Untying the Jallikattu Ban!

First things first. I have not seen Jallikattu live in my life. My 1st exposure to this was in a Tamil film – Veerapandiya Kattabomman, a period film set in the British era. Known more for the histrionics of the Tamil Actor Shivaji Ganesan, the film has a memorable Jallikattu sequence. Gemini Ganesan, another popular actor of that time, who plays the part of Vellaya Thevan tames a supposedly very arrogant bull owned by a girl (part played by Padmini) after many others fail that too for many years. Going by that Jallikattu scene where it’s all fun and gaiety one would wonder what the fuss is all about! Gemini in fact gets to marry Padmini as a reward for the taming her bull.  These days though, there has not been a continuation of this aspect of culture and the rewards stop at cash offerings. Though there are other films with Jallikattu scenes, I would say that a very authentic portrayal of Jallikattu (watch here) was in Kamal Haasan’s film Virumaandi. Kamal who also scripted and directed the film used the setting in general and Jallikattu in particular as a metaphor to show the conflict ridden fault lines in that part of Tamil Nadu. Hence I was a bit surprised when he made a very flippant comment on the ongoing Jallikattu controversy last week. “Ban Biriyani if you want to ban Jallikattu”, he said. We are more used to hearing politicians make such frivolous statements but this coming from a man of intellect like Kamal was disappointing. I expected a more robust argument in favour of Jallikattu from him.

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The Supreme Court in its wisdom has banned Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu as it felt that the bulls are subjected to unnecessary pain and torture and hence against the law. So in the past 3 years, during this Pongal time when usually Jallikattu events used to take place, there is furore over the ban. Just for few days. This year has been no exception. Probably the noise has been louder. The ban on Jallikattu has created many more divides in our already diverse country. Tamil Vs Non Tamils, South Vs North, Animal Lovers vs Others, Human Rights activists Vs others and so on.

It has now boiled down to a “Culture Vs Torture” debate.  It is clearly documented that the bulls (may not be in all Jallikattu centres but predominantly) are subjected to all kinds of preparation (peppering the bull’s nostrils with chilly powder, squeezing lemon on their eyes, feeding them with alcohol,…) to get them lose their orientation before they are let out into the ring. From some of the visuals it is clear that it is an unfair “One bull Vs Many men” equation where the bull is subjected to all kinds of torture in the name of sport. I am not talking about the deaths/permanent injuries that happen to men who take part here as they participate fully aware of the dangers for their few minutes of fame and rewards. The moot question is why on earth would in a 21st century civilised society would we like to enjoy and have sadistic fun at the expense of a hapless animal?

The first answer from the “for Jallikattu” brigade is – “Jallikattu is part of our culture and tradition. It is ingrained in the psyche of Tamils for so many years. Animal rights or law cannot come in the midst of culture”. There cannot be another argument which is more specious than this.  First, in our own country we ourselves have disowned some aspects of culture and tradition which we felt are not correct and rightfully so. Second, our fall back on culture and tradition is more often than not “convenience” based and not stuck in a dogma. If tomorrow an educational institution bans “Jeans” for men – saying it’s against our Indian ethos, we will be the first to voice our opinion against such frivolous obsession with culture.  I am not for a moment saying that there is no place for culture and tradition in our lives. In dipping into culture we have to make our choices based on what is good and relevant in today’s times. Which also makes it necessary to make this cultural orientation a bit more dynamic and not written on stone.

The second argument is that “Jallikattu is also called ‘Eru Thazhuvuthal’ (Embracing the bull). Hence in a Jalli Kattu event there is no torture,.. but only an attempt to embrace the bull”. Well, if what happens to a bull in a real Jallikattu is actually called “Embracing”, then I can also say that Idli is a Gujju snack!!! In reality, it is more of “Manju Virattal” (Bull chasing) a name by which Jallikattu is also known where many men chase a rampaging bull to tame it.

The third aspect which is put forward when we talk of the ban on Jallikattu is “What about the other cruelty which happens to animals say during animal sacrifice,…??? What about Spain? What about that?” In India we now suffer severely from what I call as “Whatabouttery”! An incorrect practice being followed elsewhere or in another situation is no justification to continue with one incorrect practice. We have to wriggle out of this “Whatabouttery” and look at issues in isolation, the merits and demerits of the specific case to come to a conclusion rather than referring to other dubious practices. While on this, I must add that if there are other customs/practices which indeed are cruel to human beings and or animals I detest them as well.

The next point being made by the “For Jallikattu” group is that the Supreme Court with judges sitting in Delhi are in no position to judge on  Jallikattu – a sport which has been played during Pongal for eons in Tamil Nadu. In another words who are these high and mighty blokes sitting in Delhi and deciding on what I should do or not do in Tamil Nadu? Well, if we stretch this argument further we will come to a situation where for example to deliver a judgement on Cauvery water dispute, the judges should be from the Cauvery Delta region so that they have a “feeling” of the issue. This doesn’t fly. And I don’t think we can have one Supreme Court per every state!

It is not surprising that all the avatars of the Dravida Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu have ganged up against the Supreme Court verdict. As we speak, the state of Tamil Nadu is facing a severe drought like situation.  How would it be if all these parties come together to appeal in one voice to the Centre for assistance to get over this drought situation.  Will it not display more empathy to the farmers whose cause they claim to espouse by fighting for Jalli Kattu? Priorities anyone?

In Tamil Nadu where Politics and Films are Siamese twins, it didn’t take long for the film fraternity to throw their might behind this cause. I am not sure how many of the stars would send their sons into a Jallikattu ring every year so that their cultural connect is intact.

In general, I am not for banning this and banning that. If Jallikattu is indeed a sport which doesn’t entail cruelty or torture to the bull then we should very well continue the tradition. But that is a big IF.  The best option could be for the torch bearers of Jallikattu to come up with a set of Do’s and Don’ts which they will follow in the real spirit of the sport. That which will not cause any harm to the animal or the humans involved. The Govt. could then amend the law where necessary to allow the sport under such acceptable guidelines.  Jallikattu in its present form needs a reform.

Till then, there are other bulls to worry about. Let us (we men) tame the bull within us. It’s been having a free run of late. And let the “Bull Run” at the Stock Markets return!