The protests against the ban on jallikattu, the bull-taming sport, are growing stronger in Tamil Nadu. Since Wednesday, waves of young people from across the state have taken to the streets demanding that the Supreme Court ban on the traditional festive sport be revoked.

About 50,000 people were estimated to have gathered along Chennai’s Marina Beach on January 18 to protest against the ban and in solidarity with those detained by the police in Alanganallur near Madurai for trying to organise the sport as part of Pongal celebrations. Strong slogans called out for preserving Tamil tradition by protecting the sport. The native breed of cattle would be wiped out if jallikattu was not played, the protestors argued, as farmers would not have any reason to bear the cost of raising bulls.

While the protestors want the ban on jallikattu lifted, they want another ban to be imposed: on the non-governmental organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Some of these jallikattu supporters alleged that PETA had the backing of foreign corporations who were interested in eliminating the native cattle breed, so that they could bring in foreign breeds like the jersey bulls.

In the wake of these sentiments on the rise, interviewed Niranjan Shanmuganathan, a PETA volunteer in Chennai, on being at the receiving end of these allegations.

From the chants and posters of the protestors for the last few days, it appeared that a lot of the anger was directed towards PETA. Many said they wanted a ban on the organisation, and did not need it in Tamil Nadu anymore. How have the PETA volunteers, especially those in Chennai, dealt with this sentiment?
Firstly I need to say that I am a very proud Tamilian. I was born and brought up in Chennai, and I’ve been living here for the past 30 years. I’ve been a volunteer with PETA for the last 13 years. I have never been to any western country for any higher education or job. But I’m also a compassionate human being. I empathise with animal suffering and human suffering.

People need to understand that PETA India is a 100% Indian organisation. The PETA in United States is a completely different entity. There are certain international campaigns where all units come together and take up certain issues. PETA India is an independent organisation, where the volunteers and staff also have diversity. We all work together for the cause of animal rights. For us, race, colour, religion etc does not matter. The cause of an animal rights movement is beyond all these things. It is very sad when people say that you are not a Tamilian because you are supporting PETA. It is very unfair.

One important thing is that PETA did not ban jallikattu. PETA was able to gather evidence that the sport was injurious to bulls and people. An authorised inspection by the Animal Welfare Board of India which comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, was carried out. There were also other inspections made and submitted to the court. People on both sides were able to give their views. Those who supported animal rights were able to prove that jallikattu violated the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, since the year 1960.

PETA is not the one who gave the judgement. The Supreme Court felt that the sport was cruel to bulls.

A lot is being spoken and written about how the native breed of cattle will decline if jallikattu is banned. The protestors are saying that this is the main motive behind PETA’s opposition towards jallikattu and that the organisation wants to bring in foreign breeds.
PETA is a pro-vegan group. All over the world, we advocate a healthy plant-based diet, which includes replacing animal milk with coconut milk or almond milk. When we promote a plant-based diet, why would we have any other interests? Western dairy companies know that PETA is a pro-vegan group and they don’t like PETA. And PETA has no interest in working with a western group.

PETA has been campaigning about not wearing leather, for vegetarianism and against the slaughter of animals.

The supporters feel that Tamil culture and identity is being targeted. They are questioning why jallikattu is being targeted and not other acts of animal cruelty.
This is just a very small part when it comes to PETA’s activism. We have also filed a case in the Bombay High Court calling for a ban on the horse carriages used there.

From a personal perspective, I haven’t seen jallikattu live. My grandfather has played the sport. I have seen videos of terrified animals trying to run away from the crowd, group of men jumping and trying to hold on to the bull. You empathise with the animal. You don’t have to see anything else.

Is PETA also getting lot of support for its stance, especially now?
The court has given their judgement. If you are a law-abiding citizen, you will have to agree with what the court has said. For us, this issue is a very small part in helping animals. We have so many other important issues now, like drought and farmers dying.

We do have our own supporters. You don’t have to be a PETA member to speak up for animals. We have a lot of feminists saying that there were times we had sati and dowry but we are getting over it. They are able to understand the issue.

At this point of time, the jallikattu issue has been blown up. But any social justice movement has its own opposition..

Didn’t the entire legal battle start off with a person from Alanganallur filing a petition against the sport?
Yes, that was the first instance. PETA was not the first to take this to court. Mr Nagaraja, someone from the community practicing jallikattu, was the first to take up the case. His son died after a bull rammed into him while watching the sport.

Jallikattu is also a human rights issue. Between 2008 and 2014, 43 people have died and there have been about 5,000 injuries. Whose responsible for them? What happened to those families?

Are PETA volunteers in Chennai worried about the rising opposition?
It takes guts to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves. When you speak up for animals, you are one who stands out from the general public. So when people do that, they have compassion and courage. It is very sad the way activists, especially women activists, are being targeted, even celebrities.

I don’t think any PETA activist or any activist who fights for the rights of animals has to be worried.