Why is Jallikattu not right?


Jallikattu is a traditional “sport” in some regions of India, in which bulls are forced to run through crowds of young men who attempt to grab and hold on to the hump of the bull for a prescribed distance or time. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India banned Jallikattu on the grounds of cruelty to animals. The ban has caused great controversy, sparking huge protests by enthusiasts of Jallikattu. The Indian government has temporarily lifted the ban in Tamil Nadu, and bull wrestling events have resumed nationwide.

Firstly, to understand why Jallikattu is not right, one needs to understand the principles of animal behaviour, and the flight or fight response in particular. By definition, the flight or fight response is a physiological reaction (not under conscious control) that occurs when an animal or human feels threatened. Since a fight is an extremely exhausting and damaging exercise, animals are designed by nature to fight only if absolutely necessary: to protect their young ones, guard their territory, save their group, etc. They do not fight for pride, fun or money. No bull will ever fight with you because he wants to. This is the first misinterpretation that humans have made.

Every animal has something something called a flight zone. The flight zone of an animal is the area surrounding his body that, if encroached upon by a potential predator or threat, including humans, will cause alarm and escape behavior. This means that every animal, by default, will choose to escape from the threat rather than fight. The animal only fights back if absolutely required, for instance if cornered with all escape routes blocked, and even then only after giving warnings and signals.

Unfortunately, animals’ warnings and signals have also been misinterpreted by humans. “The bull digs his horns into the ground and shakes his head aggressively. He shows that he is ready to fight”. This is what most Jallikattu supporters will tell you. In reality, the bull is not challenging you because he wants to fight. He is just giving you warning signals because you have entered too close into his flight zone. Remember that these are physiological actions and not intentional. This is how nature designed them.

What you should actually do is withdraw and give the bull his space. But we won’t do that because for us, our ego, our culture, and our tradition is much more important than Mother Nature. We put a bull in a stressful situation (surrounded by humans, whom the bull views as a threat), get into his flight zone, block all his escape routes, avoid all his warning signals, and eventually force him to fight. If this is not unnatural and stressful to the bull, what else is it? Some animals may also freeze as part of the flight or fight response, which is why many bulls refuse to budge during the event. This is when humans resort to pinching or poking the bull to force him to move. But if you just try giving the bull his space, he will never want to fight with you.

Secondly, to all those who keep saying that the bulls will go to slaughter if not used for bull wrestling, please note that the bulls were always destined for slaughter even without the Jallikattu ban. The person who has spearheaded all the pro-Jallikattu activism, a Kangeyam cattle breeder, and one of the first persons to raise his voice that the bulls will go to slaughter without Jallikattu, is himself pro-slaughter. This is his position as reported in The Caravan:

“For indigenous breeds to be economically viable, any bans that choke business for bull-keepers must go. Strong male calves must promise a profit, and farmers and cattle rearers must be able to sell unproductive animals for slaughter to raise money to invest in young calves”.

Here are some more examples from the same article:

“Selvarani is a small farmer—she grows paddy in a one-acre plot—and a livestock-keeper. She bought her bull in 2008, for Rs105,000. ‘Just that day, my expenses to hire a vehicle and bring it home were Rs5,000,’ she said. If jallikattu isn’t revived, she said, the animal will, at best, fetch meat rate. ‘The calves we bought for Rs60,000 are now worth less than half the price.’ The day before my visit, she said, she sold two bulls for Rs1.3 lakh. ‘Had there been rekla and jallikattu, they could have easily fetched Rs2 lakh'”.

So, who is encouraging slaughter here? Supporting Jallikattu has nothing to do with love for the bulls. It’s all about money and exploitation.

Third, the most common point raised again and again against the ban is that it is a conspiracy to bring in Western dairy giants. I have nothing to comment on this because even if PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India were in league with foreign dairy corporations, for which there is no evidence, they did not pass the judgement. The Supreme Court of India did. So, this argument is baseless.

Besides, if there was really a conspiracy to wipe out native cattle breeds to make way for Western cattle breeds – which are already there in huge numbers in India anyway – the Western dairy giants and Indian NGOs accused of conspiring with them would have targeted the high milk yielding cow breeds of India. Why would they target the draught breeds which are already known to have poor milk yields?

I do agree that Jallikattu might not be as cruel as other events involving animals. But to all those who have been saying that animal rights activists should have targeted bigger issues first, you should know how things work. Whenever we are on a mission, we start small and take one step at a time. You can’t reach the peak of Mount Everest in one go. Smaller issues must be tackled first, and used as a base to move on to the next level. That is how we learn in school and work in our offices too. Even the courts need previous judgements to consult as precedents in interpreting the law and considering new evidence.

The judgement to ban Jallikattu was one such example, because of which many other cruel events such as cock fights, dog fights, and bull races and bull sports all across India were also banned. The Victorian-style horse drawn carriages in Mumbai were banned by the Mumbai High Court on similar animal cruelty grounds, providing a tool with which animal rights activists could curb other cruelties toward horses such as horse races.

Now that the Jallikattu ban is being lifted, slowly everyone will demand to revoke all the other bans that followed it. “If you can allow Jallikattu, why not this?”, will be their question. Tamil Nadu has been a leading example in the animals rights movement in many aspects, and now we are also going to be a leading example in taking the animal rights movement back to the stone age.


(Featured image credit Vinoth Chandar, CC BY 2.0)

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