Bull and politics

The Supreme Court stay on the Central government’s hasty notification allowing jallikattu, the bull-taming sport in Tamil Nadu, evokes emotional responses with political connotations.

Published : Jan 20, 2016 12:30 IST

At the jallikattu organised as part of the Pongal festival at Alanganallur near Madurai. A file picture.

At the jallikattu organised as part of the Pongal festival at Alanganallur near Madurai. A file picture.

A TIMELY intervention by the Supreme Court to stay the hasty executive decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government removing bulls from the list of animals “that shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animal” has effectively prevented the brutality that bulls are subjected to in the name of “jallikattu”, a bull-taming feudal sport conducted during the Pongal/Sankranthi festival, mainly in southern and central Tamil Nadu.

On January 12, the court stayed the Government Order (G.O), issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on January 7, 2016, which ran counter to the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment of May 7, 2014, banning all forms of bull-related sport events across the country, such as jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and bullock-cart races in Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Gujarat. The court termed such sport as an “inhuman practice”.

The G.O. lifting the ban on jallikattu, just ahead of the Pongal festivities at the commencement of the Tamil month of “Thai”, 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”.

Wary of the legal issues that might arise from such a notification reversing the Supreme Court’s 2014 ban, the G.O. listed the conditions for conducting the events in order to ensure that the rights conferred on the animals under Section 3 and Clause (a) and Clause (m) of subsection 1 of Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, and the “five freedoms” of animals mentioned in the 2014 verdict were protected. (The court had cited the Universal Declaration for Animal Welfare, which called for awareness about the five freedoms—freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; from fear and distress; from physical and thermal discomfort; and from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour.) The G.O. said the organisers of the sport should ensure that there was “no unnecessary pain or suffering inflicted or caused in any manner whatsoever during the course of such events”. On July 11, 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a notification, “in exercise of the powers conferred by Section 22 of the PCA”, to include bulls on the list of animals that cannot be exhibited or trained as performing animals. The Supreme Court upheld this in its 2014 judgment. The latest G.O. diluted the very spirit of the court ruling, which held that jallikattu, bullock-cart racing and such events violated Section 3 (rights of animals) and 11 (1) (a) and (m) of the PCA Act, read with Articles 51-A (g) of the Constitution.

The G.O. allowing jallikattu, which was issued despite protests from animal rights activists and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), India, and the subsequent developments leading up to the stay of the notification by the Supreme Court have exposed the Central government’s attempt to sidestep the judiciary in a matter relating to fundamental rights.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have turned jallikattu into a highly emotional issue to gain political mileage. It is no wonder that the BJP, struggling to find a foothold in the State where Assembly elections are due in a few months, joined the bandwagon. But unfortunately for the BJP, the extraordinary gazette notification, as experts pointed out, turned out to be an exercise in futility, landing the party and its government in an embarrassing situation.

Legal experts say the NDA government should have taken the issue to Parliament to seek amendments to animal welfare laws or passed an explicit ordinance instead of adopting the shortcut of amending the 2011 notification. But the BJP was aware that it would be next to impossible to convene Parliament and hence opted for an “executive” solution, an easy way to bypass the judiciary and the legislature by issuing a specious G.O.

There is scepticism in some sections of the State unit of the BJP about the hurried and ham-handed manner in which the issue was handled. The social activist A. Marx said: “Despite a warning from its lawyers, the BJP made an attempt that went against the court ban in order to allow bull sports. The BJP is adopting two different approaches on various issues, one for cows and another for bulls.” Marx strongly opposes jallikattu. He said since it was election year in the State, the BJP was under pressure to make its presence felt. That the BJP think tank was ignorant of the fact that a G.O. such as the latest one would not stand up to judicial scrutiny has surprised experts. The eminent Chennai lawyer N.G.R. Prasad told Frontline that such government notifications would never stand up to judicial scrutiny. “It will neither stand the constitutional test. Even an ordinance can be challenged in the court of law if the court is serious about it,” he said. The G.O. was an act of political appeasement, he said.

Union Minister of State from Tamil Nadu Pon. Radhakrishnan, who worked hard to revive jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, made a fervent appeal to animal lovers to refrain from going to court on the G.O. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to pass a special ordinance permitting jallikattu during the Pongal festivities. All political parties, including the Left, supported the demand.

But the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), a statutory body on animal welfare, opposed the government notification and played a key role in having the ban restored. Animal rights activists filed 13 petitions in 24 hours against the G.O. and were able to procure a stay, which provided a dramatic twist to the long-drawn-out legal battle between animal rights activists and the AWBI on the one side and the State of Tamil Nadu and a few others on the other on an issue that has been raging since 2008.

Although on earlier occasions the State of Tamil Nadu had won a few legal battles on the issue, the perseverance of animal rights activists in demanding a ban on the “inhuman sport” was instrumental in bringing “partial victory” for the animals. An AWBI study showed how bulls were treated in an inhuman manner during jallikattu. On the basis of the study, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government issued a notification in 2011 banning any performance involving the bull.

The two-judge bench observed: “Jallikattu and bullock-cart races, the manner in which they are conducted, have no support of Tamil tradition or culture. It is a cruel practice for amusement and enjoyment exploited by human beings. We have a history of doing away with such evil practices in society…. Even the ancient culture and tradition do not support the conduct of jallikattu or bullock-cart race in the form in which they are being conducted at present. On the other hand, Tamil tradition and culture are to worship the bull and the bull is always considered as the vehicle of Lord Siva” (see box).

The court dismissed the claims of the Tamil Nadu Restriction of Jallikattu Act, 2009, of the Tamil Nadu government, which referred to the sport as “ancient culture and tradition”, and struck it down by saying that it “is merely anthropocentric and is repugnant to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, an eco-centric Central law”.

The judges drew attention to Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees protection of “life” and personal liberty. The court expanded the definition of the term life by saying that it included all forms of life, “including animal life”, which are necessary for human life and fall within the meaning of Article 21.

The judges explained that so far as animals were concerned, life meant something more than mere survival, but to lead a life with some intrinsic worth, honour and dignity. “The right to dignity and fair treatment is, therefore, not confined to human beings alone but to animals as well,” they observed.

The judges said Article 21 was the only section in the Constitution that had received the widest possible interpretations. “It is a common legal understanding that any government order or any ordinance that went against the spirit of fundamental rights would never be tolerated by any court of law. The Supreme Court has rightly extended the right to live to animals, too,” the judgment said.

Quoting from the judgment in N. Adithayan vs Travancore Dewasvom Board (2002), which examined the various aspects and the scope of Articles 25(1), 26(a), 26(b), 17, 14 and 21, the Supreme Court said “any custom or usage irrespective of even any proof of their existence in pre-constitutional days cannot be countenanced as a source of law to claim any rights when it is found to violate human rights, dignity and social equality”.

Not satisfied with these strong observations, it went a step further to ask the lawmakers to elevate the rights of animals guaranteed under Sections 3 and 11 of the PCA Act, which “are statutory”, into fundamental rights so as to secure their honour and dignity. The court said: “Sections 21 and 22 of the PCA Act and the relevant provisions have to be understood in the light of the rights conferred on animals under Section 3, read with Section 11(1)(a) and (o) and Articles 51-A(g) and (h) of the Constitution”, which is the Magna Carta of animal rights, and so “bulls cannot be used as performing animals for jallikattu since they are basically draught and pack animals not anatomically designed for such performances”. “The rights of the bulls cannot be taken away or curtailed,” the court ruled.

It said jallikattu was an avoidable and non-essential human activity. “It involves pain and suffering which involves both physical and mental components, including fear and distress.” Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, in their work Animals in Translation , say that “the single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it is worse than pain.” Both anxiety and fear, therefore, played an important role in animal suffering, which is part and parcel of events such as jallikattu and bullock-cart races, the court said. It is not easy to gloss over the hard reality that many tamers of bulls and other animals themselves could either be seriously injured or die during jallikattu. A rough media estimate claims that between 2010 and 2014, before the ban on the sport was enforced, 17 bull-tamers, most of them in the prime age of 18 to 25, died and more than 1,000 suffered serious injuries. Three bulls died during the period.

Life-long disabilities

Besides bone fractures, the common injuries the tamers suffer are to the lower abdomen. Some of these injuries leave them with life-long disabilities. But the fact is that many of the injuries go unreported. On the days when jallikattu was held, hospitals in and around Madurai would receive scores of injured persons for trauma care. “The emergency trauma ward in the Government Rajaji Hospital in Madurai treats a steady stream of injured persons on the days of jallikattu every year,” said a senior physician.

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