As Tamil Nadu gears up to celebrate the annual harvest festival of Pongal this month, preparations to conduct the contentious bull-taming sport of jallikattu are already underway in many towns across the state.

The traditional sport involves a bull charging into an arena where participants attempt to encircle it and grab its hump. The participant who is able to cling on to the animal is declared the winner.

But for around a decade now, the sport has been embroiled in a legal tangle. After a campaign against jallikattu by animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Supreme Court banned the sport in 2014. In January 2016, though, yielding to popular pressure, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government published a notification allowing bulls to be used in the sport. Animal rights groups challenged this, prompting the Supreme Court to quash the notification a few days later.

The matter didn’t end there. One year on, in January 2017, lakhs of Tamil Nadu residents quite unexpectedly poured onto Chennai’s Marina beach, protesting the ban on jallikattu. In the seemingly leaderless crowd were a large number of students, members of the youth wings of political parties and IT employees. Holding placards and demanding that the ban should be lifted, these protestors claimed that the jallikattu was necessary both to preserve a cultural tradition and because the bouts helped identify the most robust bulls necesary for breeding native species of cattle.

After more than a week of protests, the Tamil Nadu government passed an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, a central law. The amendment was approved by the President of India and jallikattu events were permitted again.

But the legal challenge to jallikattu has not been put to rest entirely. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals challenged the amendment, and the Supreme Court has proposed the formation of a constitutional bench to examine whether jallikattu is a cultural right.

Advocate Srinivasan. (Photo  credit: Vinita Govindarajan).
Advocate Srinivasan. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

The fight to legalise jallikattu

This is of concern to Srinivasan, an advocate in Chennai, who headed the Biodiversity Conservation Council of India, a group that claims to have first suggested the idea of amending the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act as the surest way to protect jallikattu. The group was registered in 2015. “We had diagnosed that we would never be able to get a court order permitting jallikattu,” he said. “We were the first organisation to figure out that the state could itself pass a law.”

But Srinivasan is worried that the current pro-jallikattu leadership is not equipped to deal with the legal challenges that the sport still faces. “The amendment is very strong,” he said. “[But] the legal resources that are being used now are not that good any more. PETA might get the court to strike it down again.”

He said that the Biodiversity Conservation Council of India had been formed to counter the arguments advanced by PETA and other animal-rights groups. “PETA and other NGOs [non-governmental organisations] were well-funded, and had influential people who knew the law well,” Srinivasan said. “Groups supporting jallikattu did not know what was written on paper. They were relying on the support of a few government lawyers and pasting posters on the walls to gather support. It was at this time we formed the organisation.”

Srinivasan’s group also reached out to other organisations such as the Jallikattu Peravai and Trichy Jallikattu group but the solution they proposed did not gain currency among pro-jallikattu groups until the protest at Marina beach last year. “Nobody was listening to us,” he said. “Many were still going and knocking the doors of the courts, taking pictures with ministers and garlanding them. Finally, it was the students on Marina beach who began demanding that the government bring the amendments that we suggested.”

Srinivasan says he isn’t sure whether the present crop of jallikattu leaders will be able to put up a strong front in court because the core group has split. However, said Balakumar Somu, a former member of the Biodiversity Conservation Council of India, was more optimistic. “Since the amendment has the President’s assent, there is nothing that the court can do to ban the game now,” he said. “Even if they try to take a circuitous route to ban it, we can manage something.”