It happened in India!
NEW DELHI, India––Imagine the U.S. Supreme Court resoundingly rebuking the Donald Trump presidential administration by holding rodeo to be unconstitutional, regardless of how culturally entrenched it is among “red state voters,” his support base.
Difficult though it may be to imagine newly appointed U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions moving under Supreme Court directive to stop rodeo, this is in effect what Supreme Court of India Justices Dipak Misra and Rohinton Nariman did on November 16, 2016.
How it happened, why
The U.S. Supreme Court, unlike the Supreme Court of India, has been operating a justice short since Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. Donald Trump has the opportunity to remake and re-orient the U.S. Supreme Court by filling that open position and as many as three others which, based on the age of the present Justices, may come open during the next four years.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, elected in part on the expectation of leading members of his ruling coalition that he would reinstate jallikattu, has no such opportunity.
But the verdict against jallikattu, nominally a political defeat for some of Modi’s most influential allies, may have helped Modi out of a politically untenable position.
What is jallikattu?
Jallikattu participants try to untie a bag of coins strung between a bull’s horns. The bull is released to run through the streets at a local festival. Hundreds of men may surround and torment each bull, including by twisting the bull’s tail and pouring liquor down his throat. Dozens or even hundreds of bulls may be used in each jallikattu event.
Initially prohibiting jallikattu in 2007, as an unconstitutional form of cruelty to animals, the Animal Welfare Board of India fought for seven years in court to enforce the prohibition, at last winning what appeared to be a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court of India in 2014.
Bullock cart racing
The Animal Welfare Board of India also prohibited bullock cart racing, a comparably popular pursuit often involving abuse of oxen, practiced in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat.
All of this politically painted Modi, heading the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, into an uncomfortable corner.
“Mothers of India”
On the one hand, Modi personally and the Bharatiya Janata Party generally have built their power base for decades on an often reiterated pledge to uphold the Hindu tradition of protecting cows, as the culturally recognized “mothers of India.”
While bullocks (oxen) are castrated male bovines, they are “cow progeny,” protected from slaughter in all but two Indian states, and from other abuses––at least on paper.
Modi, from Rajasthan in culturally conservative northwestern India, could probably not win election at any level taking any stance other than in favor of cattle protection.
Yet Modi owes much of his nationwide support to the voters of Tamil Nadu, the historical home of jallikattu, in southeastern India.
This came about through an alliance with the Tamil Nadu-based All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, headed by former actress J. Jayalalithaa. The alliance is anchored in part by Modi having appointed All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party stalwart Prakash Javadekar as Indian minister of environment and forests, with budget authority over the Animal Welfare Board of India.
Claiming policy authority as well as budget authority over the Animal Welfare Board of India, Prakash Javadekar on January 7, 2016 authorized jallikattu events to proceed during early-year harvest festivals, during the run-up to elections.
Currying favor in other states, Javadekar authorized bullock cart racing as well.
Kharb & Krishna appealed
Animal Welfare Board of India chair R.M. Kharb and vice chair Chinny Krishna appealed to the Supreme Court of India the very next day.
Javadekar retalitated by removing Kharb from his position on the 13-member Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals (CPCSEA), crippling the ability of the Animal Welfare Board of India to monitor animal use in biomedical research and product safety testing.
Kharb had been the only CPCSEA member representing animal welfare interests. Eleven members represent institutions involved in biomedical research and product safety testing. The 13th position on the current board is reserved for Javadekar himself, or his designated representative.
“Jallikattu is not a religious event”
From the November 9, 2016 start of the long anticipated showdown before the two-judge bench delegated to represent the Supreme Court of India, Justices Misra and Nariman expressed skepticism of the pro-jallikattu arguments.
Justices Misra and Nariman rejected first the argument from Tamil Nadu senior attorney Shekhar Naphade that banning jallikattu and bullock cart racing violates the fundamental right to religion enshrined under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
“How does Article 25 come in here? Jallikattu is not a religious event. You are defaming the framers of the Constitution by linking jallikattu to Article 25,” responded Justice Misra.
“You better play computer games”
In the end, Justices Misra and Nariman found, in Misra’s words, “Jallikattu is impermissible as it violates the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Constitution. In view of the cruelties inflicted, nothing of this nature is permissible.
“There is a dichotomy,” Justice Misra continued. “On the one hand you want compassion towards cows. On the other hand, you want to use bulls as a tool for entertainment. If we go by constitutional principles of compassion, such a contradiction cannot be permitted. Even if you say that jallikattu is a sport, it is not permissible. You better play computer games for entertainment.”
The representatives of Tamil Nadu may now appeal again to the full Supreme Court of India bench. But a different result is believed to be unlikely.
Modi meanwhile has political cover for his allies’ failure to deliver on their promises to revive jallikattu and bullock cart racing.
But Modi, who has energetically encouraged expansion of the Indian dairy industry, already has another cattle-related headache brewing.
“As you read this,” the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) charged, just two days after the Supreme Court of India ruling, “the conditions at Indian dairies are going from bad to worse,” documented by the newly released results of a FIAPO undercover investigation of 49 dairies in Rajasthan, Modi’s home base.
Meeting with federal agriculture minister Prabhulal Saini, “urging him to take immediate action against violations,” FIAPO said in a media release, the delegates received only “a trivializing response,” which “infuriated the animal protection community across the country.”