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This is a very hard subject to write about. But, it must be done since I am now answerable (to myself primarily) for commenting on Twitter, twice, both times without having considered the issues particularly incident to the case. It must also be done because I am an ardent believer in animal rights and support activism for the cause.

It is hard to write; for, the exercise necessarily entails I appraise myself of the details and circumstances of abuse are very hard to read and digest. Sometimes, you simply don’t want to know the grit on the ground. Floating in the abstractness of the measure of blue in the sky (very interesting by the way) is so much more comforting by contrast but, you then shouldn’t be mouthing off on activism. So, suitably chastened, I set out to understand the facts about Jallikattu with as bipartisan a view as I could summon.

History

Jallikattu lays claim to a hoary history and antecedence from the Tamil Sangam period (300 BC- 300 AD). A celebrated literary work of the time – the Silapadikkaram, describes a bull-fighting sport which also seems to have doubled as a Swayamvaram (a festival wherein prospective grooms had to demonstrate their suitability by passing a series of obstacle tests). Clearly, the sport has evolved from then. The modern day version is traced back 400 years to the reign of the then King of Madurai, Thirumala Nayikar. Today, it is neither a bull-fighting sport; nor a test for matrimonial suitability. It is now diluted to a bull-taming festival but retains a vestige of masculine preening and is meant to be practiced thus: ‘aggressive’ bulls are released from their pens into enclosures and young trained men demonstrate their valour by charging the bull and holding onto its greased body for as long as they can; before, either the bull flings them down or, the men quiet it down. Generations of selective breeding have resulted in recognizable groups of especially mighty and temperamental bulls; the more famous among them is called, Pulikulam.

Controversy

Jallikattu is considered cultural tradition in the deep South districts of Tamil Nadu where it is practised. Apart from heralding the harvest festival Pongal, it is also seen as mandatory to auspicious fortune. But, a sport that involves a battle of strength and wits between powerful bulls and headstrong men cannot be docile. Whether due to heightening animal activism, religious globalization or simple tourism; the sport has come under increasing scrutiny in the past decade. Further, in an unfortunate collision with the flat-world hypothesis, an equivalence is alleged between the tortured cruelty of the Spanish bull-fights and this bull-taming sport despite ample knowledge that the bull (by every account) is neither ever killed nor is it intended to be. Yet, in recent years (and again, this finds consensus), the practice has become more violent and has changed character. Bulls are put through abusive and cruel treatment on the day of the event by subjecting them to both substance abuse (alcohol or by application to the skin of irritants) and physical abuse (I do not wish to detail such torments but Clause 17 of the SC judgment quotes the AWBI report in depth and it is a wrenching read). Verified and documented incidents of cruelty, torture and abuse of the bulls, on the day of the sport, have led to frequent run-ins with animal rights activists. Things finally got to a head and the matter was taken to court.

Litigation history

The AWBI (Animal Welfare Board of India – a statutory body) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – the largest not-for-profit corporation for animal rights in the world) sought a ban on the grounds of animal abuse and public safety. In 2006, the Tamil Nadu HC delivered a ban under the provisions of the PCA Act (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act). From then, for the past eight years, the ban has gone through many stages of cyclical negotiation when it has been alternately lifted, revoked and diluted. In 2009, the State, in an effort to reconcile the parties, passed the TNJRA (TN Jallikattu Regulation Act) which imposed stringent terms for the sport to continue  under non-abusive conditions. One of which, was that Jallikattu could only be allowed under the watchful supervision of the district collector, superintendent of police and AWBI representatives. The JRA has laid down the rules hard and consequently, the number of Jallikattus has steadily dwindled from 2000 participating villages to a mere 25 this year. Yet, 2010 alone witnessed 12 deaths (human deaths) and 1614 injuries (both animal and human, I presume). While the regulation ensured the practice was restricted to large groups and to a few months of the year; it failed to deliver on conditional requirements of the PCA. The affiliations between the State and organizers ensured that the act was reduced to hogwash. The matter reached the Supreme Court with both the TN government and the organizers are defendants and after deliberations, the SC delivered its final verdict last month banning the sport.

The Prosecution argued on the basis of ‘flight response’ and that the PCA should override the JRA. The Defence argued for cultural preservation, cultural tourism, and insisted  that the ‘degree of suffering’ of the bulls was not enough to come under the ambit of the PCA. The Court ruled that the JRA was anthropocentric in contrast to the eco-centric welfare legislation of the PCA and as such, the latter had pre-eminence. The ban was upheld and its reasoning detailed in a long judgment of staggering scope and scholarship (recommended reading).

The consequences have been swift and harsh. Yesterday’s papers reported; many bull-owners have had to sell the bulls to the slaughterhouse. An outcome, I am sure, no animal activist would have wanted.

Opinion

Despite their deeply entrenched faith in the veracity of their individual positions, both sides have uncomfortable questions to face.

  • The argument that the bulls are ‘naturally’ aggressive can’t hold much water with most ethologists. These bulls are trained to be temperamental but, despite that, a clear flight response is documented every time.
  • That the bull-owners pamper and invest (according to some reports, upwards of 15K a month) in the upkeep of the bulls is not contested. That, however, is an irrelevant defense against cruelty considering that the abusive treatment is meted out on the day of the event. Section 3 of the PCA clearly defines the duties of animal caretakers (bull-owners in this case) to include both, caring for the welfare and the well-being of the animal and, at the same time, protecting it from harm, suffering or abuse.
  • If the bull-owners were seriously interested in the welfare of their animals or in cultural tradition; they would not have allowed the degeneration of the tradition to an exercise in hostile and unruly behavior. Cultural tradition is something that is actively supported and protected; you cannot fall back on it as convenient excuse for degenerate versions of what might have once been aesthetic. The learned judges opine on this very point with an excellent quote from Professor Salmond: “Custom is the embodiment of those principles which  have commended themselves to the national conscience as the  principles of justice and public utility”.
  • Much talk circulates about the investment of money in the sport. There is, however, scant information on how much money is made living off and through these bulls for sport and stud services.
  • While lamenting the bulls that have already been sold to the slaughterhouse because of the ban; there is silence on what happens to these bulls once they become old and infirm? What is their fate then? Is what happened yesterday only an acceleration of an inevitable destiny?

Animal rights activism is a very tough grapple when it comes to the rights of domesticated animals. These animals have their agency usurped twice – once by the process of domestication; and then again, by activism that, having argued and won the case against the first, is stranded on a course of action from thereon. It is wise to tread slowly in such areas and with humility. The effort to cast this battle in the false dichotomy of good and evil/ right and wrong will yield disastrous consequences, most of which are then borne by the very animals you set out to save. It is often the case, that the people who work closely with these animals are more knowledgeable and equally empathetic and these qualities allow for easy negotiation of a middle ground. In this particular case; what strategy did PETA and/or AWBI, have for these mighty creatures once the ban took effect.  The sight of these gorgeous bulls being used for commerce in their own death as they were in life, is especially painful to bear. PETA is also answerable for selective targeting of practices. The use of animals for sport is equally odious in ‘glamorous’ horse racing and I expect and hope that PETA will  stay true by targeting the Turf Clubs next.

Our culture has always seen man as one of many creatures, of and by nature (the judgment quotes the Ishopanishad to illustrate this point; I have added the verse below). Hinduism does not accord our species a foolish exceptionalism above and beyond all others. Our folklore is rife with stories of animal law and justice. We practice a benign sharing of resources with other animals exemplified best in the cows that inhabit traffic islands and our street dogs who negotiate traffic crossings with aplomb. But apart from this genial side; there is also a dark underbelly of torture and cruelty towards animals. It is impossible for me to say how recent a phenomenon it is; but it would not be illogical to deduce that it is relatively recent and has paralleled the crumbling of social structures elsewhere. Culture is ever evolving. Each time, it evolves in aspiration of a higher ground. With Jallikattu too; the practice has evolved from the time of the Sangam and should continue to evolve if it wants to stay afloat. If only to save the fate of the bulls and their owners for this current generation; the practice must be allowed to stay albeit with strict conditions to evolve and with immediate effect to, at best, a bull-race. There are better avenues for entertainment in the 21st century than the sadism of using animals for sport.

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From the IshOpanishad; as quoted in the judgment:

“The universe along with its creatures belongs to the land.   No
creature is superior to any other.  Human beings should not  be  above
nature.  Let no one species encroach over the rights and privileges of
other species.”

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