The end of animals as entertainment

The Madurai district administration's most recent move to make Aadhaar mandatory for all bull tamers participating in the annual Jallikattu celebrations is bittersweet. The authorities claimed that the move would help in managing large crowds at the celebrations in an efficient manner and at the same time put a check on illegal elements.

This step would go a long way in not just limiting the participation but also the eventual fatality of both bulls and bull tamers, they believed. The decision also placed greater liability on the participants, who would henceforth be unable to send 'proxy players' to play in their stead.

While the biometric tsunami of the Aadhaar project shreds the very idea of privacy and civil liberty, allowing countless government and non-government bodies the unlawful luxury of surveillance, in this case, it also served as a gatekeeper to the tyrannical practices of Jallikattu in the name of tradition.

This year, on one hand, the unruly 'sport' witnessed a 50% decrease in the participation of bull tamers, which hopefully indicates a growing consciousness amongst the participants. On the other, within a matter of days, this cruel spectacle claimed the lives of five spectators including a teenager and injured over 100, who got in the way of panicked, fleeing bulls.

While the authorities continue to insist that Jallikattu is played by the rules, we wonder what's the point of rules that don't protect humans and animals from injury or death?

In the name of tradition

In light of all these brutalities, Jallikattu points to an interplay between culture and tradition on one side and reform on the other. The moot point being, do we perpetrate brutality for the sake of tradition and culture?

Here is how the events transpired in a nutshell. In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) passed a notification banning the use of bulls as performing animals, thereby banning the event. The practice, however, continued under the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009, until 2014 when the Supreme Court struck down the state law, banning Jallikattu altogether.

Following the protests of January 2017, the Tamil Nadu government brought a state law in place that has legally allowed the practice to continue for now. These laws have currently been challenged at the Supreme Court by various animal rights organisations, including the FIAPO, and a Constitution bench is going to look into the validity of such laws.  

With the ban lifted, in no time the sport was back on track across the state. Unfortunately, the unprecedented move has had a ripple effect beyond the state's boundaries across a number of other Indian states where similar sports were banned along with Jallikattu in 2014 and are now threatening to re-emerge.

Shifting conscience

Amid all the elements of politics, drama and culture in the mix, the battle between the government, the judiciary, animal activists and upholders of Tamil tradition is far from over. The tete-a-tete does, however, reflect a shift in our collective conscience that astutely shuns barbarism in the name of tradition or sport.

The moral and cultural compass of our civilisation has broadened the horizon of what appears unjust today and the past few years are replete with examples of such incidents.

In 2009, Bolivia became the world's first country to ban the use of all animals in circuses; in 2011, Catalonia became the first Spanish city to ban bullfighting; in 2012, Greece became the second country, behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, to ban all animals from circuses; in 2015, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's announced that they will retire their circus elephants by 2018; the same year, Mexico banned the use of exotic animals for entertainment; lastly, in 2016, SeaWorld also announced that the current generation of Orcas will be their last.

The growing repository of cases banning the use of animals in entertainment, point to the medieval and archaic nature of such traditions whose time is nearing an inevitable end.

Hopefully, a decade or two from now, we will be able to view animal entrainment as a quaint hangover of the 20th century. Till then, we will keep our marching hats on and fight the battle for the days to come.

(The writer is Director, Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO))

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