For much of Tamil Nadu’s history, Jallikattu was practised at the onset of the harvest season (Pongal), where young men wrestle their village’s fiercest bulls for good fortune or a prize. The reward could vary – a bride, bag of money (Jalli means ‘coin’ and ‘kattu’ is a pouch kept between the bull’s horns), a bicycle or CD-player.
It starts by letting the bulls out of an enclosure called a ‘Vaadi Vaasal’. These bulls are stout and powerful indigenous breeds like the Pulikulam, native to the Sivagangai, Madurai and Virudhunagar districts in Tamil Nadu. The men must then attempt to bring the raging bull to a halt, by grappling its horns or hump until the animal throws them off (marking failure) or falls down.
The Supreme Court banned the practice in May 2014 – and two years of uncertainty went by, as the state government attempted to challenge the verdict. In January 2016, the Centre revoked the ban – following which the court stayed their order.
Spate of protests sparked across Tamil Nadu when it became clear that the matter would not be resolved before this years Pongal. Jallikattu has been entrenched in a debate between animal rights and cultural identity. For some, it’s a blood sport. For others, it’s Tamil identity.
Conflict of Interests and Identities: Local Vs Global
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has become the target of much of the protests. Tamil politician MK Stalin called them anti-national and asked for a ban on the organisation.
Banning Jallikattu, it is argued, reduces the value for native species of bull to be tamed and maintained. One outcome of the ban was that many bulls were sent to the slaughterhouses – and sold for far lower prices than their value as fighters.The eagerness of agents and transporters to take them to slaughter has prompted fears of a beef lobby.
The calls of Tamil identity and cultural heritage are placed against the background of PETA – seen as an international organization, serving the market interests of an international ‘beef mafia’.
PETA, with its own history of controversy, is an easy diversion from the question of animal rights. But accusations of agency are also levelled at India’s apex organization over animal rights, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI).
It’s the AWBI’s report that has driven the original Supreme Court ban. In the 2014 case of Animal Welfare Board Of India vs A. Nagaraja & Others, the Court accepted the AWBI’s testimony of the suffering bulls undergo at these events. Their evidence includes bulls having their ears mutilated to ‘be able to hear sounds even from the back’; tails being pulled, fracturing and dislocating the nearly 20 small bones within them and incidences where bulls have run into buses or fallen from heights while fleeing.
Although traditionally practised by farmers and in villages, those protesting today include college students and white-collar workers – many of whom are unlikely to actually wrestle with the animals.
Social media has played a role in building support for Jallikattu – including in organizing the protests. A 2016 music video that painted the debate as one of corporations versus farmers went viral. Independent websites have sprung up taking a strong stance against PETA, and imbibed with a sense of parochialism, such as this one which says,
“The so-called Animal Activists in India are creating such a big furore about Jallikattu which is actually a function to honour our Bulls and Youth! They are targeting Tamils because we are soft people!”
PETA has responded to many of the allegations levelled against it. Their video investigation of a Jallikattu event in 2013 is visual testimony of flouted norms for the festival – e.g. showing animals prodded and provoked, tails being twisted and more than one man wrestling a bull at a time.
It’s a heavily politicized and emotionalized debate that is missing out on the animal. If the only incentive to keep indigenous cattle alive is through a contact sport, then priorities have clearly been mismatched. The solution cannot deny the animal its rights, nor put it in a situation where its only use lies in the slaughterhouse.
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