Explained: SC’s Permission to Jallikattu and Other Bovine Sports

With Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka making appropriate amendments in 2017 to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, to allay the Supreme Court’s concerns, the constitution bench had no difficulty in permitting Jallikattu, bullock cart races and Kambala in these states.

When a division bench of the Supreme Court outlawed Jallikattu and bullock cart races in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra respectively in 2014, and later stayed a Union government order in 2016 to permit them, it led to a huge uproar in Tamil Nadu, leading to street protests.

On Thursday, May 18, the court turned a full circle with a five-judge constitution bench approving the amendments introduced in 2017 by the states of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, which effectively overturned the 2014 judgment.

In 2014, the Supreme Court’s division bench in the case of Animal Welfare Board of India vs A. Nagaraja and others held Jallikattu and bullock cart races to be contrary to Sections 3, 11(1)(a) and (m) of the 1960 Act, enacted by Parliament. The bench had construed the provisions of the Act in the backdrop of Article 51-A (g) and (h) as also Articles 14 and 21 of the constitution.

In 2014, Jallikattu was regulated by the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009.  The bench held this Act to be repugnant to the provisions of the 1960 Act and to be void, having regard to Article 254(1) of the constitution.

On January 7, 2016, a notification was issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) which prohibited the exhibition or training of bulls as performing animals.  However, an exception was carved and it was specified that bulls might be continued to be trained as performing animals at events such as Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and for bullock cart races in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat in accordance with customs or culture in any part of the country.

In Karnataka, the race involved male buffaloes, known as “Kambala”. This exception was made subject to certain conditions seeking to reduce the pain and suffering of bulls while being used in such sports.

Meanwhile, in 2017, the three state amendment Acts received Presidential assent. These amendments sought to legitimise various types of bovine sports including Jallikattu, bullock cart race and Kambala.

Regulation of sports

Due to fresh challenges to the constitutionality of these Acts, the Supreme Court’s division bench, in 2018, referred five questions to be answered by a constitution bench.

After the amendment Acts received presidential assent, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka formulated the required rules to implement the Acts.  The Supreme Court found that these Rules rigidly regulate the conduct of bovine sports. They stipulate the manner in which such races could be conducted with specifications for the length of the track, rest period and isolation of the track from the general public.

The Tamil Nadu Rules specifically provide for the examination of bulls, with specifications for the arena, bull collection yard and setting up of spectators’ gallery. These instruments in substance prohibit causing any physical disturbance to the bulls like beating and poking them with sharp objects or sticks, pouring chilli powder in their eyes and twisting their tails amongst other such pain-inflicting acts.

The petitioners argued that even after the state amendments, the activities sought to be legitimised still remain destructive and contrary to the provisions of Sections 3, 11(1) (a) and (m) of the 1960 Act.

The three state amendment acts enacted in 2017 seek to legitimise various types of bovine sports including Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, bullock cart races in Maharashtra and Kambala in Karnataka. The presidential assent was sought by the three states in terms of Article 254(2) of the constitution. 

Amendment statutes are relatable to Entry 17 of List III of the Seventh Schedule, which deals with prevention of cruelty to animals. 

Supreme Court of India. Photo: The Wire

Pain-inflicting practices diluted

The bench expressed its satisfaction that the large part of pain-inflicting practices, as they prevailed in the manner these three sports were performed in the pre-amendment period, have been substantially diluted by the introduction of these statutory instruments. 

“We cannot proceed in the exercise of our judicial power on the assumption that a law ought to be struck down on apprehension of its abuse or disobedience,” the bench reasoned.

“All three bovine sports, after amendment, assume a different character in their performance and practice and for these reasons, we do not accept the petitioners’ argument that the Amendment Acts were merely a piece of colourable legislation with cosmetic change to override judicial pronouncement,” the bench added. 

“We decline to hold that just because bulls lack the natural ability to run like a horse, the subject-sports which are seasonally held shall be held to be contrary to the provisions of the 1960 Act,” the bench held.  

The respondents argued that the bulls used are specially bred and have the natural ability to run. 

No fundamental rights for animals

The petitioners submitted that the expression “person” as used in Article 21 of the constitution includes sentient animals and their liberty is sought to be curtailed by legitimising the aforesaid bovine sports.  They alleged that the instrument of such legitimisation, the three amendment Acts, is unreasonable and arbitrary, thereby not meeting the standard of Article 14 of the constitution.  

The petitioners argued that the Fundamental Duty of Indian citizens to have compassion for living creatures and to develop humanism resulted in corresponding rights for sentient animals to be protected from distress and pain inflicting activities only having entertainment value for human beings. 

The constitution does not recognise any Fundamental Rights for animals, the bench ruled. Agreeing with the respondents, the bench held that the rights of sentient animals can be recognised by law, but such rights would be in a nature as determined by the appropriate law-making body and not by judicial interpretation. 

“We have our doubt as to whether detaining a stray bull from the street against its wish could give rise to the constitutional writ of habeas corpus or not,” the bench observed. 

The bench agreed with the petitioners that in 2014, the manner in which Jallikattu was performed did breach the provisions of the 1960 Act, and hence conducting such sports was found impermissible. But that position of law has changed now, and the amendment Acts have introduced a new regime for conducting these events, the bench held. 

Therefore, the bench disagreed with the petitioners that the Acts were merely a piece of colourable legislation with cosmetic changes to override judicial pronouncement. 

In pith and substance, the Amendment Acts seek to address the question of prevention of cruelty to animals, under Entry 17 of List III of the Seventh Schedule, the bench held. Therefore, the bench rejected the contention that the state legislatures inherently lacked jurisdiction to bring these amendments, which subsequently received presidential assent. The bench held that the amendment Act is not relatable to Article 48 of the constitution, dealing with the organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines.

The bench clarified that its jurisdiction does not extend to providing absolute protection to the animals from any manner of infliction of pain and suffering. What the broad theme of the 1960 Act is that animals must be protected from unnecessary pain and suffering, it pointed out. 

The court also held that whether Jallikattu is an integral part of Tamil culture or not cannot be answered by the judiciary. It conceded that it is a debatable issue whether the Tamil Nadu Act is to preserve the cultural heritage of the state, as it claims. This debate has to be concluded in the legislature, it said and added that it cannot be conclusively determined in the writ proceedings.  

But the bench clearly expressed its disagreement with the judgment in A. Nagaraja that Jallikattu is not a part of the cultural heritage of the state. The bench, however, agreed that if a cultural tradition offends the law, the penal consequence would follow. 

The bench directed that the law contained in the Act/Rules/Notification shall be strictly enforced by the authorities.