The bull and the ban

Print edition : February 17, 2017

A bull coming through the "vaadivasal" at a jallikattu event organised at Alanganallur in Madurai District. A file photograph. Photo: S. JAMES

THE surge of support for jallikattu this January was mind-boggling. The youths and students who gathered on the Marina beach in Chennai did so spontaneously. Protests have been held in Tamil Nadu every year since the Supreme Court banned the rural sport totally in 2014.

On January 13, on the eve of the Tamil harvest festival, Pongal, a series of protests were held in several villages across the State demanding permission to hold jallikattu. The protesters, mainly village residents, soon found support from other people. They were not convinced by the assurances from Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam and others that necessary legal measures would be taken to get the ban on jallikattu lifted. At Palamedu in Madurai district, a tussle ensued between the law-enforcing authorities and the local people when the latter attempted to conduct jallikattu.

The event ended in a fiasco with the police resorting to a lathi-charge and arresting a few tamers and owners of bulls. On the day of Pongal, the electronic media repeatedly beamed visuals showing people either attempting to conduct or conducting jallikattu in several villages across the southern and western districts, as a “symbolic protest”. The police were seen intervening and arresting or detaining hundreds of people. People hoisted black flags atop their houses in Palamedu and shops remained closed.

Then came Alanganallur’s date with jallikattu on Kanum Pongal day (January 16), the third and final day of the Pongal festivities, when jallikattu is traditionally performed. Poojas were performed to the village deity and bulls from near and far were readied for the event. The Madurai district police, led by Superintendent of Police Vijayendar S. Bidari, threw a strong security ring around the village to thwart the event. All roads leading to the village, famous for its jallikattu event, were sealed.

Bidri told the media that the police had successfully thwarted jallikattu at several places in the district and taken several supporters of it into preventive custody. The police, however, could not prevent a group of people from releasing a couple of bulls saying that it was “their symbolic defiance” of the court’s ban order.

Such “symbolic defiance” took place in a small way in Thammampatti and Attur blocks in Salem district and certain other parts of the State. “Manju virattu”, another form of jallikattu, was conducted at Singampunari in Sivaganga district.

The protests gained momentum as college students and youths began to gather on the Marina beach. They refused any conciliatory package offered by a team of officials and later by a couple of State Ministers. They, however, welcomed the support of a few film artistes and activists, including the directors V. Gouthaman, Amir, G.V. Prakash and Samudhrakani and the singer Adhi. Organisations of traders, film artistes, workers and trade unions, among others, extended total support to the agitation on the Marina. In the process, an apology from the Union Minister of State, Pon Radhakrishnan, for not keeping his promise to the Tamil people on the conduct of jallikattu went unnoticed. The entire State virtually remained shut down from January 13.

These developments forced the Chief Minister to rush to New Delhi. He met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 19 and briefed him about the situation in the State and demanded a Central ordinance to remove bulls from the list of animals that should not be trained as performing animals so that jallikattu could be held. Modi told him that the matter was sub judice but promised all help in the matter. The Chief Minister stayed in New Delhi for two days and consulted the Ministries of Law, Environment and Home to draft a special State ordinance to conduct jallikattu.

The President of India concurred with the ordinance on January 20. Panneerselvam explained later that the ordinance issued by his All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government, although similar to the one passed by the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) regime but was negated by the Supreme Court, had adequate safeguards against any legal bottlenecks to conduct jallikattu this year. He thanked Modi for “understanding the Tamil culture and taking special interest in the issue”. He announced that he would throw open the “vaadivasal” (the entry point from where bulls emerge into the arena during jallikattu) at Alanganallur on January 22.

Demand for legislation

But the protesting youths in Chennai refused to accept his offer by saying that the AIADMK’s ordinance would also be stayed by the court if challenged. They demanded permanent legislation to remove the bulls from the list of animals that should not be tamed as performing animals in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (PCA Act). They continued with their agitations at several places causing an embarrassment to the State government. The villagers and protesters in Alanganallur prevented the Chief Minister from inaugurating the event on January 22. At its special session on January 23, the State Assembly passed a Bill facilitating the conduct of jallikattu.

Animal welfare activists and organisations, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), had been demanding a ban on the ancient sport for several years. In 2006, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, hearing a private petition, banned jallikattu. But the DMK government passed the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009, to circumvent the ban. This was challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2010, on an appeal from the State government, allowed the event to be conducted with stringent safety conditions and under the supervision of animal welfare activists and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI).

In 2011, the Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh issued a notification banning the use of bulls as “performing animals”. The PCA Act was then amended to include the bull in the list of performing animals. The AWBI told the court that cruelty to animals was continuing and that regulations were followed more in the breach.

On May 7, 2014, the Supreme Court banned the event totally ( Frontline , May 30, 2014). A two-member bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Pinaki Chandra Misra pointed out that harming the bull was against Section 3 of the PCA Act.

It observed: “Forcing a bull and keeping it in the waiting area for hours and subjecting it to the scorching sun is not for the animal’s well-being. Forcing and pulling the bull by a nose rope into the narrow, closed enclosure called ‘vaadivasal’, subjecting it to all forms of torture, fear, pain and suffering by forcing it to go into the arena and overpowering it in the arena by bull tamers, are not for the well-being of the animal.”

The bench struck down the State ordinance saying that it was “constitutionally void, being violative of Article 254 (1) of the Constitution” and ruled that the Central law in this regard would prevail. The bench hoped that Parliament would elevate the rights of animals to that of constitutional rights, as had been done by several countries.

The verdict led to widespread protests in Tamil Nadu. The State submitted a review petition, which was dismissed immediately. The event could not be held since then. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came under extreme pressure to make its stand clear on the issue as the State was preparing for the Assembly elections in 2016. Succumbing to pressure from its State unit and its sole Lok Sabha member from Tamil Nadu, Pon. Radhakrishnan, who represents Kanyakumari constituency, the BJP government at the Centre issued a notification through the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on January 7, 2016, lifting the ban on jallikattu with certain restrictions.

The executive notification stated that bulls “may continue to be exhibited or trained as a performing animal at events such as jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart races in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat in the manner [specified] by the customs of any community or practised traditionally under the customs as a part of culture in any part of the country”.

Unfortunately for the BJP, the extraordinary gazette notification turned out to be an exercise in futility. On January 12, 2016, the bench of Justices Dipak Misra and R.F. Nariman stayed the notification, saying it ran counter to the court’s 2014 judgment banning all forms of bull-related sports events across the country.

Animal rights activists had filed 13 petitions in 24 hours against the notification. This perseverance of animal rights activists in demanding a ban on the “inhuman sport” was mainly instrumental in saving the animals from any cruelty, a Chennai-based animal rights activist had said then.

The present agitation began when the Supreme Court refused to entertain a petition from a group of Tamil Nadu lawyers who sought the lifting of the ban on jallikattu. On January 13, the court said it “cannot deliver its verdict on jallikattu before the harvest festival of Pongal” and that it was “unfair” to seek a verdict in two days.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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