Tamil Nadu is currently witnessing a growing discontent following the Supreme Court’s refusal to lift the ban of the centuries-old tradition of bull-taming or Jallikattu before Pongal, with thousands of people from across the state taking to the streets demanding the ban be lifted.
As waves of protests intensify, here’s everything you need to know about the sport and the controversy surrounding it:
Jallikattu is a bull taming festival that is held in Tamil Nadu every year as part of Pongal celebrations, the state’s harvest festival. Dating back to more than 2000 years, the sport involves releasing a bull into a crowd of people, with participants attempting to tame the bull by grabbing the bull’s hump and riding it as long as possible.
The term Jallikattu is in fact derived from two words – salli kaasu (coins) and kattu (package), referring to a prize of coins that are tied to the bull’s horns that participants sometimes attempt to retrieve.
Calling the practice cruel, animal rights activists, FIAPO (Federation of India Animal Protection Agencies) and PETA India had been protesting against the practice since 2004. Stating that the “use of bulls in such events severely harmed the animals and constituted an offence under the Prevention of Cruelty to the Animals Act,” the Supreme Court banned the sport in May 2014.
However, in January last year, taking note of requests from the Tamil Nadu government, the Indian Government passed an order exempting the sport from performances where bulls cannot be used, effectively reversing the SC ban. As per a 2011 government order, bulls were included in the list of animals that couldn’t be exhibited or trained as performing animals. A few days later, the Court upheld its ban over the event, leading to protests all over the state.
In January this year, the Supreme Court shot down a plea to deliver an early verdict on Jallikattu so that the event could be held during Pongal this year – somewhere in the second week of January. A bench led by Justice Dipak Misra, however, said that it was “completely unfair to ask the bench to pass an order by a particular date.” This angered a huge population in Tamil Nadu for whom the ban is being seen as an insult to the state’s traditions and culture.
Going against orders of the apex court, people started organizing the event at many places, with the support of pro-Jallikattu groups and the ruling political party AIADMK. The protests which began in rural areas, soon found support in urban areas, with students and IT professionals joining the demand to lift the ban. The iconic Marina Beach in Chennai, in fact, has turned into a hub of pro-Jallikattu demonstrations since Tuesday with thousands camping at the beach.
There are multiple reasons why people of Tamil Nadu are opposing the ban. In some tellings, traditionally played to judge a man’s virility, Jallikattu was seen as a way to earn a woman’s hand in Tamil Nadu. The men who held to the bulls reared by women they admired were deemed as winners. The game has since changed, and is focused on the virility of the bull and is played by rural communities to pick the strongest bulls as sires for their cows, to produce high-quality calves. In the days of the Indus Valley Civilization, the practice was also a way to slow down and tame bulls, in order to keep the herd from going astray.
Organizers of Jallikattu and bullock-cart races also argue that traditional practices like this are closely associated with village life, and crucial to rearing strong, native and diverse breeds of livestock. The Jallikattu belt — mainly the districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul — still breeds pure native studs, and activists say Jallikattu was always more a way to honour bull owners than being a competitive sport.
If the sport is banned, supporters argue that farmers will be forced to abandon raising of native livestock, that presently stands threatened due to the mechanization of agriculture. The role of a foreign organization (PETA) in initiating the ban, has also not gone down well with many, who are viewing it as an attack on their age-old culture and traditions.
The answer differs on who you choose to listen to. Through various reports, affidavits and photographs, the Animal Welfare Board of India has argued that Jallikattu bulls are physically and mentally tortured for the pleasure and enjoyment of human beings. Pro-Jallikattu supporters say that little pain or suffering is caused to the animal. Supporters say the bulls, are in fact, specifically identified, trained and nourished for these sporting events, and their owners spend considerable sums on their upkeep, and that people coming from cities alleging animal cruelty know little about the care taken by the community.