Animal welfare in India; a long way to go: the Jallikattu Story

The 2019 Malayalam movie Jallikattu created quite a buzz when it became India’s official entry into the 2021 Oscars. Critics both domestically[1] and internationally[2] were high in praise about the storyline, the cinematography, the message and the ultimate delivery of it all of the film. However, the plotline of the film has nothing to do with the preceding fight of animal rights activists, the controversial bans on the sport Jallikattu by the Supreme Court, the tussle between the center govt. and the state govt. and the power of the people. This article is a rundown of the events which led to the ban of the event Jallikattu and how one state came together to protect their ‘cultural tradition’. The story of Jallikattu in India is indeed deserving of a film to be made on it to show the real madness of the incidents that transpired.

What is Jallikattu?

Jallikattu is a bull-taming sport which takes place during the festivities of Pongal. This harvest festival is a celebration of the hard working farmers and traces its origins from ancient Tamil period around 400-100 BC. Jallikattu is a colloquial corrupted version of the word ‘Sallikkattu’. ‘Sallie’ means coins and ‘Kattu’ refers to the small cloth bag used to carry money, still used by many. Bulls of a specific variety, which are specially breed for this event are let out into a crowd of participant who try to hug the hump of the bull in an attempt to stop the bull from running away or at least try to. Whoever is successful in doing this, wins the money. Since it has such historical roots, it also holds immense cultural significance.

Animal Rights organizations’ opposition

Anial rights organization like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Federation of the India Animal Protection had been fighting to put an end to the sport of Jallikattu since 2004. Claiming animal cruelty, such welfare organization have continuously worked towards putting a restriction on the ‘barbaric’ sport. They allege that the bulls are often abused, assaulted, intoxicated in order to agitate them further for the entertainment of people. Claims have been made that the rearers of the bulls rum lime juice and chilli powder into the animal’s eyes and genitals to agitate them, stab them with knives and sticks during the sport. All such in humane practices causing immense suffering of the animals is simply not acceptable[3]. The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) filed a case in the Supreme Court calling into question on the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act and urged the SC to put a ban on Jallikattu for cruelty meted out against animals and the threat it poses to public safety since between 2008-14 the death of 43 humans and bulls were caused because of this extreme sport[4].

Supreme Court on Jallikattu

In 2010 the SC directed District Collectors to ensure that animals to participate in Jallikattu are registered with the Animal Welfare Board and allowed AWBI representative to be present during the event of Jallikattu. However, following this in 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests banned the use of bulls for sport. Therefore, placing a ban on Jallikattu in contradiction to the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act 2009 which enable people to carry on Jallikattu without any restrictions. In 2014, the SC struck down the Tamil Nadu 2009 Jallikattu Act, thereby banning the sport and unleashed the sequence of events which came next. The judgement held that flouting orders of the SC would attract violations under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 as the activities of Jallikattu are ‘inherently cruel’ and bulls should not need to undergo such ‘unnecessary pain and suffering’. In 2016 just before Tamil Nadu assembly elections, the central government sought to reverse the ban by placing certain conditions. However, the SC re-enforced its ban on Jallikattu the same year in July. This triggered massive protests all over Tamil Nadu. In 2017 again, there was an urgent plea in the SC just before Pongal seeking permission to hold Jallikattu for that year. Again, the court rejected the plea and Jallikattu was once again not conducted, angering the people of Tamil Nadu. Therefore, people just stopped listening to the court and conducted Jallikattu anyway. It was held in several states, especially in Madhurai where people were arrested in large numbers and the protest which was limited to the rural areas slowly started to find pace in the cities where students, movie stars, politicians, salaried professions and even sports persons all came out in support of lifting the ban of Jallikattu[5].

What did the protestors have to say?

The issue of Jallikattu was not seen from an objective-just a sport which might turn violent sometimes-perspective by the Jallikattu proponents. Pro-Jallikattu proponents demanded for freedom to conduct Jallikattu because it is considered as an important cultural identity of the Tamil people. Further, their argument was that the bulls which were breed only for the sport were pure-breed native bulls and in modern times when breeding is majorly an artificial process, Jallikattu is a way to protect these male animals who are otherwise only used for meat, other agricultural and transportation requirements[6]. It was also contended that the understanding of animal rights activists is wrong and that the bulls are actually treated well and farmers have always respected their animals[7].

Supreme Court on Jallikattu (contd.)

Following the 2017 re-enforcement on the ban on Jallikattu, the protests spread like wildfire. Marina beach in Chennai became the hotspot for protestors, who were mostly students in the frontlines. The protests were compared to the violent demonstrations of the 1960s when Hindi was made the official language of India[8]. Following such distress among the public, the Tamil Nadu govt. passed an amendment to the central government’s prevention of cruelty to animals act 1960 to allow Jallikattu and effectively overturning the decisions of the SC after it was approved by the president. Today Jallikattu stands legal again and even amid the current Covid surge, the event is set to be held in a few days as a part of the Pongal celebrations[9].

Thoughts and conclusion

The issue which I think needs to be highlighted the most is that the students support in making Jallikattu legal again was revolutionary. Students’ voices have immense impact in bringing about change in the political economy. It gives me goosebumps to think about the power of people. However, what the people stand for is the most important. The event of Jallikattu was not seen through the lens of animal cruelty but through the lens of the need to preserve and protect the Tamil culture. A matter of pride. But that is not what the animal activists were fighting for. Adding to that, the Jallikattu issue was just not the only issue that the people were angry about, it was a trigger point. People were frustrated about demonetization, the controversy regarding the recent judicial decision which made it compulsory to play the national anthem in theatres and the audiences to stand when it is played. There were protests ongoing about the establishment of a nuclear plant in the state and the angered farmers who were not getting water and living in drought-hit conditions because of not being able to get their share of water from a river they shared with their neighboring state of Karnataka. It was caused because of the anxieties, distrust and threat that the people of Tamil Nadu felt from the govt. and the judiciary[10]. The actual topic of animal welfare had been lost, the battle of animal rights activists did not get the conclusion that they hoped for. India despite having an anti-cruelty statute for animals, despite a country which supposedly ‘worships’ animals is miles away from establishing a safe environment for them. Selective protection and ‘worship’ does not establish animal security.


[1] S.R. Praveen, ‘Jallikattu review: An immersive, primal experience that words cannot replicate’ (TheHindu 4 October 2019) < https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/jallikattu-review-an-immersive-primal-experience-that-words-cannot-replicate/article29595627.ece>

[2] Namrata Joshi , ‘Lijo Jose Pellissery’s rural fable Jallikattu runs riot in Toronto’ (TheHindu 7 september 2019) https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/lijo-jose-pellisserys-rural-fable-jallikattu-runs-riot-in-toronto/article29363134.ece

[3] Sanya Dhingra, ‘Jallikattu begins today- the ‘barbaric sport that celebrates hard-working Tamil farmers’ (Theprint 15 January 2020) https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/jallikattu-begins-today-the-barbaric-sport-that-celebrates-hard-working-tamil-farmer/349508/

[4] Ibid .

[5] Vikram Venkateshwaran, ‘ Jallikattu: What, How and Why- The History of A Contested Sport’ (TheQuint 16 Jan 2019) https://www.thequint.com/videos/jallikattu-pongal-alanganallur-history-origins-protests-peta#read-more

[6] Swaminathan Natrajan, ‘Jallikattu: Why India bullfighting ban ‘threatens native breeds’ (BBC News 19 July 2016) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-36798500

[7] Soutik Biswas, ‘Why India bull-taming protest may not be just about bulls’ (BBC News 21 January 2017) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-38687248

[8] See note 3

[9] ‘TN government allows Jallikattu events despite COVID-19 surge’ (The Hindu 10January 2022)  https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/tn-government-allows-jallikattu-events-despite-covid-19-surge/article38216715.ece

[10] See note 7

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