A widely practiced activity in the Southern part of the Indian subcontinent is called jallikattu. Typically practiced in the state of Tamil Nadu, jallikattu is a traditional spectacle in which a bull is released into a crowd. Human participants attempt to grab the large hump on the bull’s back with both arms and hang on while the bull attempts to escape. Whoever tames the bull is the winner.
It’s difficult to argue against tradition and culture, but Indian’s animal cruelty laws, such as Sec. 11(a) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960), failed to protect the bulls used in jallikattu. As a result, Jallikattu’s effect on animal welfare was the subject of an intense, decade-long legal battle. Organizations such as PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) sought to end the practice. A PETA India investigation, covering a two-year time period from 2017 to 2019, found that the bulls were hit, whipped, and jabbed with wooden sticks. Their tails were bitten, twisted, and yanked to force them to run towards the crowd. Their nose ropes were yanked, causing their nostrils to bleed. Fourteen bulls died, and others sustained severe injuries and collapsed from exhaustion. The bulls are not the only ones harmed in this event: dozens of humans died in the years investigated, and hundreds were injured.
The welfare of the animals came into debate in 2006, when K. Muniasamy Thevar filed a petition to direct police to permit a rekla race (bull cart race). Rekla, like jallikattu, has traditional, cultural, and religious ties to the community. This petition was routine; no one expected anything to come of this matter but a few minutes time in court and a perfunctory approval. But not only did the Honorable Ms. Justice R. Banumathi deny the petition, she expanded the scope of the case and issued a general direction to the state government that rekla, jallikattu, oxen races, and other cruel entertainment should be banned altogether.
Jallikattu organizers and Tamil Nadu people vehemently criticized this judgement. The judgment was quickly appealed, but no one guessed it would lead to a confusing, complicated, long battle. On appeal in 2007, the lower bench’s order was stayed, thus allowing the practice to resume, and the appellate court (the Division Bench) suggested that the State introduce regulatory mechanisms to ensure a safer practice of jallikattu. The AWBI appealed to the Supreme Court, which in turn vacated the appellate court’s stay, refusing to allow the practice of jallikattu.
Almost immediately, the Supreme Court allowed the State to revise its petition, which lifted the ban on the practice in the meantime. The following year, 2009, the ruling government passed the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a notification banning the use of bulls as performing animals. The mounting confusion as to who was making what decision increased from there. In 2014, the AWBI and PETA challenged the 2009 Tamil Nadu regulation before the Supreme Court, and won: the Supreme Court struck down the State law and banned jallikattu.
But, two years later in 2016, the Ministry of Environment and Forests rewrote their position and permitted jallikattu under certain conditions. Again, the AWBI and PETA filed a petition to stay this order, and the Supreme Court did so, upholding its ban on jallikattu. In response, immense protests erupted all over Tamil Nadu, including mass prayers at churches and many rallies against the Supreme Court’s ruling. In opposition to the newly confirmed ban, many Tamil Nadu people held jallikattu events, and were detained by police as a result.
The protests gained significant attention, and in 2017 the governor of Tamil Nadu issued an ordinance authorizing the continuation of jallikattu events. Then, the Tamil Nadu legislature passed a bipartisan bill to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) and exempt jallikattu from its purview. However, it’s unclear whether this amendment to the Act is the final word on the matter, because the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) is more powerful than state laws, and the Tamil Nadu legislature’s amendment is a state law. Many have said that a change to Indian federal law is the only way to deny the Supreme Court’s last actions. But in the meantime, the Supreme Court has been referring all petitions on the matter to a Constitutional Bench, while jallikattu events continue unchecked.
Amid all the confusion as to whether jallikattu is legal or illegal, there is little being done about it anymore. Due to lack of proper laws and policy, there is no uniformity regarding the matter. And the many jallikattu events that have been held since the last legal decisions – including a world record-breaking event in 2019, with 1353 bulls and 500 tamers – have flouted the new regulations that were meant to promote welfare improvements. Despite emergency services on location, two people were gored to death in the record-breaking event. The aforementioned PETA investigation found that the Tamil Nadu 2017 Amendment and the AWBI guidelines were all flouted at many events, resulting in 5 bull deaths, 8 human deaths, 1 cow death, and almost 600 humans injured – just in the first half of 2019. Despite the lack of clarity surrounding its legal standing, the sport’s cruelty is clear.
Ed. Note: The opinions expressed in this piece reflect the viewpoints of the author, and not A-law in general. Also, fact verification was completed to the best of our ability amid a dearth of reputable and reliable information available to the public.
 Jallikattu Row: Matter could still go to Supreme Court and we could get adverse decision, says Salman Khurshid”. The Financial Express. 21 January 2017