Friday, January 18, 2008

Jallikattu & Ramar Setu: understanding Supreme Court's confusion

The Supreme Court's reversal of its own order refusing to vacate the stay on the holding of the traditional village sport in Tamil Nadu, Jallikattu has caused quite a consternation. (Animal Welfare Board vs. A.Nagaraja) A sample of readers reactions as carried in The Hindu is here, here and here. The three Judge Bench first refused to vacate the stay on the ground that the sport is barbaric, and later when pointed out by the Tamil Nadu Government, that the sport is part of religious festival of Pongal, the Bench relented, on certain conditions, to rule out cruelty to the bulls, and injuries to participants and spectators. The SC's refusal to vacate the stay was greeted by The Hindu, but criticised by Mail Today.

The Supreme Court also orally expressed its surprise that Tamil Nadu Government invoked the religious ground. The Court, according to reports, alluded (as mentioned in The Times of India) that the State opined in the Ramar Setu case, following its ideology of rationalism, that the religious feelings did not matter in the construction of the Sethusamudram project. The Bench said it did not agree with all the reasons cited by the State for lifting the stay. But the Supreme Court's lack of explanation for reversing its own decision is astounding. Does the Supreme Court signal that religious ground is sufficient enough a reason for review of its decisions? The implications are ominous, even if the vacation of the stay is only for this year, till the Supreme Court hears the appeal against the Madras High Court's verdict permitting Jallikattu.

There is an inescapable feeling that the Supreme Court came under pressure to review its decision not to vacate the stay, faced with the prospect of defiance of its order by a determined local population in Madurai district. True, people's sentiments rooted in culture and tradition were involved, and would have been hurt, if the SC refused to vacate its stay. But religion? Did the TN Government confuse religion with the local culture and tradition? Does the SC suggest that while religious sentiments cannot be hurt by a Court-inspired ban on a rural sport, similar immunity cannot be bestowed on local culture and tradition, ableit followed by a small minority of villagers in Madurai?

It may be worthwhile to read the Madras High Court's Division Bench's judgment in the case of K.Muniasamy Thevar vs. Deputy Superintendent of Police (MANU TN/8256/2007) delivered by Justices Dharma Rao Elipe and P.P.S.Janarthana Raja on March 9, 2007.

The case had its origin when the appellant felt aggrieved by the interference by the police in the holding of the traditional sports events, such as jallikattu, manjuvirattu, Rekla Race (bullock cart race)and sought an end to such interference. The Single Judge, Justice R.Banumathi, not only rejected his petition, but went beyond the scope of the petition, by imposing a ban on all the three village sports events, including Jallikattu, assuming that there was cruelty to the animals. (MANU/TN/9319/2006). The appeal was heard by the Division Bench. The Animal Welfare Board impleaded as a party.

The Additional Advocate General appearing for the State, told the Division Bench that not only the Hindus, but also persons belonging to other religious faiths take part in these sports-events, which indirectly promote religious harmony in the State. He appealed to the Bench to consider the religious, cultural rights involved, giving due respect to the feelings, sentiment and religious practices of the people. The sport events are part and parcel of Tamil Culture and religion, he said. Here, you may notice that the Tamil Nadu Government used Tamil Culture and religion almost synonymously, that is, religion ought to be understood in the cultural sense, and not in the sense of organised religion - a phenomenon of contemporary times. The petitioner in the Sethusamudram case, Subramanian Swamy has already drawn the Court's attention to the Tamil Nadu Government's plea in the Jallikattu case.

Therefore, for the Supreme Court to read in the Tamil Nadu Government's claim that religious sentiments would be hurt if the stay was not vacated, something similar to the claim of those opposing the Sethusamudram Project would be a distortion of Tamil Nadu Government's intent and its declaration before the Madras High Court Division Bench. True, the Tamil Nadu Government may not have had the opportunity to explain its stand better, as it was thrust with the responsibility of vacating the stay to avoid a law and order problem, but should the SC ignore the Madras High Court's judgment, before refusing to vacate the stay, and later doing so, by seemingly imposing some conditions? The Madras High Court judgment, in fact, lays down similar conditions. But these conditions could not be tried, because of the SC's stay.

The Madras High Court did not even consider the "religious sentiment" as the core issue in this case, despite the clarification of the AAG. The core issue, according to it, was only with reference to the "treatment of the animals" during the said events, and whether such treatment would amount to "cruelty" within the meaning of S.11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act, 1960. The Bench had noted in its judgment: "It is more or the less the exhibition of the performance of a trained bull by its owner before the villagers. The exhibition of performance of trained animals is permitted under Chapter V of the Act, of course, subject to certain restrictions mentioned therein."

The Bench further noted: "There can be no second opinion of the fact that the said sport-events are part and parcel of the Tamil village culture and are closely wedded to the life-style of the villagers. The imagination or visualisation of the harvest season of villages in the State of Tamil Nadu would be imcomplete without "Jallikattu", "Manjuvirattu", "Reklarace", etc. When our traditional and cultural life-style of India, more particularly the life-style of the villagers, is being rabbidly effaced by the influence of the Western culture, it is imperative that our village traditional and cultural events are preserved and maintained."

To conclude, the SC's refusal to vacate the stay on Jan.11 was flawed. Its insufficient explanation for vacating it on Jan.15 is even more flawed than the previous one.
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