Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld Tamil Nadu’s right to allow the controversial bull-taming sport—claiming that there are safeguards to prevent animal cruelty. But it ducked the far trickier question: Does a state have the constitutional right to preserve a cultural practice as part of its identity–irrespective of the objections of others?
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
Remind me, what is Jallikattu?
The sport: The name is a combination of two Tamil words—‘jalli’ (coins) and ‘kattu’ (tie). Taken together, it refers to the bundle of coins traditionally tied to a bull’s horns—which are awarded to the winner. Jallikattu competitions in Tamil Nadu are held during Pongal season in January.
The way it works is pretty straight-forward. The bull is kept in a narrow brick enclosure with high walls called ‘vaadi vaasal’—before it is released. Young men jump on a running bull—and hang on for dear life without falling off: “It requires quick reflexes and a fleet foot to tame the bull, which will try to get away, shake off the fighter and, at times, stamp or gore the fallen participants.” The aim is to hang on for at least 15-20 metres or 3 jumps of the bull.
An ancient sport: The earliest references to Jallikattu were found on a seal discovered at Mohenjodaro—dated between 2,500 BC and 1,800 BC. At the time, it was called Eru Thazuval—which means “embracing the bull.” It is also referenced in poetry from the Sangam era—which lasted from the third century BC to fourth century AD. As The Hindu notes:
From these nearly 2000-year-old poems and their medieval commentary, it is striking how little the sport has changed: the mad rush of the bulls into the ring, the enthusiasm of the young men out to tame them, the spilt blood as man meets bull, the honour and lives at stake, the egging on by spectators… perhaps only foreign tourists are missing!
FYI: the imagery is astonishingly gory:
Here is the black-coloured one/ with a bright white spot on his forehead/ Look at him bearing down on his challenger/ piercing his stomach and ripping out his intestines/ Doesn’t he look like the Supreme One/ digging into the bosom of Death/ and pulling out his intestines/ to offer them as food for the ghouls?
Something to see: You get a sense of how hazardous the sport can be below (don’t worry, there are no bloody intestines involved):
So this is like bull-fighting in Spain?
Yes, and as in Spain, there have been repeated calls for a ban by critics who say it is cruel to the bulls—and dangerous for humans. Its supporters, OTOH, view any kind of ban as an attack on their cultural identity (more on this later). The legal history of Jallikattu reflects how the judiciary has yo-yo-ed from one side of this debate to the other. Warning: The timeline is long and likely to make your head ache:
- It all starts in 2006, when a single Madras High Court judge directs the state government to ban cruelty in all forms of entertainment involving animals—including Jallikattu.
- The High Court strikes down the order in 2007—and the ban on Jallikattu.
- The Supreme Court first stays the High Court ruling—but eventually lifts the ban in 2008.
- In 2009, Tamil Nadu enacts new regulation to ensure the safety of the bulls—which is challenged by animal rights groups.
- But the status quo holds until 2011—when the union government suddenly issues a directive banning the use of bulls as “performing animals.”
- Everyone rushes back to the courts, and in 2014 the Supreme Court does a U-turn. It bans Jallikattu—saying it violates the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
- In 2016, the union government changes its mind—and modifies its notification to create an exception for Jallikattu—recognising its importance as a cultural tradition.
- Animal rights group PETA challenges the decision in the Supreme Court—which issues a stay—and refuses permission to stage the sport in 2017.
- There are widespread rallies across the state—as millions take to the street enraged by this “insult to the Tamil race.” The protests cut across traditional caste and class lines. Even AR Rahman goes on a fast in solidarity.
- TN government passes a state amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act—to make an exception for Jallikattu—in great haste. And it's speedily approved by the Centre.
- The amendment is challenged by PETA and other animal rights groups in the Supreme Court—which refuses to stay the modified regulation. And in 2018, the Court refers all petitions to a Constitution Bench.
- The bench is tasked with deciding whether Tamil Nadu has the cultural right to preserve Jallikattu under Article 29(1)—which states that “any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India…having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
- That bench issued its judgement yesterday.
Wait, I’ve lost track… where are we now?
Back where we started in 2006. On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld Tamil Nadu’s amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act—and refused to ban the sport. The bench said the amendment had also “substantially reduced pain and cruelty” to the bulls:
The Act heralds a sea change in the way Jallikattu is conducted as an event, bringing stringent safeguards into place to avoid danger to both man and animal… “The Amendment Act leaves little room for cruelty to the animals. It remedies the mischiefs which were in vogue before the legislation came into existence,” the top court said delivering the judgement…
But, but, but: The Court declined to consider the trickier constitutional question at hand—is Jallikattu an “integral” part of Tamil Nadu’s cultural heritage? The bench said such questions were best left to the legislature to decide.
So is this a good or bad decision?
There are no black-and-white answers in a debate like this. We’ll quickly recap the main arguments on both sides—and leave it to you to decide.
Jallikattu is cruel: This is a straight-forward argument about the rights of animals. PETA alleges the sport tortures the bulls:
[P]articipants and even sometimes the police tried to instigate and provoke the bulls into survival, or “fight”, mode by mercilessly hitting the animals’ faces with their hands and sticks and twisting and biting bulls’ tails. Collapsed bulls and others were yanked by nose ropes – causing bleeding.
Frenzied participants handled animals roughly and painfully yanked their nose ropes, often leaving open wounds gushing with blood. Bulls who had collapsed from exhaustion, dehydration, or injury were pulled up by their nostrils and forced to take part.
Point to note: The sport is also opposed by NGOs who point to the heavy human toll. According to one estimate, Jallikattu has resulted in 102 deaths since 2017—including 81 spectators and 21 participants. Critics say this kind of violence in unacceptable:
[Dalit leader K] Krishnaswamy claimed that Jallikattu was part of rituals that were created centuries ago to ensure that human blood was spilled on the soil. Such rituals were believed to bring prosperity. However, he argued that these rituals cannot find a legitimate place in any modern society that strives to uphold values of humanism.
As for its cultural value: Animal rights groups argue that tradition is no excuse for cruelty–equating “the event with practices such as sati and dowry, which were also once recognised as part of culture and stopped through legislation.” Then there’s the other question: whose ‘tradition’ are we talking about?
Some Dalit leaders point to the high cost of rearing and keeping a prize bull—which is a status marker for rural elites. And the tournaments are often the exclusive preserve of powerful castes—who don’t allow Dalits to participate:
[Krishaswamy] claimed that Jallikattu helps a few communities establish their dominance in villages, which in turn helps entrench caste. This is because most of the children of the more affluent people who own Jallikattu bulls have given up farming and are seeking opportunities in cities. As a consequence, it is Dalits who are being engaged to rear the animals, tying these communities to the rural economy, and scuttling their attempts to free themselves from the feudal world.
Jallikattu is a cultural right: Defenders of the sport view its critics as urban elitists who are dismissive of rural tradition and identity:
For agrarian communities like Thevars and Maravars, Jallikattu is one of the few markers of their social standing and identity in a fast-changing world. The contest, which evidently celebrates masculinity, is almost an act of cultural resistance to an urban modernity that tends to marginalise rural and agrarian values. Jallikattu’s linkages with Pongal has lifted it above its regional and community origins and transformed it into a symbol of Tamil culture and pride.
Quote to note: In 2017, then cabinet minister Maneka Gandhi derided Jallikattu as a day of "violence and killing"—writing: "Everyone in India looks down upon it—as civilised people should." To which, research scholar Shyam Krishnakumar says:
This statement typifies a cosmopolitan elitism that considers itself to be modern and progressive and rural India to be backward and barbaric, in need of being saved. There is little effort taken to understand and sincerely engage with their lives and worldviews, there is merely the civilising mission to be force-fed to everyone, for their own good of course.
The bottomline: Making an argument against an outright ban, the Tamil Nadu government said in the Supreme Court: “A practice which is centuries-old and symbolic of a community’s identity can be regulated and reformed as the human race evolves rather than being completely obliterated.” Well said—but sadly, even the slightest change provokes a great backlash. See: temple elephants in Kerala.
The Hindu has the best overview of the Supreme Court judgement—with a handy timeline. Indian Express offers a more detailed explainer—and this impassioned defence of Jallikattu. For more on the sport, read Outlook magazine—and this Hindu essay that includes a very colourful Sangam poem. These two older pieces—in BBC News and NewsLaundry—capture the cultural outrage that fueled the protests. If you have the stomach for it, you can check out PETA’s investigation into the treatment of the bulls.