Jallikattu: Of holy cows and disposable bulls

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 12, 2016 11:37 hrs
When ‘culture’ sanctions cruelty

Every year in Tamil Nadu, the jallikattu debate opens up as Pongal approaches. For decades, animal rights activists have looked on in despair as bulls were put through misery under the guise of "culture" and human "bravado". Last year, the Supreme Court banned the brutal practice - I refuse to call it a "sport" - along with bullock cart racing in Maharashtra.

But, before the bulls could catch a break, political agenda has found a loophole in the law. With the state elections approaching in 2016, the DMK is in tatters, and every other party is wooing a man who spits at journalists when he runs out of answers.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, whose ruling AIADMK seemed to be on the road to victory before the floods of November-December 2015, is keen to erase the negative publicity her party workers earned during the calamity. The BJP is trying desperately to gain a foothold in state that no national party has been able to breach since the Sixties.

Predictably, all of them have turned to "culture" - for a very long time, linguistic and cultural chauvinism have garnered votes in this parochial state - and four-legged creatures have become the victims.

On Tuesday, January 12, the Supreme Court will hear several appeals against the central government's notification allowing jallikattu to be held.

The court's order last year was so clear that one wonders whether the Modi government has no respect for our judiciary.

If jallikattu is indicative of any "culture", that culture is one that deserves to be reviled.

Today, it is associated with ancient tradition and machismo. But let us look at the origins of the practice which has caused the death of hundreds of bulls and tamers over the decades, if not centuries. At this juncture, I must say I feel little pity for the humans who died while inflicting cruelty on animals. But the statistic is not one in which any state should take pride. Every year, an average of ten deaths and fifty injuries are reported.

Jallikattu essentially brings out the casteism that is entrenched in Tamil Nadu. Most of the bulls belong to people from the Thevar community, to which the BJP and Dravida parties have been seeking to pander.

It started out as a bloodsport. "Jallikattu" refers to the practice of tying a garland of gold or silver coins around the horns of a bull. Those who were willing to risk their lives for that sum of money, and the gifts they may receive from pleased spectators, would try to tame the bull. The wealthy looked on for entertainment, as man fought animal in an arena.

Despite conditions and regulations for the conduct of jallikattu being laid down repeatedly, the report submitted to the Supreme Court by the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) makes it clear that these are largely ignored.

The bulls used in jallikattu are subjected to terrible kinds of torture - chemicals are poured into their eyes, their tails are fractured, they are force-fed intoxicants and prodded with weapons, and their ears are disfigured. They are starved for days, crowded into a small enclosure, and denied water. When the traumatised bull is finally released, it encounters hundreds of screaming people, and groups of men who believe themselves to be champions for lunging at an animal that none of them could tackle in a fair battle.

In 2014, the Supreme Court held that this practice was in flagrant violation of the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act; the apex court also said that it is unconstitutional, as it flouts Article 21 (Right to Life) and Article 51 A(g), which demands "compassion for living creatures". The order said infliction of pain on an animal in fact went against Tamil culture, which jallikattu claims to uphold.

The arguments used in favour of jallikattu are usually that indigenous breeds of bulls, reared especially to fight, would be lost; and that it is not dissimilar to bullfighting in Spain. The irony of propagating breeds of bulls for the express purpose of undergoing cruelty should be obvious to all those who make that argument.

As for bullfighting, it was banned by the Catalan Parliament in 2012 in the autonomous region of Catalonia in Spain. With increasing international pressure, one hopes to see the day when bullfighting will find itself only in the pages of historical texts.

If cruelty can be encouraged in the name of tradition, there is a valid argument for bringing back all the practices that we think of as the social evils of a mediaeval culture - sati, public lynching, disfigurement of widows, the keeping of war bounty, you-name-it.

Does it not strike this government, which is more worried about the wellbeing of cows than humans, that bulls are needed for the conception of their holy-of-holies?
Why, then, are they seen as so disposable that they can be exposed to prods and chilli powder and everything else that humans thrust in their faces? When one of its Cabinet Ministers claims to be an animal rights activist, how can it fight the highest court in the land to ensure that animals are tortured?

Is that not tantamount to contempt?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book at www.nandinikrishnan.com

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