What the Fights Over Beef and Jallikattu Tell Us About the Cultural Politics of Animal Welfare

A more plural sense of justice and injustice is needed to enable serious consideration of the shared vulnerabilities of people and animals.

File picture of the traditional jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Djoemanoj Wikipedia Commons

File picture of the traditional jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. Credit: Djoemanoj Wikipedia Commons

India’s cattle have been in the news like never before. The uproar about jallikattu has come hot on the heels of the furore about the ban on beef. It seems ironical that legal measures instituted by some arms of the ruling political party to ostensibly protect cattle by banning the sale and possession of cattle flesh should be followed by efforts by the same party to circumvent a Supreme Court judgment that bans bull-fighting/bull-taming for reasons of animal welfare.

Civil society responses have been even more interesting. In general, those on the political left who have protested the ban on beef for its religious motivations have either remained silent about or support similarly motivated efforts to sidestep the ban on jallikattu. What do these two seemingly contradictory interventions and responses reveal about the place of cattle in the Indian political imagination? And what do they say about how animal wellbeing and vulnerability are debated in multicultural contexts?

Tradition and the lives of cattle

For one, examining these controversies together confirms that the ban on beef had nothing to do with cattle welfare; it was always only about tradition and culture. The ban on beef was justified in terms of the sacredness of the cow and its male counterparts in Hindu religion and culture. Similar arguments about culture – in this case rural Tamil (albeit Hindu) culture – have spurred the concerted manoeuvres to reverse the prohibition of jallikattu, despite the negative consequences for cattle wellbeing.

Second, it is clear that the sacredness of the cow, and the cultural importance of the bull, do not necessarily translate into better treatment of these animals. In both cases, it has remained irrelevant what the tangible implications are for the animals that are held ‘sacred’ by these traditions—both the ban on beef and any reversal of the ban on jallikattu are bad news for the cattle that are caught up in these spaces.

With regard to the beef ban, the dairy and draught animal sectors would simply be unsustainable without slaughter. All that the beef ban (in the absence of any measures to deal with the dairy industry) does is to shift slaughter to the shadows or result in abandonment, thereby worsening the conditions of life and death of the animals involved. 

When it comes to jallikattu, it is evident that the bulls that are celebrated through this sport experience pain and trauma, even if they are not killed. That is why supporters of jallikattu emphasize the care provided to the bulls prior to the event. This is much like how some livestock farmers in countries like the United States showcase the care that goes into raising meat and dairy cattle.

Similarly, it is the tacit acknowledgement of the vulnerability of the bulls used in jallikattu that has led supporters to talk about the sport’s importance in the conservation of certain cattle breeds. It is argued that the particular breeds used for jallikattu would disappear if the sport were to die out. Here, the harm caused to individual bulls during jallikattu is defended in terms of the benefits it offers to the bulls themselves, though as a breed. It is a different matter that the individual bulls concerned might have no sense that they belong to a particular ‘breed’; breeds in today’s world, are, after all, a product of the human imagination and intervention in cattle reproduction.

It is this acknowledgment of the suffering caused by jallikattu that leads some commentators to pose a very relevant question: why is it that this particular sport has come under scrutiny while there are so many other – more widely prevalent – situations in which human use of animals seriously compromises animal wellbeing? Livestock farming, medical and scientific research, circuses, and zoos are just some examples.

A significant parallel

This question directs attention to a significant parallel between the beef and jallikattu controversies. Jallikattu was banned for animal welfare reasons, while beef was banned for religious reasons. However, both the religious ban on beef and the secular ban on jallikattu have become subjects of rancorous debate because they are perceived as impinging on the rights of cultural minorities. The ban on beef was seen as an attack on the diets of religious minorities. The ban on jallikattu, on the other hand, is easily critiqued as the imposition of urban norms on rural minority communities.

This common thread that links beef and jallikattu points to some fundamental problems with the way in which animal welfare is addressed in India and elsewhere. As the political theorists Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have pointed out, animal suffering tends to become an issue of public controversy mainly when the human practices that cause such suffering are not considered socially acceptable. In democratic societies, social acceptability is more often than not linked to the perceptions and practices of majority groups or groups that have a strong voice in the public sphere. For example, it is considered legally and socially acceptable to subject a dog in a medical laboratory to much more pain and trauma than a dog that is used for meat.  This is because medical research on animals has a degree of mainstream acceptability that the culinary traditions of a minority group do not have. Thus, it is those instances of animal suffering that are linked to the practices of minority groups that often (but not always) end up becoming controversial.

The debates around beef and jallikattu clearly exemplify this. But India is not unique in this respect. Across the world, one finds that the traditions and practices of cultural minorities that impact animal welfare tend to attract far more controversy than those of majority groups. In Europe and North America, the controversies around kosher and halal slaughter and live meat markets are manifestations of this phenomenon.

Addressing animal suffering

However, animal suffering and wellbeing are, in the most basic sense, independent of the social acceptability of the human practices that impinge on them. To return to the above example of the dog, the suffering experienced by the dog remains the same, regardless of whether it takes place in a laboratory or a slaughter house or a live meat market, and regardless of whether it is caused by the actions of majority groups or minority groups.

How, then, can we take animal wellbeing seriously in this multicultural world? More specifically, how can we address animal welfare in the context of jallikattu and beef in a manner that disentangles it from cultural or religious politics? 

First, it is vital that animal advocates highlight their work on majority practices and mainstream systems that harm animals. For instance, in India, animal advocates should shine the spotlight on their accomplishments and ongoing work in relation to circus animals, dolphinaria, animals in the biomedical industry, and animals in the dairy industry. They need to make very clear that the questioning of practices such as jallikattu is only a miniscule part of their repertoire, and that their work addresses animal vulnerability and wellbeing in all spheres of society.

Second, it is critical that those who advocate for animals choose their alliances carefully. It is critical that they recognise that the means and motivations of actions are as important as the ends. It is easy to accept the support of the politically or culturally powerful if it seems as though their actions, even if not motivated by real concern for animals, might address the end goal of animal wellbeing. This can be seen in the case of the ban on beef. However, not only does this delegitimise all efforts to address animal vulnerability in the food sector, it is also very short-sighted, given the repercussions that this ban has for the lives of cattle themselves. Indeed, it might actually make sense for animal advocates to oppose the ban on beef, pointing to the multidimensional negative impacts – on animals and people – that the ban entails.

But even more important is the need for those on the political left, and those who advocate for socially vulnerable groups and cultural minorities, to rethink the horizons of their ethical and political imaginations. A more plural sense of justice and injustice will enable the serious consideration of the shared vulnerabilities of people and animals. It will help to separate out those initiatives that genuinely seek to address animal wellbeing from those that are spurred by ignoble reasons. Such a plural vision will foster the clarity of thought that is necessary for meaningful debate and action on human-induced animal suffering.

Krithika Srinivasan is Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Exeter