Taming the bull

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

JALLIKATTU AT PALAMEDU near Madurai on January 16. - S. JAMES

JALLIKATTU AT PALAMEDU near Madurai on January 16. - S. JAMES

Supreme Court revokes its ban on jallikattu during Pongal, but the legal battle over the issue is by no means over.

IN Tamil Nadu, the run-up to Pongal, the harvest festival, this year was marked by sullenness in the southern districts over a Supreme Court judgment banning jallikattu (bullfight), an inalienable part of the festivities in several areas. Village leaders and youth went on mass hunger strike in several places seeking protection for what they value as a time-honoured heroic game. In it, the one who tames the bull takes away gifts in the form of cash and jewellery and other valuables, which are tied to the animals neck.

The tension led to a tightening of security in the southern districts and the administration worked overtime to ensure that the matter was sorted out before the event, scheduled for January 16 and January 17 in many places.

On January 11, the Supreme Court refused to allow the conduct of jallikattu at Alanganallur and Palamedu (both in Madurai district) and in other places, and quashed an earlier order of the Madras High Court that allowed the event. The court however allowed the conduct of the rekhla (bullock cart) race under the supervision of the police and the district administration.

The Supreme Court was critical of the way in which jallikattu was held, causing harm to the bulls and injuring large numbers of spectators and participants. When counsel for the State pressed his case after explaining the steps taken to protect and provide medical aid to the people concerned, Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, the Chief Justice of India, remarked: What is the point allowing people to get injured and giving them treatment? Many persons were killed and injured in the past.

The State government quickly filed an application seeking a modification in the order. On January 16, the court allowed the game to be organised after ensuring security to all concerned. The court wanted the government to follow strictly the guidelines it had evolved. While jallikattu was held in various places under strict supervision, reports said at least 200 persons were injured. Officials blamed it on the unprecedented crowds thanks to the extra publicity the event got this year.

The present phase of the legal battle over the bull-centred sport began in March 2006 with the filing of a petition with the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking the courts intervention to get police permission for conducting a rekhla race in connection with a temple festival in Ramanathapuram district.

The petitioner, K. Munisamythevar, vice-president of Karisalkulam panchayat, sought relief under Article 226 of the Constitution. His petition stated that when he made a representation to the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Keelakkarai, and the Inspector of Police, Sayalkudi, on March 20, 2006, for permission to conduct the race in connection with the Maha Kumbabishekam of Sri Nondi Karuppasamy temple proposed to be held on April 4, 2006, the two officials did not pass any orders.

The petitioner claimed that conducting the race was a customary and hereditary function and involved deep-rooted religious sentiments. The race, in which bullock carts from nearby villages participated, had been held for over 75 years, he contended. He claimed that the participating bullocks were fed with proper food and were fit to complete the race, and said the police authorities have no authority to stop or interfere with the temple festival and the cart race. In his response, the government advocate contended that bullock cart races and bullfights had been prohibited by the Bombay High Court and hence permission cannot be granted.

Hearing the petition, a single Judge of the Madurai Bench, on March 29, refused to allow it and directed the State government to take steps to prevent cruelty to animals in the guise of rekhla race, oxen race, jallikattu or any other form of entertainment. The Judge, Justice R. Bhanumathi, also directed the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police to implement strictly the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, all over the State.

The Judge said: When beating, kicking or otherwise treating the animal cruelly is punishable under Section 11 of the PCA Act, now the petitioner wants the respondents/police to protect their act of inflicting cruelty upon the animals. When the act of whipping and overloading is punishable under the PCA Act, the petitioner cannot seek for a direction forbearing the respondents from conducting the rekhla race.

Referring to the petitioners claim that the Tourism Department had conducted jallikattu to attract tourists, the Judge said: It is high time the government shouldered the responsibility of taking up the cause of animals. Equally, it is high time that the police too shared responsibility in boldly declining permission for conducting such races.

The Judge said she was not trying to enact a new law but only emphasising effective implementation of an existing law. Referring to Section 11 of the PCA Act, which stipulated a fine of Rs.50 for beating, kicking, overriding, overloading or torturing an animal, the Judge said: There is an urgent need to increase the fine amount and to award stringent punishment under the Section.

Stating that there was increasing cruelty to animals, the Judge also said: [The] general public also must be made aware of being kind to the animals rather than harassing and causing cruelty to the dumb animals.

The petitioner went in appeal and a Division Bench of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court set aside the single Judges order on March 9, 2007. Allowing the appeal along with a batch of public interest petitions, Justices Dharma Rao Elipe and P.P.S. Janarthana Raja held that imposing a total ban on these sports events on the sole grounds that the animals were subjected to cruelty would not be proper. The Judges also accepted the States submission that the sport attracted tourists from abroad in large numbers.

In such matters, where the interests of the villagers and the animal lovers are pitted against each other, the Judges said, we are of the view that every endeavour should be made by all concerned to strike a proper balance to safeguard the interests of everyone, including the animals.

The Division Bench held that the government might introduce regulatory measures such as registration of the trained animals, medical examination of bulls by qualified veterinarians before the event in order to ensure that the animals were not intoxicated or administered steroids or subjected to any cruel treatment such as application of chilli powder or mud on their genital parts to make them aggressive and ferocious. As for the loss of human life, the Judges said they had been informed that the casualty rate had gone up only for want of immediate medical attention to the injured.

On July 27, 2007, acting on a special leave petition from the Animal Welfare Board, the Supreme Court stayed this judgment, which removed the roadblocks to the conduct of bull-related sports events in different parts of Tamil Nadu. The Animal Welfare Board had in its appeal asserted that jallikattu was in clear violation of Section 11 (a) of the PCA Act, 1960. Significantly, it was the same Act that the single Judge relied on while denying permission to the original petitioner to conduct the bullock cart race.

A three-Judge Bench of Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, Justice Tarun Chatterjee and Justice R.V. Rajendran issued notices to the State and also to A. Nagarajan, who had filed a petition in the High Court.

The Tamil Nadu government and the organisers of the events in some parts of Tamil Nadu filed petitions in the Supreme Court seeking vacation of the stay and permission to hold the festival as usual. A three-Judge Bench, comprising the Chief Justice of India, Justice Raveendran and Justice J.M. Panchal, heard the petitions. The court rejected the prayer in no uncertain terms on January 11, 2008, a few days before the events to be held as part of Pongal celebrations. The Judges refused to permit bullfight but permitted rekhla race under the supervision of the police and the district administration and also with protection.

Senior counsel of the State, T.R. Andhyarujina, contended that peoples sentiments were involved and that the event was based on a 400-year-old custom. He listed the special arrangements for security and medical aid for participants and spectators. That was when the Chief Justices pointed intervention about allowing people to get injured and giving them treatment came. The Chief Justice went on to say: Will your [Tamil Nadu] DGP give an undertaking in writing that no one will be injured, then we will allow it.

When counsel argued that in any such event there could be some injuries and for that the event itself could not be prevented, the Chief Justice said: We cannot continue such barbaric and uncivilised events. We should have some concern for animals.

When the Supreme Court order kicked off widespread resentment and protests in the State, particularly in the southern districts where the sport is most popular, the Tamil Nadu government filed an urgent petition seeking modifications in the order, obviously taking advantage of the exemption given to rekhla race. Senior government officials were rushed to Delhi to brief the advocates on the precautions taken for the festival and the jallikattu event.

The Supreme Court heard the application for modification on January 15, Pongal day, and revoked the ban on jallikattu as part of Pongal festivities after the Tamil Nadu government gave an assurance that the administration would see to it that the animals would not be tortured and that steps would be taken to prevent injuries to both participants and onlookers.

The same three-Judge Bench, in its interim order, the second within a week, said, We do not approve of all the reasons given by the State of Tamil Nadu for modifying the order. However, it is pointed out by the Additional Solicitor-General appearing for the State that this is a part of the religious festival of Pongal and villages have been celebrating the same from time immemorial. It has been submitted that extreme care and precautions will be taken by the district authorities and no harm or injuries would be caused to the citizens, spectators, participants or the animals.

The court ordered that the State should ensure that all the guidelines it had submitted for the conduct of jallikattu would be followed fully. The guidelines related to the procedure for the organisers to take permission for conducting jallikattu, the precautions to guard against torture of the participating animals, and the security arrangements for participants and viewers. The order said the entire event should be videographed and the District Collector concerned should give a report within a week or two of the event.

Although the cloud over jallikattu has dispersed after the latest judgment, many questions the judiciary has raised remain to be answered.

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