Taking tradition by the horns

Published: 16th Jan 2017   3:14 pm

The raging protests in Tamil Nadu over the ban on ancient bull-taming sport Jallikattu reflect a conflict between collective sense of cultural ethos and pressures of modern ethics and justice. Parties across political spectrum have been displaying a competitive zeal in seeking revival of the Pongal-eve rural ritual banned by the Supreme Court in 2014 based on the concerns of animal welfare activists. The fact that the archrivals AIADMK and DMK are on the same page shows how the issue is sought to be linked to Tamil pride and heritage.

With a history tracing back to Indus Valley civilisation period, Jallikattu, a warrior sport where a man matches wit and sinew with a raging bull and grabs a small bag of coins or Jalli tied to its horns, has over centuries become an integral part of Tamil rural life. It is about celebration of courage and masculinity. No wonder then that even leading celebrities like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have been rooting for its revival.

At the crux of the dispute is the question whether the bulls are harmed during the ritual. Arguing that the practice amounted to cruelty to animals, the animal rights activists have documented instances of how the bulls are tortured before being led into the arena. According to Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), at least 43 people lost their lives in Jallikattu-related events between 2008 and 2014. However, the supporters dismiss such concerns as exaggerated and contend that Jallikattu bulls are never harmed but are treated as pride possessions of villages. Banning the sport would sound a death knell for native cattle species and force Jallikattu bulls to the slaughter houses, it is argued.

Seeking a foothold in Tamil Nadu politics in the post-Jayalalithaa era, the BJP too has jumped in support of Jallikattu cause. The Centre is under pressure to issue an ordinance allowing its revival, a move that could potentially attract contempt of court. The apex court had in November last year dismissed TN government’s plea seeking recall of the 2014 verdict banning the practice.

There is a need for the government to strike a delicate balance between respecting the age-old tradition and ensuring safety of animals during the ritual. Stringent regulation must be in place to prevent any sort of cruelty against the animals and injuries to the tamers. The event must be organised under direct supervision of district authorities, conforming to a set of conditions, and with the involvement of AWBI. If any custom or tradition is found to militate against basic tenets of humanity, it needs to be regulated and monitored. Ancient practices like Jallikattu should serve as an abiding symbol of harmonious co-existence but not of confrontation between man and animal.