The report also cites Tamil Nadu government data to question the government’s claims that the practice of jalikattu helps preserve indigenous cattle breeds.
OVER 100 persons and at least 20 bulls have been killed at jallikattu events since 2017, reveals Elsa Foundation’s investigative report, ‘Jallikattu Cult – Politics, Facts, Killings & COVID Deaths’. As per the report, published last month, 81 spectators along with 21 bull tamers have died at jallikattu events in the last six years. Those killed include many children.
Elsa Foundation is a non-profit charitable trust that focuses on issues impacting biodiversity and the rights of animals.
Jallikattu is a bull-taming sport in which a bull is released into a field and whoever is able to take control of the bull by grabbing the large hump on its back wins the sport. It has ancient significance and is typically practised as part of celebrations in Tamil Nadu on Mattu Pongal day, the third day of the four-day Pongal festival.
Over the years, several animal rights organisations have called for the practice to be banned due to widespread abuse of and cruelty towards the bulls used in the sport. However, the findings of the report, which captures information from the ground and from news reports from 2017 till February 2023, shed light on the disturbing hidden reality of jallikattu events in Tamil Nadu, and the devastating impact they have had on not just animal but human lives.
The Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in 2014, had banned the conduct of jallikattu and similar events. The Tamil Nadu government filed a review petition against the judgment, which was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2016.
However, in January 2017, the Tamil Nadu government passed a state-level amendment to the central Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (PCA) and issued the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Conduct of Jallikattu) Rules, 2017, which allowed the holding of jallikattu in the state, on the ground that the practice was intrinsic to Tamil culture.
Tamil Nadu’s amendment was challenged at the Supreme Court by several animal rights organisations. In November and December last year, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court heard arguments in the matter before reserving its judgment.
In its arguments in court, the Tamil Nadu government claimed that jallikattu, as it is conducted now, follows stringent safety measures, and that there is minimal loss of human and bull lives during these events.
Findings of the report belie Tamil Nadu government’s claims before the Supreme Court
This claim does not hold in the face of the death toll of 102 humans and 20 bulls since January 2017. Significantly, this is likely a partial count, as it does not include the deaths of injured people in hospitals days after the event, as well as of bulls that die a few days after being injured.
As on February 8, 2023 in the three weeks that jallikattu events have been conducted in 2023, ten human beings have been killed. These numbers reflect a worrying lack of safety procedures at these events, and the neglect of its responsibility by the state government.
The investigative report also highlights the problematic nature of the Manjuvirattu and Eruthu Vidum Vila (Vizha) forms of jallikattu, which do not follow any rules set by the Supreme Court, the Animal Welfare Board of India, and the state jallikattu law. In these events, bulls are made to run on the roads among crowds of spectators and the general public. In the absence of an arena and a bull collection yard (which are ordinarily placed at the end of the jallikattu venue), public safety is compromised. There is also a lack of designated tamers at such events.
All these critical problems have led to the deaths of not only spectators, but even casual and innocent passers-by, and bulls.
A previous investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an animal rights non-profit organisation, had found that jallikattu bulls’ tails are twisted and bitten in preparation for the event. The exhausted bulls are yanked by nose ropes, causing excessive bleeding, and participants often break the bulls’ tailbones, causing agonising pain. Between January and June, 2017, 15 people and five bulls died and nearly 2,000 spectators were injured due to jallikattu, according to the PETA report.
Puncturing the government’s political propaganda
The Elsa report seeks to expose the vested political interests behind the jallikattu movement. Political parties in Tamil Nadu use the sport to gain a vote bank by whipping up public sentiments around jallikattu as a symbol of Tamil culture, pride and valour, exhorting the Tamil public to demand that it be allowed. To this, they added the argument that jallikattu saves native breeds of cattle.
Many celebrities have joined in these promotional arguments, repeatedly showing support for jallikattu to ride public sentiments and gain personal benefits. Such provocation of public sentiments led to large-scale public protests across Tamil Nadu in January 2017 demanding that jallikattu be allowed; these protests also saw the participation of Tamil celebrities as well as non-Resident Indian Tamilians. They culminated in the state legislature amending the PCA that allowed the sport, bypassing the Supreme Court judgment.
Most of the victims of jallikattu come from economically marginalised backgrounds, hailing from families that struggle to make ends meet. The report narrates the case of nineteen-year-old Kalimuthu, a breadwinner of his poor family, who was killed at a jallikattu event in Palamedu, Madurai in 2018, at which he was a spectator. Jeeva, another spectator, died the same year in Vadamalapur, Pudukottai. Jeeva’s wife works as a contractual garbage cleaning worker for a meagre salary and struggles to feed her three children.
In fact, one of the respondents in the Supreme Court case that eventually led to a ban on jallikattu in 2014 was A. Nagaraja, whose teenage college son died after being hit by a bull that ran out of the jallikattu arena.
The deaths of humans and animals at jallikattu events have always been ignored by successive state governments. None of them have even bothered to pay compensation to those injured, and to the families of those killed at these events, according to the report. It was only in January this year that for the first time in the history of the state, the Tamil Nadu government announced compensation for two victims’ families, perhaps prompted by the Supreme Court’s pending jallikattu judgment.
The report also questions the claim of successive Tamil Nadu governments that the practice of jallikattu protects native breeds of bulls. It refers to the 20th Quinquennial Livestock Census data referenced in the Tamil Nadu government’s Animal Husbandry Policy Note 2020–21, as per which 81 per cent of the cattle owned by the state’s farmers are foreign breeds or foreign crossbred cattle, and only 18.85 per cent are indigenous cattle. (A policy paper on the Breeding Policy for Cattle and Buffalo in India, published by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi in October 2016, which is not referred to in the report, states that Tamil Nadu’s proportion of exotic/crossbred cattle is 72.1 per cent, which is one of the highest among all states.)
The report also refers to data in the 2020–21 Policy Note as per which only 7.1 per cent of the bull semen produced by the government’s frozen semen production stations is indigenous bull semen.
At present, there are four cattle breeds native to Tamil Nadu, according to the report: Kangeyam, Pulikulam, Bargur and Umblachery. As per the Tamil Nadu Animal Husbandry Policy Note 2022–23 cited by it, of the eight cattle breeding farms of the Tamil Nadu government, only three have these native breeds, of which only one has the Kangeyam, Pulikulam and Bargur breeds used in jallikattu, but seven of the eight farms have foreign-bred or foreign crossbred cattle breeds (the report erroneously claims that all eight farms have foreign cattle breeds).
It also refers to the website of the Tamil Nadu government’s Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation Limited, Aavin, which states that “[t]he majority of milch animals in the cooperative ambit in Tamil Nadu are crossbred Jersey animals”.
The report concludes that successive state governments of Tamil Nadu have failed in their duty to protect the lives of the public, thereby violating their rights under Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution, and of the bulls.
The investigative report serves as a wake-up call to the civil society and the State, and a call to action to put an end to the harmful practice of jallikattu. It is to be seen how the Supreme Court’s Constitution bench tackles the matter when its keenly-awaited judgment is pronounced.