Animal Welfare Board of India chair R.M. Kharb & vice-chair Chinny Krishna refuse to quit
NEW DELHI, CHENNAI––Animals may be killed and injured by the hundreds of thousands during the 2016 Indian harvest festivals, January 12-18, but the mayhem may not proceed with government approval, ruled a two-judge bench representing the Supreme Court of India on January 12, 2016.
Justices Dipak Misra and N.V. Ramana acted in specific response to a January 8, 2016 attempt by the Indian federal government, headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to reinstitute jallikattu, a traditional harvest festival event in Tamil Nadu state which might best be described as participatory bullfighting.
Bulbul fights stopped too
The ruling came on the same day that the Gauhati High Court in Guwahati, Assam invoked a 2014 Supreme Court of India verdict against jallikattu to enjoin the Hayagrib Madhab Mandir temple at Hajo from celebrating the harvest festival, called Magh Bihu in that region, by hosting bulbul fights. Bulbuls are small songbirds who are captured from the wild and made to fight by tethering them together with a silk thread.
A similar ruling based on the 2014 jallikattu Supreme Court of India jallikattu verdict kept the temple from hosting bulbul fights in 2015.
The word jallikattu is derived from two Tamil words: calli, meaning coins, and kattu, meaning a package. The term jallikattu is also used to mean “testicles.”
Jallikattu contestants try to untie a bag of coins strung between a bull’s horns. Hundreds of men may surround each bull, while dozens or even hundreds of bulls may be released into the streets as part of each jallikattu competition.
Both bulls and men are often hurt. At least 21 people were killed and 1,614 injured during jallikattu events in January 2009 alone.
Surplus bull calves
Historically jallikattu was practiced, like other forms of bullfighting, as a means of disposing of surplus bull calves. This has been a perpetual problem in India since Vedic times. Currently about three times as many cows are impregnated in India each year as in the U.S. to produce somewhat less milk, yet selling unwanted male calves to slaughter is either legally prohibited or discouraged in all but two of the 29 Indian states.
Ironically, jallikattu proponents today argue that jallikattu is essential to encourage cattle breeders to keep bulls of native Indian cattle varieties that are no longer favored in milk production.
List of animals banned from performance
Banned in 2007 by a two-judge Supreme Court of India panel, jallikattu was reinstated in 2008 by a three-judge panel, but that ruling was overturned after the mayhem in 2009.
The jallikattu ban was then reinforced in 2011 when former minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh accepted the recommendation of the Animal Welfare Board of India that bulls should be added to the list of animals who may not be used in public performances, including jallikattu and bullock cart racing, an also brutal pastime frequently practiced during harvest festivals.
Also on the list of animals banned from performance use are lions, tigers, leopards, panthers, bears, and monkeys.
Bullock cart racers
Bullock cart racers challenged the addition of bulls to the list, but “The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960…in our view overshadows or overrides so-called tradition and culture,” ruled a two-judge panel representing the Supreme Court of India on May 7, 2014.
Reviving jallikattu as a political issue was the rivalry between two Tamil Nadu regional political parties in the months leading toward an election that is expected to be called for mid-to-late April 2016.
Tamil Nadu politics
The ruling party, headed by former actress J. Jayalalithaa, sought unsuccessfully to reinstitute jallikattu. After Jayalalithaa failed, the leading Tamil Nadu minority party, aligned with the federal Bharatiya Janata Party, tried to upstage Jayalalithaa by prevailing on the Ministry for Environment & Forests to administratively remove bulls from the list of animals who may not be used in performance.
This was done on January 7, 2016.
As well as authorizing jallikattu to proceed in Tamil Nadu, removing bulls from the list of protected species allowed bullock cart racing to resume in six other states: Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Punjab.
North & south
But the federal edict allowing jallikattu to resume had barely been issued when Animal Welfare Board of India chair R.M. Kharb and vice chair Chinny Krishna appealed to the Supreme Court of India, in a situation depicted by pro-jallikattu politicians as a conflict between the cultures of the Indian north and south.
The appearance of the issue as a north/south conflict was whetted when Supreme Court of India Justice R. Banumathi, a Tamil Nadu native and former member of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in Chennai, India, recused herself from hearing the appeal.
Banumathi, however, recused herself not to avoid any suspicion that she might favor Tamil Nadu, but rather because, as Krishna remembered, “Justice Bhanumathi was the first judge to ban jallikattu, many, many years ago,” in the March 2006 case that led to the 2007 Supreme Court ruling.
“Justice delayed is justice denied”
Fumed Krishna, “That the whole lifting of the ban is a political exercise and aimed at the next elections in Tamil Nadu a few months away is obvious. We know that justice will finally triumph, but we also know that justice delayed is justice denied. The bulls waited for 50 years for the Supreme Court to finally rule that we were indeed right when we interpreted the most obvious statement in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act banning animal fights to include jallikattu. Do we have to wait even longer now?”
Allegations of northern cultural prejudice against the Indian south have had political currency in India since 1965, when the federal government made Hindi the national language, even though it is rarely spoken in the southern and eastern regions where Tamil, Telegu, and Bengali prevail. English is the one language commonly spoken in all parts of India.
Belying the claim that opposition to jallikattu arises from northern cultural prejudice is the reality that the Animal Welfare Board of India is based in Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital city.
Kharb & Krishna refuse to resign
The Indian federal government, under Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, who comes from the Hindi-speaking northern state of Rajasthan, reportedly demanded the resignations of both Kharb and Krishna.
Kharb, heading the Animal Welfare Board of India since June 2006, retired from the Indian army veterinary corps with the rank of major general. Krishna, one of the architects of the Indian space program, has directed the Chennai-based Blue Cross of India since 1964. Both Kharb and Krishna have deep personal roots in Tamil Nadu; Krishna’s family is known to have resided in Tamil Nadu since the earliest surviving written records from the region.
Kharb and Krishna both refused to resign.
“Ahimsa is part of our culture”
Explained Krishna to Firstpost, “The AWBI chair and vice-chair are at par [in political rank] with a Minister of State,” meaning that that they have no obligation to resign in response to a ministerial request.
“The Indian constitution enshrines that we should have compassion towards all living creatures,” Krishna continued. “We are the only country in the world to have an Animal Welfare Board,” with a constitutional mandate to protect animals as well as to regulate human economic use of animals.
“Ahimsa is part of our culture,” Krishna emphasized. “People are talking about how jallikattu is not as bad as bullfights in Spain. I don’t care about bullfighting in Spain! Do you want to bring yourself down to the level of bullfighting in Spain or do you want to move up to the level of Ashoka, Buddha, and Mahatma Gandhi?
But Krishna acknowledged a political conflict in that the Animal Welfare Board of India is funded by the Ministry of Forests & Environment, albeit that the board members serve without compensations.
“We are the only statutory body in government whose office bearers don’t take a penny as salary,” Krishna said. “We do this job because we believe in the cause.”
Post-verdict, Krishna saw as “The first task” before the AWBI as “to get funding from the Consolidated Fund of India and not through some ministry. We are hopeful that this is in the works,” Krishna said, despite the likelihood that the embarrassed federal government may now be unlikely to want to do the AWBI any favors.
Jayalalithaa tries again
Jayalalithaa, meanwhile, responded to the Supreme Court of India verdict by appealing to prime minister Modi “to promulgate an ordinance forthwith to enable the conduct of jallikattu,” exactly what the Supreme Court panel had ruled that the Modi government had no authority to do.
The Supreme Court of India panel directed the various factions seeking to reinstate jallikattu and bullock cart racing to prepare arguments for a further hearing on the constitutionality of prohibiting the use of bulls as performing animals. The hearing, however, is unlikely to be scheduled before the Tamil Nadu election, and in any event the court has already repeatedly spoken to the issue.
The conflict over jallikattu was only one of many involving animals that have recurred for decades in each harvest festival season.
Called Makar Sankranti in the mostly Hindi-speaking states of the north India, Pongal in the mostly Tamil-speaking states, and Sulia Yatra in rural Odisha state, formerly called Orissa, Indian harvest festivals in regions where jallikattu and bullock cart racing are not the focal entertainments often feature fighter kite-flying contests, animal sacrifice, and cockfighting and other bird fights.
The vast majority of people in most of India have not practiced animal sacrifice since Vedic times, but the custom persists among several Hindu sects and among the “unscheduled castes” or “tribal” people of many rural regions, despite growing opposition even from local religious leadership.
Reported the Odisha Post News Network on January 12, 2016, “The roads of Khairguda village under Tushra block in Bolangir district turned a tinge of red as thousands of animals and birds were sacrificed at the Sulia shrine. The animal sacrifice was carried out notwithstanding the head priest Biranchi Narayan Kuanr’s attempts to stop the menace.”
Kuanr, as managing trustee of the shrine, appealed unsuccessfully to civic authorities and police to help him stop the killing. Altogether, residents of 11 villages in the Bolangir district participated in sacrificing animals.
Cockfighting claimed as religious rite
Similar sacrifices proceeded in other rural districts around India, protected by the guarantee of freedom of religion in the Indian constitution. Cockfighting, banned as a secular gambling pastime, is commonly practiced in and around temples in Odisha state, in particular, as a purportedly also protected religious rite. Temple-based bulbul fights have been historically conducted in the extreme northeast of India, as in Assam, under similar pretenses.
But blatant and bloody as they are, harvest festival animal sacrifice, cockfighting, and all other forms of bird-fighting combined probably claim fewer animal lives than fighter kite-flying contests, which annually kill birds by the tens of thousands, even with no intent to do birds harm.
First, miles of taut kite string fill the skies over major cities during Makar Sankranti celebrations in Rajasthan, Punjab, Bijar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, and parts of Bengal. Much of the kite string is coated with a thin paste including broken glass, the better to saw off rival flyers’ strings. Some of the string is nylon monofilament. Some, the deadliest, combines nylon monofilament with the paste made from broken glass.
(See also Makar Sankranti cuts birds out of the skies.)
Later, after the fighter kite contests, broken kite strings are draped over trees, electrical lines, fences and buildings.
Birds soaring or swooping unawares into either taut kite strings or dangling loops of abandoned strings tend to suffer injuries resembling deep knife cuts into their wings and shoulder muscles.
Abruptly losing their ability to fly, the injured birds plummet to the ground, where they are easily roadkilled, attacked by predators, or just lie in pain until death.
Animal rescue societies in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Jaipur, and other cities where Makar Sankranti kite-flying contests are big, annually organize battalions of volunteers to rescue and rehabilitate as many birds as possible.
Yet only a fraction of the numbers of birds who are hurt are ever returned to the skies.