Jallikattu: The Pith and Science Behind Legalities


The mishaps in the recent Jallikattu events come with a fear of the sport being banned again over the poor conduct and not necessarily owing to the essence of the sport. The petitioners who are seeking a ban on the sport remarked, …“A binding judgment [Nagaraja judgment] cannot be rendered ineffective by enactment of legislation that substantially overrules the intended effect of the judgment.”…

At this juncture, a reading of the Nagaraja judgment reveals a lot about the skewed data that the SC had been provided with, by the petitioners.

On What Grounds?Are the Reasons Right?

Para 33 of the judgment of the Supreme Court in the Animal Welfare Board of India Versus A. Nagaraja&Ors. claimed that the bulls are incapable of participating in Jallikattu.

The very little documentation that has been recorded of our indigenous breeds have been done from an economic perspective – their milk producing capacity, draught power etc. Having said that, to pass a judgment based on cherry-picked dossiers is contemptible.Such instances evoke the need for data collection and research that are specific to our breeds thereby diminishing our reliance on data connected to the more broader term ‘cattle’.

Para 33 revolves markedly around the comparison of the features of a horse to that of a bull. Modern day horses are single-toed, while bulls have split hoof and are two-toed. This adaptation helps the horse run faster and longer in open places, while the bull’s adaptation allows it to maneuver wet and muddy places.

However, the general bone structure of a horse’s hoof is very identical to that of a cow, except that the horse only has one set of bones, as opposed to the two claws of a bovine hoof. The two-toed adaptation of the bull does not greatly impede its ability to run, as it is quite evident in other two-toed animals like antelope, deer, goat, etc. One must also bear in mind that a Jallikattu participant is required to hold on to a running bull for a maximum of 15 metres or 30 seconds or sustain three jumps of the bull. All of which fall well within the capabilities of a bull.

The Bosindicus breeds, also called Zebu, are cattle that have adapted and are indigenous to the tropical regions. Their distinguishing phenotypic trait is their hump. These cattle have a narrow body that is compact and small, enabling them to be agiler.  Furthermore, the Jallikattu breeds are draught breeds and not milch breeds, meaning they are “sleek bodied” as noted by British museologist Edgar Thurston in Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 1909.

A report titled “Study on the Physical and Productive Characteristics of Pulikulam Breed of Cattle and Katchaikatty Sheep”, by Madras Veterinary College, concludes that the Pulikulam breed’s barrel is medium in length, well ribbed and compact.

The temperament of a bull is also a point worth highlighting owing to the allegation of the bulls being subject to fear. The aforementioned report describes the Pulikulam breed as semi-wild, also adding that the young bulls were often unapproachable.

A handbook titled “Cattle Handling Skills”, by an Animal Behavior Consultant, Massey University, reports the humped breed of cattle to be very mobile, more difficult to draft than other breeds, easily excitable with a tendency to charge at people and fences hence requiring larger yards.

The Question of Treating Animals and Animal Rights

When there is a question raised on cruelty, there are two points that need to be addressed. Excesses committed while playing the sport by participants and bull-owners and in ancillary activities like betting. Both the supporters of the sport and the animal rights activists jointly acknowledge this. The next is the sport in itself and the way it is played. To get to the core of the issue, the idea of animal rights needs to be revisited with a different viewpoint.

One of the famous proponents of Animal Rights is Peter Singer. In the pursuit for an abolition of acts of cruelty to animals, he promoted the concept of human ‘speciesism’ i.e., assumption of human superiority over animals and regarded it to be the reason behind such acts of cruelty. Though he highlights the necessity of differences between human and animal rights, his inclination towards utilitarianism makes him equate human beings and animals on the lines of pain and suffering. Towards the end, he categorically affirms his stance against any act that would cause pain to an animal thereby forwarding the notion of treating unequals equally.

The positive aspect of the Utilitarian theory is that it highlights the wrongs and cruelties that the animals face. On the flip side, it squeezes multifarious aspects of lives – human or animal – into experiences of pain and pleasure. The flaw is not with the theory or any theory per se, but the idea of holding onto one theory alone in an immensely diverse society.

At this juncture, we wish to present a different viewpoint to address the issue of animal rights i.e., the Capabilities Approach proposed by Amartya Sen and forwarded by Martha Nussbaum. The theory takes into account the capability of an animal and moves on to argue that tapping the innate capability of an animal to do something that has positive ramifications is not wrong. In fact, not allowing the animal to perform such functions is held to be wrong. When clubbed with the already prevalent utilitarian theory, the capabilities approach offers us an opportunity to understand and establish a framework that addresses the complexity of the relationship between humans and animals.

The absence of an alternative conservation mechanism and the number-oriented breeding techniques followed by our government further the need for the continuance of the sport under a well-regulated environment. The idea of ethical treatment of animals is a key constituent of a progressive society. Parties concerned should engage themselves in a debate to arrive at a common ground in terms of the extent to which the idea of ethical treatment is viable in today’s world.

This is vital because we are a society of different kinds of people and it is important that we are respectful of one another. Coexistence involves compromises. The quality of a society depends on whether the compromises are made bilaterally or if they are just imposed on one by the other.

Vignesh Karthik KR

Research Consultant, Office of Prof. Rajeev Gowda, M.P (RajyaSabha)

M.A. in Modern India, King’s College, London

[email protected]

VigneshKarthik is a policy analyst with a special interest in politics and identities in democratic societies. He has a keen interest in exploring the space of environmental friendly methods while planning for the public at large. He is a volunteer at Farm2Food Foundation (Guwahati, Assam), an organization thatengages with the next generation of the North East to enable them to become farm and food entrepreneurs. His interests include travel, philosophy and food.


Ajay Chandra Vasagam

Research Assistant, IIT Madras

B.E. in Electronics and Communication, Panimalar Engineering College, Chennai

[email protected]

Ajay is an electronics and communications engineer with fondness towards providing more and more people access to technological solutions to their problems. He also teaches a group of underprivileged children in Chennai to help them pass their secondary and senior secondary examinations. In the next few weeks he will be joining Indian Institute of Management, Amritsar to pursue his masters programme. His interests include singing, travel and art films.

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