Jallikattu as a sport has raised many questions about the nature of the modern state, and the debate around it is becoming increasingly polarised. This excerpt from Jallikattu: Taming the Bull was first published as an opinion piece in The Hindu on 25 January 2017 at the height of the recent protests against the Supreme Court ban on the sport:
A great wave of ethnic sentiment is sweeping across Tamil Nadu. What began as an admirably peaceful protest against restrictions on jallikattu, the Tamil tradition of bull taming, has this week mutated into violent hooliganism and police crackdowns. Many people have been injured across the State, police stations are in flames in some locations, and the State government machinery is getting stretched thin in its attempts to keep protesters, many thousands converging on Chennai’s Marina beach for example, under control.
Beneath the surface of these law-and-order problems, a darker agenda of resurgent Tamil chauvinism also appears to be rearing its ugly head. Not only is the anti-Delhi mood of the mobs becoming more strident by the day, but posters of Velupillai Prabhakaran, late leader of the extremist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, are popping up, as are “secessionist slogans” reported in several protest sites.
These signs are indicative of a deeper play, and it cannot be a coincidence that the spiralling mass demonstrations come at this particular juncture in Tamil politics, when a feverish search is on for political legitimacy, and both major Dravidian parties are facing their toughest test of leadership in recent history.
While jallikattu indeed enjoys a temporal provenance that dates back to the hoary history of Tamil civilisation, as far back as 400-100 BC according to some accounts, the latest legal saga of the “sport” relates directly to the May 7, 2014 decision of the Supreme Court to ban the sport by upholding a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment in 2011 to add bulls to the list of animals whose training and exhibition is prohibited.
Perhaps fearing the loss of political currency associated with the ban in the aftermath of the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, the State government acted quickly, promulgating an ordinance to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (POCA), thus making jallikattu legal again. Legislation was subsequently passed in a special session of the State Assembly on Monday.
That, despite this, swelling crowds have continued to bring life to a standstill, that riot-like conditions have gripped other parts of the State such as Alanganallur in Madurai district, and that the anti-New Delhi sentiment continues to stalk the land speak to factors underpinning the civic disturbance that go beyond sentimentalism for jallikattu.
Taking a macro view, at the heart of the debate is the allegation by animal rights organisations such as the Animal Welfare Board of India and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that the Bos indicus bulls used in jallikatu are subject to cruelty, are physically and mentally tortured for human pleasure, and the sport is thus directly in contravention of the POCA. This appears to be borne out by a plethora of photographic and video evidence, some of it available on the YouTube channels of the aforementioned animal rights groups.
The countervailing arguments by spokespersons of the jallikattu “movement” include the claim that as a key event of Mattu Pongal, jallikattu is essential to preserving the indigenous bull species, a way of life in rural, pastoral Tamil Nadu, and is indeed a celebrated feature of Tamil identity itself, described as it is at several points in the cherished Sangam literary tradition…
This brings us to the nub of the issue: the role of politics in fomenting or controlling what is being naively dubbed as the ‘Tamil Spring’ by some overzealous pundits…