The push to bring back jallikattu is all about political expediency
One of the last things Jairam Ramesh did as UPA II’s environment minister was to ban the use of bulls as performing animals. This meant that bulls could no longer be used in jallikattu, a bull-taming sport played in Tamil Nadu during Pongal celebrations in the middle of January. He released a notification which said, “In the exercise of powers conferred by Section 22 of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, the Central Government, hereby specifies that the following animals shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animals namely bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, lions and bulls.” Animal lovers and activists welcomed this move.
This decision was opposed by those involved in the sport. Jallikkattu is held predominantly in a few villages in the Madurai district and to a certain extent in three other districts of Tamil Nadu. The rest of Tamil Nadu is quite indifferent as jallikkattu is a local event. Young men are not chasing the specially-trained bulls all over the state.
Jallikkattu supporters took the matter to court. Between 2008 and 2014, the Supreme Court had allowed jallikattu within specific guidelines and had asked for close monitoring. Finally, in its judgment delivered May 7, 2014, the Supreme Court confirmed the ban on jallikattu, and categorically held that the concerned ministry cannot allow such events and cannot modify the notification issued in 2011 without the consent from the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). The AWBI has been strongly opposed to jallikkattu and has been advising the ministry not to overturn the judgment.
The BJP government at the Centre has been promising to lift the ban ever since it came to power. The Union minister of environment and forests Prakash Javadekar has backed jalikkattu calling it a tradition. He promised good news in December and has delivered on his promise with another notification enabling the sport to be conducted during Pongal this year.
Jallikkattu represents the martial tradition of the Tamils. The name is derived from the words calli (coins) and kattu (tie), referring to the bundle of coins tied to the bull’s horns prior to the running. In the past, the tamer sought to remove this bundle from the animal’s head to win gold or silver. It is part of the three-day celebrations of Pongal, the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu. In most villages in the southern districts, bull taming is conducted on the second and third days of Pongal.
Palamedu and Alanganallur villages near Madurai have become the centres of attraction as tens of thousands of people gather to watch the spectacle. About 1,000 bulls are unleashed into the arena. To quote from a report in The Hindu (February 12 , 2012) “In jallikattu, all that the fighters have to do is to pounce on the running bull, try to hold on to its hump and move along with the animal without falling or getting hurt. It requires quick reflexes and a fleet foot to tame the recalcitrant bull, which will try to get away, shake off the fighter and, at times, stamp or gore the fallen participants”.
The supporters of jallikkattu say that this ancient sport has to be celebrated as it is a game of valour. Every Tamil film star worth his salt, from MG Ramachandran to Kamal Haasan, has played the macho bull-fighter. The bull-breeders complain that ever since the number of jallikattu events dropped from 3,000 before 2006 to 24 in 2014, pure-breed, native stud bulls (Kangeyam bulls) have begun to disappear. The total of number of pure-breed stud bulls have dropped to a few thousands. The bull-breeders sell the Kangeyam cattle for hefty prices, a year before the event so that they can be trained. When the Supreme Court imposed a ban on jallikattu about seven years ago, many bull-owners just sold them to slaughter houses.
The AWBI’s report submitted to the court lists unimaginable forms of torture inflicted on the beast that was meant to help in farming—tails twisted and fractured, chemicals poured into the eyes, ears mutilated, sharp-edged weapons used to poke the animal, and intoxicants forced into its mouth. It is well known that this ancient game had deteriorated to drunken revelry causing harm to man and beast. The Centre’s notification comes with several riders intended to prevent cruelty to bulls. However, it is worth noting that there have always been rules to regulate the safe conduct of jalikkattu, they are hardly ever followed.
In 2015, after the Supreme Court judgment, no bull-fight was held. There were a few protest marches but no high drama condemning the ban. However, this year, with assembly elections round the corner, every political party has jumped on to the jallikkattu band wagon. This game is controlled by the dominant caste (Thevars) in the Southern districts. This community is seen as close to the ruling party, AIADMK. The bulls are owned by the rich. Those young men who run behind the bull get around Rs 500 and a medal. When parties are talking about protecting tradition and culture, they are actually supporting the feudal culture of the Thevars, even as sane voices point out that culture is not static. Can anybody support child marriage, sati and conducting sword-fights as a game of valour?
As the original notification came from the UPA government, in which DMK was a constituent, the Karunanidhi-led party wants to wipe out that disgrace, and has vociferously demanded the lifting of the ban. The BJP, which is desperate for an alliance with the AIADMK to boost its Rajya Sabha numbers, has done everything to please chief minister J Jayalalithaa. The other parties have always made the somewhat mythical Tamil culture as a political discourse. The poor orphaned CPI(M) in the state has also decided to support jallikkattu. Congress is covering itself by calling it a localised support.
To prevent the animal-supporters from rushing to the Supreme Court, the Tamil Nadu governemt has filed a caveat in the Supreme Court to hear its opinion if cases come up against jallikkattu. This is going to be a Pongal of blood and “valour” with ministers presiding over jallikkattu.