What are the odds that Jallikattu will make a comeback in southern Tamil Nadu this Pongal season? If the moves made by the Government of India are anything to go by, there is reason for supporters of this bull-taming sport to remain bullish.
The big hurdle in the Union and the Tamil Nadu governments move to facilitate the return of Jallikattu has been the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). Established in 1962, this is a statutory advisory body on animal welfare laws and promotes animal welfare in the country. Though its members are appointed by the Ministry of Environment, the AWBI has had an assertive mind and has pretty much been the face and voice of animal welfare in India for the last five decades.
Now when the AWBI opposed the then Prakash Javadekar-led environment ministry move to allow Jallikattu through a notification issued on 7 January by going to court, the Union government was not amused. It sent the AWBI a showcause notice. In turn, the AWBI again moved the Supreme court seeking the quashing of the showcause notice. It also sought a directive from the apex court to the ministry to prevent it from taking coercive steps against AWBI and let it complete its full term till February 2017.
But with just weeks to go for Pongal, the government has made its move. The chairman of the AWBI, Maj General (Retd) Dr RM Kharb resigned on 23 December, just two months before his term would have ended. This has led everyone to believe that there is a Jallikattu connection to his resignation. In Kharb's place, SS Negi, Special secretary in the Ministry has been appointed as Chairman. In his farewell mail to his colleagues on the Board, Maj Gen Kharb listed out the reasons why he chose to quit his post, mentioning a slipped disc that necessitated complete rest. But more significantly he also points out that for some time, he had "not been feeling very comfortable as Chairman due to reasons well known''.
The circumstances to nudge the Chairman to move out were created from the time the AWBI went to court. The Ministry commissioned an audit report in August to look into the working of the Board between 2012 and 2015. The 65-page report was damaging to the reputation of the members who have done commendable work in the field of animal rights. It pointed out, among other things, that members of the Board had favoured the organisations they belong to, by giving them grants.
An AWBI member points out that it is an absurd charge because members in the first place, are selected on the basis of their work in animal rights organisations. "To then penalise and point fingers at us for promoting those organisations and encourage them to do better work is rather strange,'' says an AWBI member.
Members believe the audit report, which also raises questions about other expenditure on the camp office in Gurugram, from where Maj Gen Kharb worked, is an attempt to indulge in witch-hunt. The audit report also points out several other areas where government rules were reportedly flouted. The members in their defence, point out that the ministry has several representatives on the AWBI and nothing is hidden from them.
Members believe the audit report, which also raises questions about other expenditure on the camp office in Gurugram, from where Maj Gen Kharb worked, is an attempt to indulge in witch-hunt.
The Ministry also has for some time now wanted the Board's office to be shifted to New Delhi from Chennai. Members believe that while on paper, it sounds like a reasonable idea, the real reason is to keep the AWBI under its thumb. The Tamil Nadu government had opposed the shifting of the office but after it opposed Jallikattu, the Board has lost favour with the state as well.
Sources say it is unlikely that Kharb resigned on his own, after having stood up to the ministry all along over Jallikattu. The suspicion is that he was asked to put in his papers failing which the audit report would have been used against him in such a way that the AWBI came out looking bad.
Which brings one to the political part of the operation. The BJP, like all other Tamil Nadu regional parties, was keen on Jallikattu. And now that the AIADMK is on a weak wicket politically after the demise of Jayalalithaa, the BJP thinks it can win brownie points in Tamil Nadu by ensuring Jallikattu takes place this Pongal. Even if other regional parties clamour to take credit, the BJP will still be seen as the party that got it done.
The Supreme court verdict in the AWBI petition challenging the government's January 2016 notification in the Jallikattu case is expected any time. The court had banned the sport in May 2014, upholding the argument of the animal rights activists that the animal during the event is subjected to the worst form of cruelty. The AWBI produced documentary evidence that showed that chilly powder was thrown into the eyes and anus of the bull, its tailbone broken and half a dozen louts jumped on to it, in order to tame it, terrifying the animal.
In November, the court dismissed the Tamil Nadu government's plea for a review of its 2014 verdict. That gives a pointer to the possible judgement likely to be given by the court. Given that the court is outraged by the thought of cruelty to the bulls, it is highly unlikely that the government will bring an ordinance when the verdict is pending. But the expectation is that should the court indeed stand by its ban on Jallikattu in the first week of January, the Centre could bring in an ordinance, defying the order and allowing Jallikattu just before Pongal.
This, the BJP would showcase as the party's Pongal gift to the people of the Madurai region. And it would hope that in a post-Jayalalithaa scenario, Jallikattu would give the BJP the strength to take the Dravidian challenge in Tamil Nadu by the horns.
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