By Krishna Pallavi
The Marina Beach’s peaceful setting had set the mood of the protests. Towering Indian icons lauded the peaceful agitation with encouraging tweets. ‘Wonderful to see protest in a peaceful way in Tamil Nadu […] Peaceful protest will be a lesson for all’, Virender Sehwag tweeted. Viswanathan Anand, former chess Grandmaster, also tweeted in support: ‘My state rises again. In unison. In peace […] Genext [sic] here are modern yet culturally rooted.’
The civilised tenor of the protests caught social media’s attention early on, though the Delhi-centric ‘national’ media was still thinking whether the protests were of national importance.
But the movement’s wane turned ugly: in a bid to disperse the protesters from the shore, the police resorted to tear-gas shells and lathis. The crowd retaliated with petrol bombs and stones; a police vehicle was set on fire. National importance was confirmed.
Jallikattu is a revered sport mainly practised in the districts adjoining the temple-town of Madurai, and is a prominent symbol of Tamil pride.
Of ancient origin, the sport is seen as a test of manhood. An excited bull is let into a crude ring formed by the excited crowd, which parts to make way for the running bull. The bull is not killed. Instead, the participants run after it and try to ride the bull by hanging on to its hump or horns in an attempt to tame it.
The sport comes with its risks—there have been deaths, but all of them have come to human beings. The winning bull is made to service numerous cows to preserve the breed.
But it is alleged that things are not as benevolent as they seem to be. A research by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) found that the bulls were goaded into anxiety and excitement by having their tails bitten and twisted and by getting stabbed and punched.
In keeping with the current extremist climate in the country, PETA sought to ban the sport altogether rather than trying to ban these cruelties which were the main grievance.
To put things in context, we need to go back a little bit. In 2016, the Environment Ministry amended an earlier notification that was originally issued by the Congress coalition government in 2011. The amendment stated that Jallikattu could be practiced irrespective of the ban.
PETA and some other animal welfare bodies challenged the amendment on the grounds that it was in direct contravention with the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling that had banned Jallikattu. The Court had then issued a stay order.
PETA believes that ‘cruelty’ has a meaning beyond slaughter, that it extends to the discomfort caused and torture done to the animal just to entertain human beings. However, it blindly ignores the reasons for the existence of the sport.
Tamil Nadu’s cattle breeds have evolved to suit the terrain they inhabit. Kangayam’s fodder comes from a calcium-rich soil. The sturdiest breed, it can easily pull up objects 2.5 times its body weight.
Umbalacherys are natives of the delta region. Their shorter legs help them to wade easily through the water-filled fields.
Barugur and Malai Maadu have evolved themselves to be adept on the hilly terrain they walk on. Pulikulams mainly populate the districts that celebrate Jallikattu with the greatest fervour—Madurai and the surrounding region. They can walk around a great deal.
The urban disconnect arises from a way of life completely different from that of a village. The pride in having received a uniform—and to some extent, regimented—education, completes the alienation.
The urban residents feel secure and are comfortably cocooned in their learning. Their disinterest in the fundamentals of village life and a flawed sense of superiority results in policies and decisions completely incompatible with the needs of a rural ecosystem.
A permanent ban on Jallikattu would result in the extinction of these native breeds. Since native breeds do not yield much milk, there would be no organic milk production.
Jallikattu is a way of identifying the healthiest male for purposes of mating, and a ban means that the gene pool would slowly disintegrate for lack of the best genes, and the breeds would eventually go extinct.
The ploughing of fields by mixed breeds would not be as good as the native breeds that have an evolutionary edge and an inherent expertise over the land they operate upon. This would finally result in the loss of a number of rural livelihoods, particularly the bull breeders.
The cases of animal abuse have been blown out of proportion, some say. Himakiran Anugula, an organic farmer and a trustee of Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, writes that ‘out of the 10,000 instances of bulls let out a year, the anti-Jallikattu activists have produced images/videos of may be 7-8 bulls where an offence might have taken place.’
Responding to the allegations that the bulls are given alcohol, he notes that the reality is different. ‘Amidst all the regulations and scrutiny, which bull owner will risk giving alcohol to the bulls? Glucose water is given to them for stamina.’
And also, you don’t mess with Tamil culture!
On January 16 this year, when the police lathi-charged people accused of attempting to release a bull in Alanganallur, arresting 50 and injuring 20, photos and videos of the incident started surfacing on social media. Messages were circulated asking people to assemble at Marina Beach to protest.
People turned up in hundreds. Opposition leader MK Stalin also visited the beach and lent his support.
A day later, there were about 5000 people at the beach.
The Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam assured the people that he would meet the Prime Minister so that an emergency ordinance could be passed to allow Jallikattu. The Madras High Court had not intervened in the matter because it was sub judice to the Supreme Court.
In view of the growing protests, the Chief Minister flew to Delhi on the morning of 19th January to meet the Prime Minister. He informed the PM about the tense situation. He was sympathetic to the cultural concerns of Tamil Nadu but repeated what the Madras Court had said. It would not be correct for the government to intervene when the matter was sub judice to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile down south, the protests had spread to other parts of the state, despite the state government’s repeated requests to call off the agitation.
On Friday, matters got worse. A ‘rail-roko’ agitation was staged by DMK workers. Popular Tamil actors joined the movement. Sensing the hostile situation, the Centre was forced to act.
Law, culture and environment ministries cleared the ordinance allowing the sport and sent it to President Pranab Mukherjee for his approval. The Supreme Court was requested to delay its judgment on the matter because of the protests. The court complied.
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