Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu’s version of ‘running of the bulls’ that has been banned by the Supreme Court, is back in the limelight once more. Those who have batted for the “sport”, have usually done so saying it is part of the state’s culture—much in the manner gory bull-fights and Pamplona’s running of the bulls are in Spain or rodeo is in parts of the US. While chief minister O Panneerselvam has written to the prime minister—just days before the southern state celebrates Pongal—saying that the ban be revoked (through an ordinance, for now), cinema-star Kamal Haasan has weighed in on the issue saying he is a “proud Tamilian” and jallikattu is part of “our culture”. Haasan has even called for a ban on biriyani if the ban on jallikattu is to continue. There is also the argument that culling of weaker bulls is essential for ensuring a healthy gene-pool, and the sport helps identify the weaker bulls.
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There is no doubt that jallikattu, translated as bull-hugging, is a cultural phenomenon singular to Tamil Nadu as is camel racing to Rajasthan or Gujarat or ritual animal sacrifice in Assam, none of the latter being banned practices. The opposition centred on the danger to human life and health it poses—some runners will get gored—also falls flat given such danger is a part of other cultural or sporting feats, from the dahi handi celebrations and cheer-leading formations to the Produnova vault in gymnastics. So, if we celebrate risk-taking in one, we can’t really condemn it in the case of the other, can we? At the same time, it does involve difficult questions over ethical or humane treatment of animals—something that is complicated further by the documented violation of the provisions (on no injuring or kicking the animal) of the Tamil Regulation of Jallikattu Act. There is also the problem of animals being bred exclusively for the purpose of jallikattu. Choosing sides in this debate is a Sisyphean task.