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Locking horns

The setting is a village in Tamil Nadu. It’s a small arena along with narrow alleyways. Hundreds and thousands of spectators huddle together. Amidst all this, an enraged bull is unleashed — decorated in bright colours and with money tied around its horns. The bull is chased by villagers. Their objective is to hold on to the animal for as long as possible in an effort to tame the animal and seize the money. Welcome to the “sport” of jallikattu, a local version of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

The game has been a cultural tradition in Tamil Nadu for close to 4,000 years. But now it has raised the ire of animal rights activists who feel the game is cruel and want it to be banned. “The fact that hundreds of people are chasing a bull and trying to jump over it constitutes cruelty to animals,” says D. Rajasekar, secretary of the Animal Welfare Board of India in Chennai. He adds, “The bulls are abused by rubbing chilli powder in their eyes. That’s not all. They are forced to drink alcohol to drive them into a frenzy.” Their testicles are pinched to make them more aggressive.

However, a human tragedy triggered the questioning of the legality of this game. Recalls Rajasekar, “It all started in 2006 when a youngster watching jallikattu was killed by an enraged bull that landed amidst the spectators.” Subsequently, the father of the victim filed a petition and the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court banned jallikattu in March 2006.

The Tamil Nadu government and the different associations promoting this game appealed against the ban. In January 2007, the Madras High Court permitted the game to be conducted, but attached some conditions. It was then that the Animal Welfare Board of India became a party to the case by filing a special leave petition (SLP) citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, before the Supreme Court to stop this game. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, by an order dated July 27, 2007, stayed the Madras High Court division bench judgment and restored the original order banning jallikattu.

The legal battle raged on. The Tamil Nadu government, and the contestants and organisers of jallikattu filed a petition to vacate the Supreme Court stay order. This petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court on January 11, 2008. The court issued an order to continue the ban on jallikattu. “On January 13, the Tamil Nadu government again filed a review petition for modification and reconsideration of the order dated January 11 that kept the ban on jallikattu in place. The January 11 order was subsequently modified by another Supreme Court order dated January 15 that permitted jallikattu, on certain conditions,” says S.R. Sundaram, legal advisor to the Animal Welfare Board of India.

The latest Supreme Court order lays down 12 conditions for jallikattu to carry on. The Animal Welfare Board of India should be informed prior to arranging jallikattu and the organisers will have to take the district collector’s permission to conduct this game. “The Supreme Court also maintained that the Animal Welfare Board of India and its recognised animal welfare organisations should take photos and record the game on video,” says Sundaram. “If any violation of the norms is observed, the Animal Welfare Board of India will have to submit a report to the Supreme Court within two weeks from the date of the game.”

Quite apart from the central issue of animal cruelty in jallikattu as enumerated in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, public safety issues are involved. The Supreme Court has asked for double barricading the arena and fixed galleries for spectators viewing jallikattu. However, the dangers are still palpable. Last year the game saw one person killed and 65 people injured; this year almost 70 people have been hurt.

The latest Supreme Court order has drawn mixed reactions. The petitioners who sought to ban the game underline Section 11 of the PCA Act, 1960, which prevents cruel sports involving animals. However, Sanjay Upadhyay, managing partner of the Enviro Legal defence firm in Delhi, feels that the game could continue as long as regulations are adhered to. “It is also necessary to define what constitutes cruelty under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960,” he notes. But there is disappointment concerning the latest Supreme Court order too. “The latest order allowing jallikattu to continue does not take into consideration the suffering of the bulls and undermines the purpose and objective of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960,” says Raj Panjwani, a practising lawyer at the Supreme Court. His views are shared by Norma Alvarez, an advocate at the Bombay High Court who has legally stopped bull fights in Goa. “The Supreme Court order allowing the game of jallikattu to go on is a setback to the animal welfare movement in India since it will abet the abuse of animals in entertainment in other situations,” she says.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, is still being flouted in other areas of animal entertainment. For example, buffalo fights are taking place in Assam where the animals are prodded and fed intoxicants to turn them violent. Even bird fights are popular in certain regions. Bulbul fights are staged in Hajo in Assam and cock fights at Kasargod in northern Kerala. “The PCA Act needs to be strengthened to prevent such sports,” says Sangeeta Goswami, chairperson of People for Animals, Assam. “The fines for violations are too low,” she adds.

But are prosecutions taking place regularly in situations where animals are abused in sport? “No,” replies Debasis Chakrabarti, founder of Compassionate Crusaders Trust, an animal welfare organisation in Calcutta. “The low fines prescribed in the law should never deter prosecution regarding animal abuse in sports since that would undermine the movement to eradicate cruelty to animals,” he adds. But until that happens and sports like jallikattu persist with legal blessing, humans and animals will continue to lock horns.

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