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Jallikattu continues to claim lives, new investigation reveals

A recent report by Elsa Foundation reveals that the sport has led to the death of 102 people and 20 bulls since 2017

The Supreme Court reserved its judgement in December 2022 after a final hearing on the matter of banning Jallikattu. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Supreme Court reserved its judgement in December 2022 after a final hearing on the matter of banning Jallikattu. (Wikimedia Commons)

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In 2004, promising 18-year-old Dalit artist N Marimuthu went to see the Alanganallur jallikattu, a bull-taming sport, in Madurai district to do a sketch of the event. As a bull ran into the spectator area, Marimuthu was gored to death. His death was followed by uproar against the sport with his father, A Nagaraja filing a petition in Madras High Court asking for a ban against Jallikattu. The sport has a long history of legal battles with a five-judge Supreme Court Constitutional Bench hearing the final arguments last year. 

While the Court has reserved its judgment, supporters have claimed that deaths are a thing of the past as stricter rules have been implemented. However, the latest investigative report, Jallikattu Cult - Politics, Facts, Killings & Covid Deaths by Elsa Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on research and publications on social and biodiversity conservation issues, has revealed that the sport has led to the death of 102 people and 20 bulls since 2017.

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The many legal battles

In Jallikattu, a bull-taming sport also known as Eruthazhuvuthal or Manjuvirattu in Tamil, participants attempt to tame a bull for a prize and if they fail, the bull owner takes home the prize. The event is conducted during the harvest season of Pongal in January and is said to date back to almost 2000 years ago, a claim challenged by the investigative report which states that the current form was developed about 80 years ago. Although the gruesome nature of the sport and the severe injuries sustained by the bulls, tamers, and spectators have been voiced loudly and repeatedly over the years through protests and petitions, the Jallikattu enthusiasts have opposed all bans, citing the sport as an important Tamil tradition. 

The legal battle has been a long one with constant back and forth. On March 26, 2006, following Nagarajan’s petition, Justice R. Banumathi banned all kinds of bull races including Jallikattu and rekla race (bullock-cart race). However, this ban was short-lived as the state government found a way to reintroduce the sport through the Tamil Nadu Regulation of the Jallikattu Act of 2009. In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forest issued a notice that bulls cannot be used as performing animals. 

Following this, in a landmark judgement in 2014, the Supreme Court upheld animal rights and stated that Jallikattu amounted to cruelty to bulls and banned all bull taming and racing events in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra. In 2016, the Centre revoked the 2011 notification, the basis for the ban on Jallikattu. 

Massive protests broke out in Chennai in 2017 asking for the ban to be revoked, aided by TV channels that telecasted “several provocating interviews, talk shows and debates in support of Jallikattu,” the investigative report states. The then temporary Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu O Panneerselvam passed the Jallikattu Bill in the Tamil Nadu Assembly to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and allow the conduct of Jallikattu. The bill was unanimously passed in the Assembly, a move that was strongly condemned by animal rights activists and it was alleged that this was done for political gains.

Last year, multiple petitions were filed in the Supreme Court asking for a ban and the pleas were heard by a five-judge Constitution bench headed by Justice K M Joseph. When senior advocate Shyam Divan who appeared for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) showed news reports and photographs of causalities and called it a “blood sport,” as reported by Hindustan Times. The bench called out the reference and said, “Just because death occurs, it doesn’t mean that it is a blood sport.” 

The bench also compared Jallikattu to mountaineering. “Even mountaineering is dangerous. People die while climbing mountains, so do we stop people from climbing mountains? You cannot stop the adventure spirit in man.”

This argument by the Court can be questioned. When people climb mountains or play sports such as football or cricket, they have agency and voice in making decisions that affect their lives. In a sport like Jallikattu, the animals lack agency and are used in a sport that often causes them severe injuries if not death. 

Main findings of the investigative report

The investigative report calls the Manjuvirattu and Eruthu Vidum Vila (Vizha) forms of Jallikattu “problematic” and states that they 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 public. According to the report, the lack of arena space and bull collection yard as well as no designated tamers compromises public safety. The data presented reveal that 80% of the killed people are spectators or people walking in the streets. 

The report reveals that victims’ families have not received any compensation and they live below the poverty line and struggle to manage day-to-day expenses. For instance, Jeeva was killed in Vadamalapur, Pudukottai Jallikattu in 2018. His wife has to work as a contract-based labourer in the street garbage cleaning team to provide daily food for her three children.

The bulls are subjected to practices such as ear-cropping wherein the ears are cut with three-fourths of the external ear pinna absent. This is done so that they can hear sounds even from the back which was challenged by the report stating that it inhibits their ability to hear natural sounds and causes extreme pain and distress. They are also taken to several new unfamiliar venues and villages, and as they run for their lives trying to exit the arena, they often cause chaos and injure people or get hit by vehicles or fall into wells. Other cruelties stated in the report include attacking the bulls with knives and pulling the nose rope causing severe bleeding, severe injuries, and broken horns. Since 2017, 20 bulls have been killed.

The report also emphases that the sport has been kept active for political motives citing it as Tamil culture which is a false claim promoted by media reports. It also highlights corruption at the events. For instance, at a Jallikattu event in 2019, a maximum of 800 bulls can participate during the eight hours of the scheduled event but government officials registered 1380 bulls. About 450 tokens, issued to the bull owners as an authorisation to let their bulls into the arena, were taken by officials illegally, as reported by Dinakaran Tamil Daily and translated by the researchers. These tokens were taken by VIPs who did not own bulls and were sold for 5000 each. 

Casteism and patriarchy in Jallikattu

The ‘prize’ mentioned earlier, well, that used to be a woman, masked as her hand in marriage, according to a The Wire article The showcase of masculinity was an attempt to show authority and women didn’t have the opportunity to challenge this objectification. As any sport or event focused on the performance of masculinity, Jallikattu has problematic patriarchal roots that have been called out over the years. 

Dalits have been ignored and forced out of the sport. Earlier this year, a bull raised by Dalits was not allowed to participate in the Palamedu Jallikattu, as reported by The South First. In 2019, when Dalit men took part in the Jallikattu event held in Adavathur, Trichy and tamed bulls that belonged to caste Hindu members, a group within the caste Hindu community, reportedly attacked Dalit homes in the area, as reported by The News Minute. Dalit activists such as Puthiya Tamizhagam leader K Krishnaswamy and Dalit writer Stalin Rajangam have spoken against the casteist nature of Jallikattu. 

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