Why a Ban on Bull Riding Sparked Huge Protests in India

The conflict between animals rights and a traditional sport has led thousands of people to go on strike and protest.

by Suman Naishadham
24 January 2017, 9:00am

This article originally appeared on Motherboard. 

Protests are raging across the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu over the ban of Jallikattu, an annual bull-taming contest celebrated every January in villages and towns during the harvest festival.

India's Supreme Court banned the sport in 2014 on the grounds of animal cruelty—and inflamed a debate about the centuries-old ritual when the Court upheld the ban earlier this month. While PETA, the animal rights advocacy group, and the Animal Welfare Board of India hail the Court's ruling as a landmark success, citing the excessive harm that the practice inflicts on bulls, protests against the ban climaxed this week after tens of thousands of rural and urban Tamils came out in defense of the ancient Tamil tradition. The ban was temporarily lifted Sunday, but the court has not yet reached a conclusion on its future.

A typical Jallikattu contest looks something like this: hundreds of men run along a raging bull bred exclusively for the festival. Hanging on each of the bull's horns are bundles of cash—the reward that drives participants to cling onto the animal's massive hump in the hope of plucking. Whoever remains on the bull's hump after three jumps wins the cash prize, along with temporary fame of equal importance. If a bull is untamable, his breeder collects the reward.

As the protests continue across the state, public transport is on strike and many schools and universities remained shut in solidarity. But outside Tamil cities, where celebrities have supported the fights with silent protests, opposition to the ban is as much about reclaiming culture as it is about livelihoods.

"In a water-starved state, livestock breeding is our bread and butter," said Balakumar Somu, a spokesperson for the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Peravai or Forum for the Preservation of Jallikattu. According to Somu, Jallikattu contests are vital to maintaining native livestock since stud bulls bred for the fights generally produce hundreds of cattle. Like elsewhere in India, drought has deeply hurt farmers in Tamil Nadu, making livestock their main source of revenue.

But animal rights groups view the event differently. "Cruelty is inherent to the act," said Dr. Manilal Valliyate, Director of Veterinary Affairs at PETA India. Valliyate stressed that inflicting unnecessary harm on animals for entertainment is prohibited under Indian law.

Debates around animal rights in India are often deeply polarizing and rest on a fierce defense of ethnic or religious tradition. Take the annual cockfights of coastal Andhra Pradesh, another southern state. The brutal fights, a staple of the local Pongal harvest season celebrations, have been a rallying point for the Animal Welfare Board of India, PETA, the Humane Society International-India and others for years. The sport is outlawed under two Indian laws—the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Andhra Pradesh Gaming Act of 1974. Yet each year, prize birds rake in millions of dollars in bets, often from the very politicians who make a point to decry the sport.

Though India's central government temporarily lifted the ban on Sunday, many protestors are clamoring to ban PETA from the state and permanently legalize Jallikattu.

"Even if the ban is repealed, our education campaign will continue. We want to help people understand what is animal cruelty," said Valliyate.