Jallikattu debate

Beyond the protests in Chennai, will jallikattu spark a row between two ministers at the Centre?

Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave's apparent push to amend the animal protection law may face resistance from colleague Maneka Gandhi.

As the crowds swelling on Chennai’s Marina Beach since Tuesday to oppose the Supreme Court’s 2014 ban on the bull-taming sport of jallikattu has the media’s rapt attention, a political story playing out in the back alleys of Lutyen’s Delhi on the same subject has so far gone unnoticed.

An internal tussle within the ruling National Democratic Alliance may be on the cards should Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave push for an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, in the wake of the growing protests in Tamil Nadu. Such a move – which Dave hinted at during a press conference in the Capital on Friday – would not go down well with his ministerial colleague Maneka Gandhi, one of the key voices in the country on animal rights and a supporter of the animal protection law.

That North India is feeling the heat of public pressure building up in Tamil Nadu became obvious when Dave, who usually does not even speak up on issues directly related to his ministry’s mandate to protect the forests and environment, called the press conference and gave a strong statement in favour of jallikattu. He said that his ministry, along with the Law Ministry, was considering a review of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and to expect “good news soon”.

Late on Friday, the law, environment and culture ministries cleared a draft ordinance of the Tamil Nadu government seeking to denotify bulls from the list of “performing animals” in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, thereby clearing the decks for the state to organise a jallikattu event in the coming days. Media reports said the state’s proposal – which holds legally as the Act falls in the Constitution’s Concurrent List, giving both the Centre and states the authority to frame laws on it – was cleared without changes and sent to President Pranab Mukherjee for his approval.

Gandhi’s stand

Such actions would in all probability face opposition from Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, who has been vocal in her opposition to the bull-taming sport at various public forums in the past few months. In August last year, she stated, “Jallikattu is a terrible festival, and the BJP has many many more important things to do.”

And in an interview to the Week magazine published on January 13, she criticised actor Kamal Haasan’s support to the sport. “Film actors are not experts on law,” she said. “The cultural and legal arguments regarding jallikattu have been heard by the honourable Supreme Court from all petitioners, respondents, intervenors and other stakeholders over many many hearings. Detailed orders have been passed. The order should be read, understood and abided by.”

So, the question the media should be asking now is: Where is India’s most ardent animal rights activist in the current debate on jallikattu? And why has she been silent on the issue, especially since there is now a move by her own government to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act?

Past flip-flop

Jallikattu has been a contentious subject for governments in the past too, leading to announcements and flip-flops. On July 11, 2011, the United Progressive Alliance government, with Jairam Ramesh as its environment minister, had issued a notification including the bull in a list of animals that should not be exhibited or trained as performing animals. But on January 8, 2016, before the onset of the harvest festival of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, the then environment minister in the National Democratic Alliance regime, Prakash Javadekar, issued a new notification exempting “jallikattu bulls” from the list, thereby legalising the sport.

This, of course, was in direct contravention of the Supreme Court order of 2014 that clearly stated:

“Forcing a bull and keeping it in the waiting area for hours and subjecting it to the scorching sun is not for the animal’s well-being. Forcing and pulling the bull by a nose rope into the narrow, closed enclosure or ‘vadi vassal’ [entry point], subjecting it to all forms of torture, fear, pain and suffering by forcing it to go into the arena and also overpowering it in the arena by bull tamers, are not for the well-being of the animal.”

It was only when a battery of lawyers aided by the Animal Welfare Board of India and People for Animals (run by Maneka Gandhi) rushed to the Supreme Court that this order of the Environment Ministry was reversed.

Other implications

Politics aside, the fact is that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act is already weak, and to weaken it further would do a big disservice to the hundreds and thousands of animals that are ill-treated under all kinds of conditions as working animals, pets and performing animals. Right now, anyone charged under the Act can escape with a mere Rs 50 fine.

What is also obvious is that the jallikattu story is no longer one of Tamil pride. If a change is brought in the law, it will affect policies related to animal welfare throughout the country. Will it open a can of worms as far as performing animals in other states are concerned? For instance, will the government change its stand on dancing bears used by the madari community, or snakes used by snake charmers, or animals in circuses? These are serious issues of law and policy that have not been adequately addressed by the government.

With Dave, at his press conference, echoing the attempts made by Javadekar in 2016, the stage is set for a potential clash with Gandhi. All eyes are on Marina Beach now, but the political corridors of Delhi too could feel the echoes of dissent should its most ardent animal activist speak up.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars-Dispatches from a Vanishing World

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