As the Supreme Court ordered an interim stay on Tamil Nadu’s traditional bull-taming sport, Jallikattu, the battle lines are drawn between the Centre and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), a statutory body set up by the Government of India but independent of it. On 11 January, the AWBI, along with others, filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) notification, allowing the banned Jallikattu to take place in Tamil Nadu.
The notification dated 7 January kept the bull on the list of animals which were prohibited from being used as a performing animal but made an allowance in the case of sports such as Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and cart racing in Maharashtra. The notification cited culture and tradition as the reason for this allowance.
In May 2014, the Supreme Court had passed final orders on the issue of Jallikattu banning the sport. In its order, the court had meticulously gone into the issue of culture and tradition, ruling that the sport was inherently cruel in nature and that culture or tradition could not be a reason to allow practices which unnecessarily inflict cruelty on animals for human pleasure.
The MoEF notification was widely decried by legal experts and the animal rights lobby as being undemocratic – they questioned how an Executive order could overturn a judgement of the Supreme Court.
Firstpost learnt that an under-secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Forests had contacted AWBI Chairman General Kharb and vice-chairman Chinny Krishna two days ago and asked them to resign from their posts in the Board. Since the AWBI, which is a statutory body of government, receives its funding from the MoEF, their move of going against the MoEF notification allowing Jallikattu, is being seen as a major embarrassment for the MoEF. Sources also stated that the MoEF is mulling over what action to take against the current office bearers of the Board.
Earlier, Firstpost had carried an exclusive interview with former Solicitor General of India, Mohan Parasaran, who warned that this move by the Centre in effect resulted in undermining of institutions in the country.
In a freewheeling chat with Sandhya Ravishankar in Chennai, AWBI vice-chairman Chinny Krishna details why the Board took the government on in court and says he will not resign.
Question: Let’s begin with your immediate reaction to the stay imposed by the Supreme Court on Jallikattu.
Krishna: Delighted! But then sad that we had to do all this to get justice in an open and shut case.
Q: Is this egg on the Centre’s face?
Krishna: No comment
Q: The Animal Welfare Board of India is part of government. You are in essence fighting yourself. Is the Board’s biggest enemy from within?
Krishna: No comment on your question, but let me explain about the AWBI. The Chairman and the vice-chairman are at par with a Minister of State, as per the rules. We are the only statutory body in government whose office bearers don’t take a penny as salary, including sitting fees. None of the non-official members are paid. We were offered sitting fees for attending meetings by the government but we turned it down. If we travel for official meetings by Air India flights in economy class, we are reimbursed. All of us in the Board, we do this job because we believe in the cause.
Q: Issuance of the notification on Jallikattu is being seen as a political ploy by the BJP ahead of the Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu. What is your comment on that?
Krishna: No comment
Q: How important is it now for the government to look at animal rights and welfare as a key issue?
Krishna: It is very very important. The Constitution enshrines that we should have compassion towards all living creatures. We are the only country in the world to have an Animal Welfare Board. Ahimsa is part of our culture. People are talking about how Jallikattu is not as bad as bullfights in Spain. I don’t care about bullfighting in Spain! Do you want to bring yourself down to the level of bullfighting in Spain or do you want to move up to the level of Ashoka, Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi?
Q: The Animal Welfare Board has done the job that it was set up for in the first place. How tough is it to deal with politics and politicians, especially in an issue like this?
Krishna: Normally never. But frankly, to be independent, any statutory body, in order to be free from political interference, must get its funds from the consolidated funds of the Government of India and not from any particular ministry.
Q: Everyone knew that an Executive order cannot overturn a Supreme Court verdict. Why do you think the Centre went ahead?
Krishna: I have absolutely no idea.
Q: We are told that the Ministry of Environment and Forests have asked you and AWBI Chairman to resign. Can you confirm this?
Krishna: I have only heard about this from newspaper reports. I have no idea about it. Chairman General Kharb is one of India’s finest canine and equine veterinarians. He was the head of the Indian Army’s Remount and Veterinary Corps. He has given up an extremely lucrative practice to be the honorary Chairman of the AWBI. If these reports are correct, then I am deeply saddened.
Q: Would you resign if you were asked to?
Krishna: No. I will not resign.
Q: Was there any political pressure on you not to file the petition in Supreme Court challenging the MoEF notification?
Krishna: We have a Board, we discussed it amongst ourselves and decided that we would not bow down to pressure from any ministry. We went ahead and filed the petition. Let me tell you, we do not wish to get into any confrontation with anyone or any ministry. We would rather take the route of co-operation.
Q: Was the AWBI consulted before the notification was issued by the MoEF?
Krishna: No but we realized some moves were afoot. We wrote to the Ministry in December 2015 stating that our opposition to Jallikattu continues, our stand remains unchanged and that our advice to the Ministry too remains the same. But to be fair, the MoEF does not have to take our advice into consideration.