Pongal, an important Tamil harvest festival, was celebrated last weekend. It is a three-day festival that begins with the sun’s annual six-month progression to the north (uttaraayanam) and ends with Matu Pongal or cow pongal. On this day, cattle are recognized, decorated and worshipped. For centuries, this day has also involved the widespread rural game of Jallikattu.
Jallikattu is a sport that involves the release of a bull through a narrow corridor called vadi vaasal into an arena of men. The objective of these men is to hold onto the pronounced hump of the bos indicus bull. By so doing, they give Jallikattu its alternate name Eru Thazhuvuthal—literally meaning “embrace the bull”.
Some people believe that the sport was codified in the tablets from the Indus Valley civilization. Others trace it back to specific references in Sangam literature going back to 300 BC.
This ancient sport finds itself today embroiled in a major controversy. On the one hand, animal rights organizations such as the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) believe that the sport should be banned on account of alleged cruelty to bulls both before and during the “fight”.
On the other hand, Jallikattu supporters say that it is a tradition—one that doesn’t generally harm the bull—that should survive for a variety of reasons.
The Supreme Court waded into this with a ban on the sport in 2014. Based on petitions put forward by AWBI and Peta, a two-judge bench considered the issue under the rights of animals under the Constitution, culture, laws, tradition and religion and examined both Jallikattu and bullock cart races in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. It applied the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA), 1960 and struck down the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Regulation Act, 2009 as repugnant (subsidiary) to the PCA under Section 254(1) of the Constitution.
The case for the ban was carefully documented and legally precise. The defence was weak. The Supreme Court bench upheld the petition.
The subsequent government of India executive order allowing the sport was stayed. The ban continues.
In a unique (no politicians were allowed) and peaceful protest, over 5,000 mostly young pro-Jallikattu people gathered on Chennai’s Marina beach last week. To the argument about tradition and culture they have now added both a nuanced economic argument and a bio-diversity based argument that makes the case for indigenous species of bulls.
In a long article written in scroll.in, Himakiran Anugula makes a passionate case that the five remaining native cattle breeds in Tamil Nadu—Kangayam, Pulikulam, Umbalachery, Barugur and Malai Maadu—require a sport like Jallikattu for their very survival because indigenous breeds do not produce as much milk as artificially inseminated hybrids and this results in them being sent straight to the abbatoir.
The Kangayam breed is native to western Tamil Nadu and most often used in Jallikattu. The economic argument states that cattle are assets and the best return to this asset comes from its multiple use including its use in the sport. Among young male calves of these indigenous breeds, the sturdiest studs are selected for Jallikattu and the others are castrated and sent to plough the fields or find themselves in the slaughterhouse.
The Jallikattu controversy is unlikely to be resolved in a simple way. In a sensational headline, a regional newspaper termed the latest Marina Beach protest as “Tamil Nadu’s Tahrir Square style Arab Spring”.
The PCA Act is pretty clear and the Supreme Court has acted within the law’s current mandate. Prima facie, the Supreme Court seems to have applied settled law and it does not appear to be a case of judicial overreach.
In response to the massive protest the state government acted swiftly and promulgated an ordinance that has been signed by the governor. Under 213(1) of the Constitution this can be done when the Legislative Assembly is not in session. It will need to passed in the state legislature within six months.
Given that prevention of cruelty to animals is a concurrent subject under Schedule Seven of the Constitution, it has further been recommended to the President by the traditionalist federal government to secure constitutional remedy under Section 254(2)—under this section the state may enact legislation that is contrary (legally called repugnant) to national law if it receives the favourable consent of the President of India.
Since the Supreme Court has already ruled on the matter it is quite likely that the subject will come up again for judicial review and the conflict will not end here.
An India divided on modernist/traditionalist lines is likely to see many other areas of conflict come to the fore—from the (equal) rights of women to sancta sanctora of temples and mosques, Section 377 that deals with same-sex relationships and more regional issues that are based on language or ethnic identity.
The judiciary can only interpret law that is already on the books. Most will need political solutions, including new or amended laws.
P.S.: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” said Mahatma Gandhi. “Ban biryani not Jallikattu”, says actor Kamal Hassan.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand
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