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  A beastly tale

A beastly tale

Published : Jan 13, 2016, 11:21 pm IST
Updated : Jan 13, 2016, 11:21 pm IST

Last year, the cow was at the centre of many heated debates in India. As 2016 starts, it is the turn of the bull.

Last year, the cow was at the centre of many heated debates in India. As 2016 starts, it is the turn of the bull. Tamil Nadu, which was recently ravaged by floods, is being shaken and stirred now by Jallikattu, or the lack thereof. The traditional “bull taming” contest, originally scheduled to start with the Pongal festivities today, has been banned by the Supreme Court.

The Jallikattu tale goes back millennia. A specially bred bull is released from a pen into a small arena with garlands, currency and coconuts wreathed around its sharpened horns. Those who dare have to hang on to the hump for about 15-20 metres or three jumps of the bull to win a prize.

This aspect of the annual harvest festival, especially popular in southern Tamil Nadu, was first banned by the Supreme Court in 2014, following a plea that it was cruel to the bull. There was no Jallikattu last year. But this is an election year in the state and all political parties want to woo voters by bringing the sport back.

So the Central government issued a notification on January 7, allowing Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart racing in Maharashtra — another harvest festivity banned on the same grounds. But the Supreme Court has twisted the tale by staying the notification. Led by chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, all Tamil Nadu politicians were clamouring for a Central ordinance yesterday, to beat the Supreme Court stay. On Wednesday, the matter came up again before the top court which rejected a petition to allow Jallikattu.

The question here is — Does the sport of Jallikattu inflict unnecessary cruelty on the participating bull Proponents say no and point out that no bull has died in the ring in living memory, though plenty of people have been injured and some killed. Opponents point out that a bull — especially one bred at home — is not naturally aggressive. Left to itself, it would probably amble from spectator to spectator looking for a banana, as a lawyer said in court.

To make such a placid animal aggressive, you have to subject it to extreme cruelty. In its 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court referred to a comprehensive inquiry authorised by the Animal Welfare Board of India. Investigators observed that bulls were forced to participate and were deliberately taunted, tormented, mutilated, stabbed, beaten, chased and denied even their most basic needs, including food, water and sanitation. On many occasions, bulls were forced to drink fluids that were, most likely, liquor. And lemon was squeezed into their eyes and chilli powder rubbed on their genitals.

Drunk, maddened by pain and terrified of the large roaring crowd, the bull is quite likely to buck and run, making it all very exciting to machismo lovers and illegal punters alike.

That is the tradition under threat from animal rights activists. And it is not just Jallikattu. There is also the bullock cart race in parts of Maharashtra around Pune, where yoked pairs of bullock are forced to race down such narrow ravines that collisions are inevitable.

The 2014 Supreme Court judgment said bulls must not be used in any type of performance, including Jallikattu, races or bullfights. The last is important, because bullfights are not confined to Iberia or Latin America. They are also held, illegally, in many villages of Goa under the name of Dhirio. Goa’s lawmakers are now considering a move to legalise it.

The same judgment of India’s apex court banned cockfighting, dogfighting and any other staged fights between animals — including between humans and animals — for entertainment. That really set the cat among the bulbuls and roosters.

India’s different calendars have different names and slightly different dates for the annual harvest festival — Pongal, Makar Sankranti, Lohri, Magh Bihu — but many of them include animal fights. Newspapers carry stern warnings from policemen in Andhra Pradesh that they will not allow cockfighting. There is a court ban. But traditionalists defy.

Assam is in the same situation as Tamil Nadu. It is going to the polls and politicians want to allow bulbul fights this Magh Bihu. The Gauhati high court has placed an interim ban and the next hearing is scheduled after Magh Bihu, which is tomorrow.

It is difficult to imagine bulbuls fighting for anything more than a perch. But they can, especially when bred and trained like roosters that often fight to the death with sharpened beaks, claws and razor blades. And all the while, millions change hands in illegal bets.

The bulbul fights are centered around the Hayagriva Madhab Mandir at Hajo, just 35 km from Guwahati across the Brahmaputra. Hundreds of bulbuls are carried to the temple and starved for a couple of days to make them angry. Champion bulbuls of different villages are pitted against each other in knockout rounds. The village that wins can hold its crest high.

Dogfights popular in Haryana and Punjab carry similar cachet — the dogs bred and trained for this are aptly named “bully kuttas”. Loss of skin, ears, eyes and even life is common.

There has been a progression of rights in history. Slavery was outlawed, women got the vote, children cannot be beaten or forced to work. Animal rights is the next frontier. India has had the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act since 1960, which states that it is illegal if anyone “ treats any animal so as to subject it to unnecessary pain or suffering, or being the owner permits, any animal to be so treated” or if anyone “solely with a view to providing entertainment organises, keeps (,) uses or acts in the management (of) any place for animal fighting...”

As with all other rights, tradition is invoked to oppose progress. Animal rights activists say it is critical that people recognise and accept that animal fighting is an atrocity that masquerades as tradition and entertainment.

Most of the time, as now, Indian courts have ruled in favour of rights. Now the traditionalists want politicians to legalise their entertainment so that courts cannot intervene. The battle is already being fought across many fronts. On social media channels, the first shots have been fired. Jallikattu supporters argue that it is hypocritical to be simultaneously against the beef ban and Jallikattu. They say non-vegetarians who tacitly condone animal slaughter have no business to oppose animal fights.

This argument has been dealt with in the 1960 law on Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Section 11(3) of this law makes exceptions in five categories under the “doctrine of necessity”. It permits killing of animals as food as long as there is no inflicting of unnecessary pain or suffering, but entertainment, exhibition or amusement does not fall under any exempted category as the Supreme Court pointed out in 2014. The judgment is clear. Yet animal fights will take place. The battle between man and animal rights will be long.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee