There are cases in controversy and there are cases around controversy, India has an eclectic exception, a case on the controversy. A case with its foundations in controversy, practices in controversy and continuance in, again, controversy, no marks for guessing there. It is so tightly wound around the controversy that it is a case for understanding the nature of controversies.
Jallikattu is a tradition that rears its head around the start of India’s harvest festival, Pongal. It involves releasing a bull into a field as people try to jump and grab it by the hump for a certain specified time. It is said to represent the symbolic taming of wildlands into agricultural fields, an invocation towards man’s victory against all that is deemed wild and unruly (certain parts also involve taking off flags from the horns and waving them about).
This practice’s inception is disputed, but eminent historians characterise it to be as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation of the Ganges plain. It was more common in the Sangam Ages and has continued with little variation, albeit the introduction of a Jalikattu Premier league, but then our nation possesses a peculiar proclivity for imbibing commerce in any activity.
Jallikattu is a familiar guest in Indian courts and has been the subject of numerous, though contradictory judgments; it continued unrestrained till 2010 when it was partially prohibited after a petition by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It was completely prohibited in 2014.
In 2016, the then Chief Justice gave concrete remarks over an age-old tradition’s impermissibility solely on the plea of culture. However the state Chief Minister, O Paneerselvam, ominously pledged to restore the practice. The Modi-led government cleared it through an ordinance and bull-taming was legalised in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Opening the defence for Jallikattu is a favourite among the political and business circles of Tamil Nadu, the defence almost inevitably reaches a stop at culture, with some evoking divine authority, freedom of religion and self-determination all in the folds of the bigger cultural argument. It has been used so frequently and redundantly that it has taken its place as a sacrosanct, hallowed principle in the region.
The defence for Jallikattu is a phenomenon in itself, a cause célèbre free for use by politicians, filmmakers, nationalists, etc. It can almost be argued that only the bull is unable to use it.
Jallikattu is a case in point for understanding the malleable nature of a controversy, right from its roots, it takes on several forms, twists, turns and bends to the will of the strongest, much like its instrument, the bull. It presents itself right on cue within the framework of the citizenry and by tracing the controversy, we find a pattern, a chart of how it moulds itself after the whims of its master.
Jallikattu, in a more liberal India, was a case for animal rights, after the rising right-wing wave, it has become a cultural enigma, a source of much-desired pride and honour and makes us question, who’s the animal here?