scientific approach can achieve this target, not these sports,” she says.

Though supporters claim that jallikattu helps save native breeds, the argument has not been put to the test in a court of law yet. So far, culture, tradition and the absence of cruelty are the only planks on which the battle has been fought. Take, for instance, the arguments of the Tamil Nadu government in the 2014 case in the Supreme Court. It assures the court that care will be taken to not subject the bulls to cruelty. It says that bull owners spend a considerable amount of money in training and maintaining the bulls and banning the sport will not be “in public interest”. Jallikattu also finds mention in Policy Note 2015-16 of Tamil Nadu’s animal husbandry department. The sport is described as “a tradition” associated with “the socio-cultural ethos of rural Tamil Nadu”. For the first time, a reference to the ecological importance of the sport has appeared in the ordinance issued on January 21, 2017, to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The ordinance highlights the sport’s role in ensuring the “survival and well-being of native breed of bulls”. Whether this argument can be substantiated scientifically and legally in the future remains to be seen. For now, the apex court has allowed the Centre to withdraw its 2016 notification, and animal rights organisations and AWBI to amend their petitions to challenge Tamil Nadu’s new law. It has also given the state six weeks to explain the validity of its law. This means the future of jallikattu is still open to a change in its fortunes.

A bitter fight
Since 2011, the fate of jallikattu, Tamil Nadu's bull taming sport, has been caught in a tug of war between the Supreme Court, Central and state governments and animal rights groups

July 2011 | The Union environment ministry, led by minister Jairam Ramesh, adds bulls to its 1991 notification banning the training and exhibition of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs.

April 2014 | Centre allows the use of bulls in jallikattu, by amending the list of animals prohibited from being trained for performances.

May 7, 2014 | Supreme Court rules in favour of PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India and prohibits the use of bulls in jallikattu, bull races, bullfights or any other type of performance.

Jan 7, 2016 | Days before Pongal, Centre issues a notification making an exception for the use of bulls in traditional sports subject to the condition that no unnecessary pain or suffering is inflicted on the bulls.

Jan 11, 2016 | PETA and another organisation challenge the Centre's notification in Supreme Court.

Jan 12, 2016 | Supreme Court stays the Centre's notification, questioning the "necessity of such festivals", and seeks responses of the Union environment ministry, Tamil Nadu and other states.

Nov 9, 2016 | Supreme Court questions the Centre on its notification allowing the use of bulls in events such as jallikattu, says India cannot "import Roman gladiator type sport".

Nov 16, 2016 | Supreme Court dismisses Tamil Nadu's plea to lift the ban on jallikattu in the state, saying it finds no ground for allowing the bull-taming sport.

Dec 1, 2016 | Supreme Court questions the Centre on its 2016 notification, says its 2014 verdict cannot be negated. During the hearing, the Centre asks the court to not stop such sports.

Jan 9, 2017 | Days before Pongal, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam requests Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pass an ordinance to allow jallikattu during the festival.

Jan 11, 2017 | AIADMK general secretary V K Sasikala writes to the prime minister, seeking promulgation of an ordinance for conducting jallikattu. She says the ban has "incensed" the people of Tamil Nadu and all steps must be taken to revoke it.

Jan 12, 2017 | Supreme Court rejects a plea seeking to allow jallikattu during Pongal on January 14. It says that though the draft of the judgement has been prepared, it will not be able to deliver it before Pongal.

Jan 16, 2017 | Two days after Pongal, village residents in Alanganallur of Madurai district, famous for its jallikattu events, —begin a protest.

Jan 17, 2017 | Protests begin at Marina Beach in Chennai and spread to Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Coimbatore and Salem. People demand the promulgation of an ordinance to lift the ban on jallikattu. They also want PETA to be banned. The protests dominate news headlines and social media.

Jan 21, 2017 | After the Centre's approval, the state government clears an ordinance, valid for a maximum of six months, permitting jallikattu. It states that the ordinance is being promulgated to "preserve the cultural heritage of Tamil Nadu" and "ensure the survival and wellbeing" of native bull breeds.

Jan 22, 2017 | Jallikattu is held at many places in the state, except in Alanganallur where people refuse to allow the sport and demand a permanent solution. Two people are killed and more than 80 injured in a jallikattu event in health minister C Vijaya Baskar's native Raapusal village in Pudukkottai district. The minister claims that no rules were violated and all safety guidelines were followed.

Jan 23, 2017 | Even as the protests turn violent, Tamil Nadu Assembly passes the amendment Bill for holding jallikattu.

Jan 31, 2017 | Supreme Court allows Centre to withdraw its 2016 notification.

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