Tamil Nadu’s traditional sport of bull-taming or jallikattu played during the festival of Pongal every January may yet bloody an unusual victim – the Animal Welfare Board of India.

The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has issued a showcause notice to its chairman RM Kharb for filing affidavits in court without the permission of the Centre. This is with regard to the stand the board took on the jallikattu issue in court recently. As unprecedented as the notice is, Animal Welfare Board of India members knew it was coming.

Red-faced Centre

The notice follows an embarrassment the Union government suffered in January when it attempted to bypass a 2014 Supreme Court ban on jallikattu by issuing a notification permitting the blood sport, only for it to be struck down by the apex court days before Pongal. By attempting to lift the ban, the government may have intended to notch up a few brownie points in the poll-bound state of Tamil Nadu. But the Animal Welfare Board of India, which had initiated the litigation leading to the ban on the sport in 2014 citing cruelty to animals, took the environment ministry to court, demanding the reinstatement of the ban.

A letter from the government, dated March 28, asks chairman Kharb to explain why the AWBI “has been filing writ petitions in various courts seeking directions/relief against the Government of India” when it had “specifically been directed to refrain from doing so”.

The letter said:

“…AWBI has been directed to get approval of Ministry before filing counter-affidavits… AWBI has no locus standi to file any matter before any court without seeking prior permission from this Ministry.”

The ministry has demanded a response from the Animal Welfare Board of India chairman within three days of him receiving the notice.

Expected action

Sources in the Animal Welfare Board of India, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Scroll.in that they had expected such a move. “Members got calls from the ministry asking for their resignation,” said the source. “All members refused to resign. After that calls were received from the Ministry asking for explanations as to why so much money was spent on hiring senior advocates such as KK Venugopal and Aryama Sundaram to argue the Board’s case in Supreme Court. The truth is that all these lawyers appeared for the Board pro bono. We did not pay them a single rupee.”

Scroll.in asked KK Venugopal and Aryama Sundaram if they had been paid to represent the Animal Welfare Board of India in the jallikattu case.

Venugopal said he had not represented the board in court with regard to the jallikattu case recently. "I had appeared for the Animal Welfare Board in the jallikattu case over 10 years ago," said Venugopal. “More recently, I appeared for another petitioner, the Federation of Indian Animals Protection Organisation, on the same issue. I have not charged any fee for this.”

Aryama Sundaram, senior advocate, who appeared for the board in its latest battle to ban jallikattu, denied charging any fee. “I do not profit out of the suffering of animals,” said Sundaram. “I did this case pro bono.”

Activists are upset with the ministry’s notice and see this as a move by the government to curtail the functioning of the Animal Welfare Board of India, which they say, has been doing an exemplary job in protecting animal rights.

“The AWBI has activists and sensitive compassionate people on the board,” said Radha Rajan, an animal welfare activist and a petitioner in the Jallikattu case. “The AWBI’s definition of cruelty cannot be different when the Congress is in power and when the BJP is in power.”

Rajan said that the AWBI was a statutory body set up by Parliament and that all its members were volunteers who were not paid by the government. “The incumbent government, irrespective of which party is in power, should let the AWBI do its duty as mandated by the Act of Parliament,” she said. “The duty of the AWBI is to advise the government on animal rights. If it is being asked to seek advice from the ministry, then it means this is standing the whole thing on its head! I honestly do not know if the ministry has sent a notice but if they have, then it is regrettable.”

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar denied that his ministry was victimising members of the Animal Welfare Board. “No we don’t do such things,” said Javadekar at a press conference in Chennai. “Can you imagine my own organisation suing me? There are certain rules. Let things happen.”

The AWBI, on its part, refuses to back down from a battle its members are well aware they may lose. “I can assure you that we will fight it,” said the source from the board. “This is an attempt to push jallikattu through.”