Following massive protests in Chennai in January 2017, the Tamil Nadu Assembly amended the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to allow jallikattu, an ancient bull-wrestling sport, to be conducted again. The amendment overcame a 2014 ban imposed on the sport by the Supreme Court, which described it as inherently cruel to the animals.

Thus far, the opposition to the sport has been framed as solely an animal rights problem. Tamil nationalists and politicians, on the other hand, have claimed jallikattu is essential for preserving native strains of cattle: the bouts were a way to identify the strongest bulls, the ones that would be best to breed, they said. They accused international organisations of conspiring to wipe out native animal breeds to expand the market for foreign breeds.

This approach completely neglects the fact that jallikattu is a human rights issue too. According to official data,43 participants and spectators were killed during jallikattu events from 2008 to 2014. Replies to parliamentary questions reported by The Hindu show that 14 people were killed in jallikattu-related incidents between 2017 and 2018 alone, in addition to hundreds of injuries.

This year, a jallikattu event in Pudukottai that attempted to set a world record for the highest number of participating bulls led to the death of two people. One was a spectator, the other a bull owner. The event, in which over 1,000 bulls participated, was organised by Health Minister C Vijayabaskar and inaugurated by Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami.

Most of those killed in jallikattu events are from rural areas, leaving their families in grief and misery.

The jallikattu deaths clearly show serious violations of the rules set by the Animal Welfare Board and the Supreme Court for such events. Following the 2017 agitation, politicians in both the government and the Opposition have not only tried to protect the sport from legal challenges, they have participated in the events as sponsors with much fanfare.

Jallikattu has been turned into a symbol of Tamil culture and pride. To silence critics, Tamil nationalists, backed by powerful caste lobbies, question the ethnic loyalty of those who oppose the sport.

Lost in the fracas is the enormous human cost. Even the Supreme Court in its 2014 ruling focused more on the animals than the humans. While tighter regulation is essential to prevent cruelty to the animals, saving human lives is more urgent.