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Insights into Editorial: Taming bulls, Maiming Rights

Insights into Editorial: Taming bulls, Maiming Rights

04 January 2015

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Jallikattu-Tamil Nadu’s bull taming sport- was banned in 2014 by the Supreme Court of India. But, from the past few days, with harvest festival of pongal approaching, few people in the state are asking the government to legitimize this sport. Added to this is the pressure of the political context, with ‘Tamil tradition and culture’ being invoked to stir up a frenzy ahead of the 2016 Assembly elections.

  • The entire political spectrum in the state has come together demanding the restoration of a sport that has its roots in feudalism and has, over the years, maimed and killed humans and bulls in equal measure.
  • The state government has also sought the Centre’s immediate intervention, either through a comprehensive legislation or an ordinance. The centre, in return, has promised that the “good news” of legalising jallikattu would be delivered to Tamil Nadu very soon.
  • Jallikattu is considered a matter of pride for the Thevar community and other numerically strong communities in southern Tamil Nadu. These groups carry social clout that could tilt the fortunes of parties in many constituencies. Hence, politicians are proactive in this issue.

What is ‘Jallikattu’?

Jallikattu is a bull taming sport played in Tamil Nadu as a part of Pongal celebrations on Mattu Pongal day.

  • Jallikattu is derived from the words ‘calli’ (coins) and ‘kattu’ (tie), which means a bundle of coins is tied to the bull’s horns. In older times, the tamer sought to remove this bundle from the animal’s head to win gold or silver.
  • He would be called ‘brave’ and ‘valourous’ and would also sometimes be rewarded with a bride.
  • The southern parts of Tamil Nadu witness bull-taming the most, with Alanganallur near Madurai hosting the largest and most famous of these events.

The aura around bull-taming was magnified when it became an essential element of the rural hero in Tamil cinema.

Why some people are against this sport?

  • The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI)’s report submitted before the Supreme Court in this case lists unimaginable forms of torture inflicted— tails twisted and fractured, chemicals poured into the eyes, ears mutilated, sharp-edged weapons used to poke the animal, and intoxicants forced into its mouth. Hence, this sport is seen as an act of cruelty towards animals.
  • The bulls are kept in the waiting area for hours, subjecting it to the scorching sun. The bulls used in the sport are also denied food and water. As the tormented bull takes flight from its enclosure, a typical symptom of stress, it meets an abusive crowd which latches on to it in dozens for prizes as petty as utensils and garments.
  • Due to this sport, innumerable human lives, both of the participants and the audience, have also been lost, as the bulls try to flee from the pain.

Supreme Court’s observations:

The Animal Welfare Board of India took the case to the Supreme Court in May 2014. The Court banned the game because of the cruelty to animals and the threat to public safety involved.

  • The court spoke of how this uncivilised event violates the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA) and violates the constitutional duty of treating animals with compassion, Article 51 (g).
  • It also reiterated the expansive reading it had given in the past, to Article 21 (Right to Life), which prohibits any disturbance to the environment, including animals, considered essential for human life.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that not only did jallikattu inflict “unnecessary pain and suffering” on the animal and thereby violate the PCA Act, but the whole sport in the form in which it exists today has nothing to do with the traditional bull-taming of yore. The Court observed that, “Welfare and the well-being of the bull is Tamil culture and tradition; but they do not approve of infliction of any pain. Yeru Thazhuvu , in Tamil tradition, is to embrace bulls and not overpowering the bull to show human bravery.
  • The court also exhaustively cited international rights jurisprudence to stress the need to correct anthropocentric views and the fact that animals too have the right to live dignified lives.

Significance of this judgment:

  • The court’s observations counter shallow arguments in favour of the sport, such as its purported role in protecting certain indigenous breeds of bulls.
  • This judgment also keeps in line with developments across the world.
  • Often, the tradition of bullfighting in Spain is cited to legitimise the conduct of jallikattu and present it as a viable tourist attraction. But, it is significant that the Spanish state of Catalonia banned the sport in 2012 after a prolonged ‘culture versus rights’ debate.
  • In 2002, Germany also took animal rights to a new level by giving animals constitutional protection.


Jallikattu might be a popular tradition having evolved from a single man-bull combat in the past to the random spectacle that it is today, but that it is both irrational and against animal rights is beyond question. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Tamil Nadu government has urged the Centre to pass legislation — even through the route of promulgation of an ordinance — to amend the laws for the conduct of jallikattu. Traditional belief systems and customs have been invoked by proponents of jallikattu to seek revocation of the ban. The festive atmosphere during Pongal and the traditions of community bonding and competition can still be easily retained without the irrational practice of jallikattu. Trying to allow an event that legitimises cruelty would be a direct insult to the carefully reasoned judgment of the Supreme Court, a complete negation of the PCA Act and its objectives, and would take the country back by a few steps in the crucial area of Right to Life.