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Tradition, culture or cruelty?

Rakesh Kumar |

What started as a peaceful protest to lift the ban on Jallikattu, the traditional sport of bull-taming played on the occasion of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, opened a veritable Pandora's Box. While political leaders, intellectuals, film actors, right wings activists as well as animal activists jumped into the fray, fiercely debating over animal rights versus tradition, a chorus has risen across the country to permit other animal sport as well. The protest at Marina Beach, which soon turned violent, may well be the precursor to legalise these games in the name of tradition and culture. 

While animal activists have documented the cruelty meted out to animals and the courts point to animal rights under Indian law, those promoting these animal sports, some of which are being played for centuries, insist they helped preserve some of the Indian breeds, which have been driven to the brink of extinction. 

Animal rights activists and organisations, including PETA (People for Ethical Treatnent of Animals), have opined that sport involving animals is cruel as they are goaded to perform. Animals being raced, including bulls and bullocks, are whipped to get them to run fast. Those pitted against each other often fight to the finish. What kind of sports are these in this age of technology, the animal lovers wonder. 

What emerged from this entire debate was that animals became the talking point. The big question now is how far will animals become part of festivities? How long one will animals be used to showcase emotions? What about the emotion of animals? Jallikattu is just such festival sport, but there are many such festivals in India, leave alone the world, where animals are used as a pawn. While some activists call for a total ban, others insist regulation is the way to go and ensure no cruelty is meted out. 

Hoards of festivals 

Jallikattu, celebrated across Tamil Nadu on the second day of Pongal, was described as "Yeru thazhuvuthal", which means embracing the bull. The word, Jallikattu comes from salli or jalli (coins) and kattu (bag), which refers a bag of coins, which was tied to the bull's horns and the winner had to retrieve. It has been part of their tradition and culture, and celebrated across the state on the second day of Pongal. 

What was traditionally full of fun and gaiety, has now turned into a big-money sport. Bulls are specially trained and as they balk at the sight of a cheering crowd, are goaded to run. Animal activists have recorded instances of forcing alcohol down the throat of the animal, chilli powder rubbed into its eyes and tail twisted or even bitten.  

What many people may not realise is that almost every Indian state has some or the other festival, where animals are part of celebrations. Listed here are some of the major ones: 

Cart race 

Kambala is a buffalo race, very popular in South Karnataka. In this two buffaloes are tied to a plough and raced as a team across paddy fields filled with slush and mud. Traditionally a non-competitive race, the Kambala season starts in November and lasts until March and is held annually in coastal Karnataka as well as parts of Kerala. The use of whips to race the buffaloes has been criticised. With the Supreme Court in 2014 banning use of bulls and buffaloes as performing animals, this sport too came under the scan. The state high court on  18 November, 2016, passed an interim stay order stopping all Kambala events in the state. 

Bullock cart racing is also held in Maharashtra and is very popular in Marathwada, Konkan and Western Maharasthra. The festival goes back around 450 years back, but unlike Tamil Nadu, does not have any link with any festival. Besides, bull/bullock/ox or even horse cart racing are held in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh during Pola, parts of Gujarat, at cattle fairs in Uttar Pradesh and in villages of West Bengal on Dasami day. 
Cock fights 

This blood sport was also highlighted over the last few months as it is mainly indulged in during Sankranti festival in Andhra Pradesh. Stakes run into hundreds of crores of rupees as two roosters lash out at each other. Sharp blades are tied to the legs and it usually ends with the vanquished getting killed. 

There is evidence of cock-fighting in the Indus Valley Civilization and was a popular sport in China, Persia and ancient Greece. In India now, cock-fight is  a gambling game and can also be seen in Karnataka, Kerala and Jharkhand. Indian judiciary has banned the sport though it is still conducted illegally. 
Bulbul fights 

Organised during the harvest festival of Assam, Bhogali Bihu, which coincides with Makar Sankranti, bulbuls are fed with intoxicating concoctions to make them aggressive and fight. The birds sustain injuries during the fight and losers are let off after trimming the crest so that they do not enter a contest again. There is no betting on the fights. This very popular sport has now been banned by the courts. 
Dog fight 

This is a blood sport that came into India mainly from medieval Europe through Afghanistan. It is now surreptiously organised in farm houses on the outskirts of Delhi. Two game dogs are pitted against one another for the entertainment of the spectators. The dogs are kept in cages, without food for days on end, angering and maddening them and are then unleashed on each other. They are made to fight till one of them dies. Bets of lakhs are placed on the winning dog. The blood sport is banned but despite a few arrests, the popularity of the sport hasn't decreased. 

In the Vadakkumnatha Temple, Thrissur, festival an elephant procession is held. Activists points out that a lot of atrocities is meted out to the pachyderms ~ they are shackled in chains throughout the day before taking them to the parade. At times, the bustling crowd, loud music and fireworks create extreme stress. The same was true of the Jaipur Elephant Festival. Fortunately, however, the festival was banned a few years back but usage of elephants haven't been stopped. Now they are used to ferry tourists in Amber fort situated in Jaipur. 
What the law says 

India has one of the toughest animals rights laws in the world. The Animal Welfare Board of India have listed out certain dos and donts to ensure the rights of animals. Under article 51A (g) it is the Fundamental Duty of every citizen to have compassion for all living creatures. To kill or maim any animal, including stray animals, is a punishable offence. Abandoning any animal for any reason can land one in prison for up to three months. Neglecting an animal is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to three months or both. 

Monkeys, bears, tigers, panthers, lions and bulls are prohibited from being trained and are protected under the Wildlife Law and cannot be displayed or owned or used for entertainment purposes. Animal sacrifice is illegal in every part of the country. 

But then, they say, laws are made to be broken. Animal rights activists say if government had stuck to these rules and regulation, the situation would have been far better. One didn't have to wait court orders. "Have you ever heard of anyone being punished because of hampering animal rights? No," asserted an activist. 
To ban or not to 

Fighting for animals rights is not new in the country. It has been done for years by different organisation like PETA, PFA (People for Animals) run by Maneka Gandhi, FIAPO and many others. At times, court also played a vital role. For instance, the Jallikattu verdict by Supreme Court in 2014, disallowing bulls to be allowed as performing animals. The court has also asked Parliament to give more teeth to the animal right rules. "Elevate rights of animals to that of Constitutional rights, as done by many of the countries around the world, so as to protect their dignity and honour," the court has said. 

A member of PETA said in an e-mail interaction, "PETA India's motto is, in part, that animals are not ours to use for entertainment. That's because animals, like humans, have the capacity to feel pain and do not want to suffer, and it is our moral duty not to cause them harm. Animals are not willing participants in spectacles like jallikattu, elephant processions and rides and so on and so violence is used to force them to take part." 

Other animal rights NGOs also shared their concern at using animals during festivals. Arpan Sharma, director, external affairs, FIAPO said, "Using of animals in religious festivities, religious sacrifice, warfare, entertainment, experimentation, luxuries such as leather, and so on, needs to be stopped." 
 Stating that between 2008-2014, not only bulls died but also over 5,000 people got injured and 43 died in

Jallikattu events from panicked bulls trying to flee,  the PETA activist said, "With changing times, culture and tradition must evolve to ensure no animals or humans are harmed. Animals are not natural or willing performers or participants in these spectacles: they are forced to perform un-natural tricks and actions through the use of violence." 

According to figures compiled by the Heritage Animal Task Force, captive elephants have killed more than 526 people in Kerala within a span of 15 years alone. 

 The anti-ban argument to allow this festival to take place is employment to locals. Be it bull fight, bullock cart race, cock fights or others, they provide employment, the promoters claim. Farmers provide extra attention to the animal and if the ban is enforced, there will be no incentive to hold on to the bulls or any other animal. Tamil Nadu has six native breeds, one of them called Alambadi, which is extinct, and others will also follow suit, they say. Moreover, Jallikattu and bullock cart racing maintain a healthy male-to-female ratio of native cattle.  The case now rests.