Jallikattu – Things to Know Before You Take a Stand

Confused about what the recent furor in Tamil Nadu is about? Here, we break it down for you.

The first time I read about Jallilkattu, I thought of it as an Indian version of Spanish bullfighting, with matadors and red flags. As traditionally the Spaniards killed the bulls in their fights, it seemed very probable to conclude that it’s perfectly okay to have ruled against celebrating Jallikattu. But little did I know that there is so much history to this festival! It is more than just a bull fighting festival. In fact it has no bull fighting at all, some would argue.

Jallikattu is considered a ‘bull-taming’ festival, unlike in Spain where the bull is killed. Also known as Eruthazhuvuthal or Manju virattu, it is a traditional festival played in Tamil Nadu during Pongal. According to some historical accounts, the practice dates as far back as 5000 years ago, to the Indus valley civilization. Ancient Tamil poetry, known as Sangam literature (2nd BCE – 2nd CE), has many detailed references to Eru Thazhuvuthal – ‘hugging the bull’. The fact that English colonial administrators have also written about Jallikattu tells us that the sport was played continuously down the ages. Being such an old sport, it has definitely taken its place in the traditional roots of Tamil Nadu.

The word ‘Jallikattu’ literally means cash coins (jalli) tied in a pouch (kattu). The objective of the game is to pluck bundles of money or gold that are tied to the animal’s sharpened horns. Jallikattu has always been seen more as a way to honour bull-owners, rather than as a competitive sport. It is a community sport, with entire villages coming together to tame raging bulls. To win, the players must pounce at the bull and try to hang on to its hump for about 15-20 metres, or for the duration of three jumps made by the rampaging bull.

Court Rulings

The Supreme Court banned Jallikattu in 2014, upholding concerns raised by Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who had submitted various reports, affidavits, photographs and footage to prove that cruelty was involved in the event. The AWBI argued that Jallikattu bulls are physically and mentally tortured for human pleasure. Between 2010 and 2014, an estimated 17 people were killed and 1000-odd were injured during Jallikatu events. The Supreme Court said, “use of bulls in such events brutally harmed the animals and constituted an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act.”

In 2016, the Environment Ministry modified its earlier notification (issued by UPA in 2011) and declared that the sport could continue despite the prevailing ban. This was in direct breach with the top court order, and was duly challenged by animal welfare organizations such as PETA. Subsequently, a stay order was issued by the court.

On January 12, 2017, the Supreme Court rejected a plea by a group of lawyers that sought an urgent ruling of petitions on Jallikattu so that the sport could be organized during this year’s Pongal celebrations. This enraged large sections of Tamil Nadu’s population who see the ban as an insult to the state’s tradition and culture. They argue that the cases shown by media are just odd cases and not the norm.

The Protests
Since Tuesday night (Jan. 17), more than 5,000 people – mostly youngsters – have been camping at the six-kilometre-long promenade along Marina Beach in the capital, Chennai, in a peaceful protest against the ban on this popular bull-taming sport. The protest, which began in the rural areas, has found support in no time from the urban elite – students, IT professionals and even sports persons and actors – in capital Chennai.
All these people are protesting against such an imposition being made on their traditions. They firmly believe that Jallikattu is an inherent part of their culture, and banning it like this would be in defiance of their values; arguing that it is not a bull-killing sport, that there are no cruel intentions that drive it, no weapons used and no blood spilled. Some argue that the Northerners don’t understand the South Indian values, and that banning Jallikattu is akin to banning Diwali or Eid. They also point out that the Supreme Court hasn’t yet banned goat slaughters during Eid, or the animal slaughters that happen during Durga Pooja or Dussehra for prasad.

Organizers of the event argue that it is closely associated with village life and the bulls are specially reared for this purpose. Breeders often claim they treat the bulls like their own children and spend large sums of money towards their upkeep. It is a relationship between man and animal based on mutual respect, which they believe outsiders won’t understand. They claim that if Jallikattu is banned, they will have no incentive to breed these bulls and, as a result, the fate of these native breeds will become uncertain. Breeders will be forced to abandon their livestock, which is already in risk of becoming obsolete with the widespread switch to motor pumps and tractors today. Once these bulls will become of no use, it will eventually lead to lesser breeding.

Several popular Tamil film stars have voiced their support for the protestors, as have India’s leading spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin, Oscar winning musician A R Rahman and actor Rajnikanth. The impact of the Jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu has now spilled over to Delhi as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the capital on Thursday seeking an ordinance allowing the traditional bull-taming festival. Many believe that the ban will be successfully lifted, preserving Tamil pride.

Regardless of this furor, animal rights activists are standing their ground, issuing a point by point argument in response to each of the concerns raised by protestors in this eloquent statement. They insist that “India’s culture is one of kindness, not cruelty… history is simply never a good excuse for continuing abuse, and we have the ability to have independent thought, demonstrate empathy and apply reason to make autonomous decisions.”

Perhaps, as Carnatic music vocalist T M Krishna wrote recently, neither the ‘condescending’ tone of the activists’ arguments, nor the ‘specious arguments’ being put forth by protesters will help us move forward with this conversation – they will serve only to rouse deep-seated communal misunderstandings instead. “We need to understand with greater depth its [the sport’s] cultural and economic histories,” he wrote, “From that investigation we have to flesh out its inner-core that gives the crucial identity that the community celebrates. It is not about regulating the sport; it needs re-invention if we, the Tamil people, want something to be proud of.”

The Centre cleared Tamil Nadu’s proposal for an ordinance allowing Jallikattu on 20th January, 2017, so as to speedily restore peace in Tamil Nadu. “The ordinance is expected to contain provisions prohibiting cruelty to animals and measures to ensure safety of spectators,” according to newspaper report.


Image in Cover Graphic : Source Madurai Travel Club 

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