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To grab a bull by the horns is now illegal in India

A supreme-court ruling that the sport, known as jallikattu, was 'a barbaric event' has pleased animal-rights groups but angered those who say it is part of Tamil Nadu state's cultural history.
Men try to tame a bull at a traditional bull taming festival called "Jallikattu" in Palamedu near Madurai, India. AFP Photo
Men try to tame a bull at a traditional bull taming festival called "Jallikattu" in Palamedu near Madurai, India. AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // The decision to ban the ancient sport of bull wrestling in Tamil Nadu has been hailed as a “landmark victory” by animal rights activists but has upset traditionalists who see it as an important cultural institution.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of a petition by the Animal Welfare Board of India last week, a two-judge bench said the sport, known as jallikattu, was “a barbaric event involving unnecessary pain and suffering for the animals”.

Jallikattu and bullock cart racing – also banned by in the same decision – are the main events in harvest festivals celebrated in districts across Tamil Nadu every January and February. Young bulls, bred to compete in these events, bolt out of enclosures in a rage.

Young men, cheered on by the crowd, try to take down the animal in a number of ways – by trying to clasp and hold on to the bull for the longest time, or by attempting to grab prizes tied to the bull’s horns, or by banding together to “tame” the bull.

The goal is not to kill the animal. However, the bulls are often badly injured.

“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,” the judges said. “Forcing and pulling the bull by a nose rope into the narrow, closed enclosure … subjecting it to all forms of torture, fear, pain and suffering by forcing it to go to the arena and also overpowering it in the arena … are not for the well-being of the animal.”

Jallikattu had been banned temporarily by other courts, but the ban was always lifted after the Tamil Nadu government promised a stricter enforcement of laws to govern the sport. In 2009, Tamil Nadu regulated the sport for the first time.

The Supreme Court’s verdict “is a landmark victory for animals in India”, said a statement from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). “Year after year, court guidelines or laws were violated during jallikattu and bull races, and countless bulls and people have suffered and even painfully died.”

Jallikattu was born out of the desire, on the part of cattle breeders, to showcase the best bulls in their village.

In its heyday a few decades ago, jallikattu was staged in nearly 3,000 towns in Tamil Nadu, with each event parading up to 50 bulls. But a gradual tightening of the rules has forced this number to dwindle. This year, only 15 or 20 towns hosted jallikattu meets.

M Karunanidhi, the president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the leading opposition party in Tamil Nadu, has urged the state government to ask the Supreme Court to review its decision.

On Sunday, Mr Karunanidhi said jallikattu dated back to the classical Sangam era of Tamil culture, between the 3rd century BC and the 4th century AD.

Unlike the bullfighting customs of Spain, Mr Karunanidhi said, jallikattu does not require the slaying of animals. “Only bravery is given importance, and utmost care is taken to ensure the safety of the fighters and the bulls.”

However, the sport has recorded at least two deaths this year.

In January, a 55-year-old male spectator was gored to death in the Sivaganga district, and roughly 300 people – spectators as well as participants – were injured over the course of a week.

A boy, 12, died and 23 people were injured in a jallikattu event in Dindigul in February.

There is no comprehensive estimate of the number of fatalities and injuries caused by jallikattu over the years.

Balakumar Somu, a jallikattu aficionado, admits that the sport is a dangerous one, loaded against its human contestants.

“But accidents happen everywhere,” Mr Somu, a software engineer in the town of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, told The National. “Do we ban road traffic because people die in car accidents? We don’t.”

When he was in college, roughly 25 years ago, Mr Somu participated in a jallikattu event, which he said was well organised. A bull was released into an open ground, and a melee of 50-60 young men competed to whisk away a towel tied to the animal’s horns.

“There was no stress on the animal.”

The sport has changed since his youth, Mr Somu said. Jallikattu now involves more bruising contact with bulls, and the prizes have grown richer.

But he insisted that it was played cleanly, with little pain inflicted on the bull.

The 2009 act, in particular, did a fine job of deploying veterinarians at each meet to monitor the health and welfare of the bulls, he said.

This contradicted the findings of Peta, which in an investigation of seven jallikattu events this year, found evidence of cruelty to bulls.

Photographs released by Peta allegedly show abuse of the bulls, including owners and spectators prodding the bull with sticks, twisting or biting its tail, whipping, or feeding it liquor.

Mr Somu rejected these claims, saying he had never seen such practices.

“I’m an animal-rights activist myself,” Mr Somu said. “But we’re making a mistake by viewing this as a sport. We need to see it as a glue that holds together the fabric of rural Tamil Nadu.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

Updated: May 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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