The Bharatiya Janata Party has notched up several brownie points in the poll-bound state of Tamil Nadu with its latest notification permitting the traditional sport of bull-taming or jallikattu, even though the Supreme Court had effectively banned the pastime in 2014. But legal experts are raising red flags over the move.
At around 9.30 am on Friday, Minister of State for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, Pon Radhakrishnan tweeted to say that the Centre had permitted the sport to continue.
In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had included bulls among the list of animals that could not be used as performing animals. This meant that they could not also be exhibited or trained for jallikattu events. This notification was upheld by the Supreme Court in May 2014.
This week, the Ministry of Environment and Forests made public a Gazette notification dated January 07 which stated that bulls continued to remain in the list of banned performing animals but added an exception for jallikattu and other customary sports. It stated:
“Provided that bulls may be continue to be exhibited or trained as a performing animal, at events such as jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart races in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat in the manner by the customs of any community or practiced traditionally under the customs or as a part of culture, in any part of the country subject to the following conditions…”
It added that jallikattu and the bullock cart races can be conducted only in the “places where it is traditionally held annually” and that such events must adhere to the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
Campaigners are angry
Animal rights campaigners are understandably upset with decision. The people who had move filed the original petition against the sport in 2011 are planning to move court to get the notification scrapped. They allege that it is an attempt by the Centre to appease some voters in an election year.
“I think the BJP has shot itself in the foot because it has sent a very unfortunate signal to the country that any political party will overturn a Supreme Court judgement just for political considerations,” said S Radha Rajan, one of the original petitioners. “The Congress did this earlier by overturning the Shah Bano judgement. What kind of a signal is the BJP sending to the people of this country on the sanctity of the judiciary?”
For legal experts, the larger implications of the notification on balance of powers in a democracy are worrying.
The notification "is in direct violation of the judgment of the Supreme Court”, senior Supreme Court advocate KK Venugopal told Scroll by email. “The notification pretends that the bull is a performing animal and is wholly silent about the various acts of cruelty which are inflicted on it for converting the peaceful domestic animal into a violent one."
He added, "This notification, according to me, is wholly uncalled for and is in clear defiance and violation of the judgment of the Supreme Court, which independent of the notification banning jalikattu, directs the government to ensure that the jalikattu is not performed, because cruelty and infliction of pain on the bull is inherent in this so-called sport.”
The Supreme Court, in its May 2014 order, had gone into meticulous detail about why jallikattu should be banned. Key to its argument were two points: that the sport cannot be conducted without unnecessarily ill-treating and harming the animal for human pleasure and that culture and tradition could not dictate cruelty to animals. The court said that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act "over-shadows or overrides the so-called tradition and culture”.
Legal experts feel that this notification by the Centre will not withstand a legal challenge. “It seems to be a case where the Executive is undermining the Judiciary,” said Ritwick Dutta, environmental lawyer. “If there is a loophole or scope for modification, government should go for clarification and modification of the order instead of issuing notifications of this nature. This is liable to be struck down not just by Supreme Court but even the High Court can strike this down."
He pointed out that only the Parliament can overturn a Supreme Court ruling, not the Executive. "In this case, it is a final judgement of the Supreme Court and the government did not file any review petition," Dutta said. "The government should have approached the Supreme Court.”
Dutta said that the notification could encourage regressive cultural practices such as those practised in Maharashtra during celebrations of Nagpanchami, which involves cruelty to snakes. “It is completely unscientific to cite culture and tradition,” he said. “Keeping of bears was also a cultural practice. Culture cannot overrule constitutional provisions. The Ministry of Environment’s Animal Welfare Division should be more careful about such issues.”
Even if the case goes back to court and jallikattu is stopped once again, political parties like the BJP and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Kazhagam can both claim credit with traditional voters for having tried to restore the practice. But the BJP may find it more difficult to answer questions about whether it has violated the privileges of the judiciary.
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