Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The setting is a village in Tamil Nadu. It’s a small arena along with narrow alleyways. Hundreds and thousands of spectators huddle together. Amidst all this, an enraged bull is unleashed — decorated in bright colours and with money tied around its horns. The bull is chased by villagers. Their objective is to hold on to the animal for as long as possible in an effort to tame the animal and seize the money. Welcome to the “sport” of jallikattu, a local version of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

The game has been a cultural tradition in Tamil Nadu for close to 4,000 years. But now it has raised the ire of animal rights activists who feel the game is cruel and want it to be banned. “The fact that hundreds of people are chasing a bull and trying to jump over it constitutes cruelty to animals,” says D. Rajasekar, secretary of the Animal Welfare Board of India in Chennai. He adds, “The bulls are abused by rubbing chilli powder in their eyes. That’s not all. They are forced to drink alcohol to drive them into a frenzy.” Their testicles are pinched to make them more aggressive.

However, a human tragedy triggered the questioning of the legality of this game. Recalls Rajasekar, “It all started in 2006 when a youngster watching jallikattu was killed by an enraged bull that landed amidst the spectators.” Subsequently, the father of the victim filed a petition and the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court banned jallikattu in March 2006.

The Tamil Nadu government and the different associations promoting this game appealed against the ban. In January 2007, the Madras High Court permitted the game to be conducted, but attached some conditions. It was then that the Animal Welfare Board of India became a party to the case by filing a special leave petition (SLP) citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, before the Supreme Court to stop this game. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, by an order dated July 27, 2007, stayed the Madras High Court division bench judgment and restored the original order banning jallikattu.

The legal battle raged on. The Tamil Nadu government, and the contestants and organisers of jallikattu filed a petition to vacate the Supreme Court stay order. This petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court on January 11, 2008. The court issued an order to continue the ban on jallikattu. “On January 13, the Tamil Nadu government again filed a review petition for modification and reconsideration of the order dated January 11 that kept the ban on jallikattu in place. The January 11 order was subsequently modified by another Supreme Court order dated January 15 that permitted jallikattu, on certain conditions,” says S.R. Sundaram, legal advisor to the Animal Welfare Board of India.

The latest Supreme Court order lays down 12 conditions for jallikattu to carry on. The Animal Welfare Board of India should be informed prior to arranging jallikattu and the organisers will have to take the district collector’s permission to conduct this game. “The Supreme Court also maintained that the Animal Welfare Board of India and its recognised animal welfare organisations should take photos and record the game on video,” says Sundaram. “If any violation of the norms is observed, the Animal Welfare Board of India will have to submit a report to the Supreme Court within two weeks from the date of the game.”

Quite apart from the central issue of animal cruelty in jallikattu as enumerated in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, public safety issues are involved. The Supreme Court has asked for double barricading the arena and fixed galleries for spectators viewing jallikattu. However, the dangers are still palpable. Last year the game saw one person killed and 65 people injured; this year almost 70 people have been hurt.

The latest Supreme Court order has drawn mixed reactions. The petitioners who sought to ban the game underline Section 11 of the PCA Act, 1960, which prevents cruel sports involving animals. However, Sanjay Upadhyay, managing partner of the Enviro Legal defence firm in Delhi, feels that the game could continue as long as regulations are adhered to. “It is also necessary to define what constitutes cruelty under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960,” he notes. But there is disappointment concerning the latest Supreme Court order too. “The latest order allowing jallikattu to continue does not take into consideration the suffering of the bulls and undermines the purpose and objective of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960,” says Raj Panjwani, a practising lawyer at the Supreme Court. His views are shared by Norma Alvarez, an advocate at the Bombay High Court who has legally stopped bull fights in Goa. “The Supreme Court order allowing the game of jallikattu to go on is a setback to the animal welfare movement in India since it will abet the abuse of animals in entertainment in other situations,” she says.

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, is still being flouted in other areas of animal entertainment. For example, buffalo fights are taking place in Assam where the animals are prodded and fed intoxicants to turn them violent. Even bird fights are popular in certain regions. Bulbul fights are staged in Hajo in Assam and cock fights at Kasargod in northern Kerala. “The PCA Act needs to be strengthened to prevent such sports,” says Sangeeta Goswami, chairperson of People for Animals, Assam. “The fines for violations are too low,” she adds.

But are prosecutions taking place regularly in situations where animals are abused in sport? “No,” replies Debasis Chakrabarti, founder of Compassionate Crusaders Trust, an animal welfare organisation in Calcutta. “The low fines prescribed in the law should never deter prosecution regarding animal abuse in sports since that would undermine the movement to eradicate cruelty to animals,” he adds. But until that happens and sports like jallikattu persist with legal blessing, humans and animals will continue to lock horns.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Good Fight

Jallikattu, or ‘the taming of the bull’, was in the thick of controversy over reports of animal cruelty. PC VINOJ KUMAR went to see things for himself

IT IS the morning of January 17 and Alanganallur wears the look of a typical Tamil village during festival time, complete with makeshift sweet stalls, film music blaring out of loudspeakers, and vendors by the roadside, hawking plastic wares. Many have come here, some from hundreds of kilometres away, to see Jallikattu — the taming of the bull. A bull is let loose in a ring full of men who try and mount it. If someone manages to climb on to the charging beast and hang on till the finishing line, the bull has been “tamed”.

Jallikattu has been a part of Tamil culture for a very long time — references to it can be found in 2,000-year-old texts from the Sangam Age — but the event made headlines across India this year when the Supreme Court banned it because of charges of cruelty to bulls. The apex court relented and lifted the ban less than 48 hours before the event was to begin.

Most houses in Alanganallur have prepared a feast for their guests — who are either participants or spectators — and are only too happy to invite strangers over for a meal. The walls are plastered with posters — politicians welcoming “brave Tamils” who have come to watch Jallikattu or politicians being thanked for supporting the event. There are also posters paying tributes to local boy Senthil Kumar, who lost his life in the arena three years ago. “If the sun rises, light comes/If the moon rises, night sets in/When we think of our friend/we think of valour,” the verse on the poster proclaims. The lines sum up the spirit behind Jallikattu.

“We all know there is an element of danger. But Jallikattu is part of our culture. People in these parts take pride in playing the sport as our ancestors have done for centuries. The brave tradition has to continue, come what may,” says 23-year-old S. Ambaal, who was in the ring when his friend Senthil was gored to death. He grieves for him, but to not participate is out of question.

When the event starts at 11 am, Ambaal is in the ring in blue T-shirt and shorts, along with his teammates from the local ‘bull catchers’ club. There are about 50 men in the ring, aged 18-30 years. The T-shirt and shorts have become mandatory, as has the alcohol test. It is strictly enforced and as a result some veteran players have not entered the ring this year. “The alcohol tests have finished their career,” our guide tells us.

The district collector, senior police officials and animal welfare activists watch the proceedings from a special gallery. The spectator stands are packed; thousands outside have been denied entry and are clamouring to get in. A voice on the PA system announces that the games have begun and the first bull charges into the arena.

“Don’t try catching it, it’s the temple bull,” announces the commentator. The men make way for the bull, which charges down the 200-metre stretch in a wild sprint. The crowd is on its feet as the first competitive bull enters the ring, and the players close in on the animal. The PA system crackles to life again as the referee reminds them of the new rules. “Don’t pull the bull’s tail. You’ll be disqualified if you do.” A contestant manages to hang on to the bull’s hump till the 30-feet mark and is declared the winner. If more than one person hangs onto the bull, nobody gets the prize.

It is a display of sheer bravado as the men take on the bulls. One wrong move, one slip, could result in death. Watching Jallikattu definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat. The commentator keeps up the players’ and spectators’ enthusiasm. “Ithu super maadu. Palamedu maadu. Pudichu paar.” (This is the super bull from Palamedu. Catch it if you can.) Prizes, sponsored by politicians and local bigwigs, are announced for every bull that enters the ring — gold coins, cots, vessels. If the bull is not caught, the prize goes to the bull’s owner.

GARY JONES, a British journalist, has come to cover the event. Jones has visited many villages in the region to find out more about Jallikattu. “If the sport is banned, it should be banned because it is dangerous to humans. The bull is a tough animal,” he says. “People love their bulls and they love the sport. To take away Jallikattu from the Tamil people would be like taking away the Tamil male’s manhood.”

Eirwen Pierrot is a tourist from London who has watched bullfights in Spain. She feels comparisons between the two are misplaced. “In Spanish bullfights, the bulls get killed. It’s very cruel on the bulls,” she says. Phillipa Wall, who is visiting from Australia, feels Jallikattu is fine as long as the organisers make sure no one gets hurt. What she doesn’t like though is the lack of proper toilets.

We head to where the bulls are awaiting their turn to enter the ring. A team of veterinarians is examining them. “We don’t allow
weak and under-aged animals. Bulls with sharp horns and those who have been smeared with chilly powder or any other irritant are also turned away,” says Dr SS Senthil Kumar. So far they have disqualified about 20 bulls. A short distance away, ambulances are at hand to take the injured to hospitals.

Seventy-eight-year-old Murugesan Servai’s bull has not lost once in the last three years. “He is like a child when outside the arena. But inside the ring, he is a different creature. He has won about 30 events till date. The players don’t dare to touch Murugesan Servai’s bull,” he says. He spends about Rs 70 a day to feed the bull. Its diet includes maize stems, cottonseed, groundnut-oil cakes, paddy husk, rice and five eggs daily. “People are offering to buy it for Rs 70,000. But I have no plans to sell him. He is part of our family,” he says.

NOT ALL bulls are owned by the rich. Twenty-two-year-old R. Bharathi from nearby Aiyur is a daily wage earner who fulfilled his life’s ambition when he bought a young bull for Rs 10,000. “I want to train him to become a winner. People should shudder at the sight of my bull,” he says. He says he spends about Rs 30 per day on the bull. The bulls are picked from an ordinary breed that local farmers rear mainly for their dung. “These bulls are aggressive by nature. We pick small calves soon after they are weaned and train them,” says P. Rajasekaran, who owns five bulls. As part of their training, the bulls are tied to a wooden stump with a long rope and made to spar with effigies made of paddy.

There are few injuries this year and none seem serious. Dr V. Ellappan, a representative of the Animal Welfare Board, was watching the event and gave it a clean chit. “The sport was conducted in a fair manner. There was no cruelty,” he said. Greater supervision and extra precautions seem to have paid off. It seems that Jallikattu is here to stay.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

AHATGURI (ASSAM): For hundreds of people in Assam it is a carnival, while for some it has all the elements of a full-scale battle. But the one-tonne buffaloes like it or not, have to lock horns and fight it out in the arena.

The stakes are not high but still the matadors goad and cajole their tame buffaloes to fight and win them a prize - a television set as the first prize in this event, a MP 3 player and a wall clock as the second and third prizes respectively.

The village of Ahatguri, 80 km east of Assam's main city of Guwahati, buzzed with activity Tuesday with the locals organizing the annual buffalo fight - a tradition that goes back centuries.

Some 150 buffaloes took part in the event. For the villagers, buffalo fights are an entertaining sport organized during Bihu, the weeklong Assamese harvest festival where traditional games accompanied by feasting mark the celebrations.

"Buffalo fights are a tradition here, organized for pure entertainment. It also acts as a meeting ground of people from all religious faiths," said Bubul Das, a former lawmaker from the opposition Asom Gana Parishad party.

The mood was one of festivity with hundreds of people thronging the fighting ring with drums and cymbals, coupled with hoarse cries of the keepers as they goaded their flamboyantly decked-up buffaloes with vermilion splashed over their bodies.

After initial song and dance and rituals performed by a village priest, the buffalo fight began - the trumpet blared with the promoters calling out to owners to bring their animals to the ring - a paddy field with spectators sitting in circles meters away.

"People are not bothered about winning or losing. The amount of thrill this sport provides to the people is what matters most," said Amber Nath, a 55-year-old peasant engaged in buffalo fights for the past three decades.

The fight turns aggressive at times with enraged buffaloes running amok, scaring spectators as they run for their lives.

"Apart from minor injuries we do not remember any major accidents during the event in living memory," Bhairav Bordoloi, a community elder, said.

For the locals, it is a matter of pride to bring their buffaloes to the fighting ring.

"I have been preparing for this event for the last one year, spending an estimated Rs.30,000 for the upkeep of the animal. For us the day is special," said Nur Zaman, a villager.