‘Taking the bull by the horns’ may be disastrous

By Sandeep Sahu

The decks have been cleared. With the Supreme Court agreeing to defer the verdict in the case by a week and the Centre promising to de-notify the bull as a performing animal ‘in a day or two’ and facilitate Presidential assent to the ordinance issued by the Tamil Nadu government, Chief Minister O Paneerselvam has triumphantly announced that he would ‘inaugurate’ jallikattu, the traditional bull taming ‘sport’ banned by the apex court in 2014, at Alanganallur, the bastion of the rural sport, at 10 AM on Sunday.

For now, the lakhs of people who have been protesting the ban – and even calling for a ban on the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) instead – across Tamil Nadu with the famous Marina Beach as the Ground Zero on the grounds of Tamil pride and tradition over the last five days can breathe easy. But the battle over jallikattu is far from over. With the Supreme Court having made it abundantly clear that it is in no mood to overturn the ban it upheld in May, 2014, the ordinance – and the Act that is certain to follow it – will surely be challenged by animal rights activists again.

The significance of the developments can hardly be overstated. First, in a unique phenomenon rarely seen anywhere in the country in recent memory, the leaderless ‘Seize Marina’ movement that began with just 40-odd youth swelled to lakhs in next to no time – and that too by resolutely keeping politicians at bay. [The Maratha March in Maharashtra and the Patidar agitation in Gujarat come close, but were not quite spontaneous like the jallikattu protest in Tamil Nadu.] Secondly, it is only the second time in the last three decades when a government has sought to overturn a Supreme Court through an ordinance. The last time it was done was in the infamous Shah Bano case in 1986 when the late Rajiv Gandhi buckled under the pressure of orthdox Muslim clergy. [There was another aborted bid to undo an apex court ruling when the last UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh sought to annul the SC verdict barring convicted politicians from contesting elections by bringing an ordinance but backed off after Rahul Gandhi famously tore up the ordinance at a press conference.]

It is hard to take a side in this case. Both sides – the animal rights activists on the one hand and proponents of jallikattu on the other – have strong arguments to back their case. The ground on which the former justify the ban – cruelty to animals – is unexceptionable. After all, who can justify cruelty inflicted on the bulls – as has been well documented – during the sport? There is also the threat of death of the men who play the game and serious injury and trauma to the bull (votaries of jallikattu say there has never been a case of a bull dying during jallikattu). Not many people know that the case that ultimately led to the ban on the bull taming game played as part of the Pongal celebrations was filed not by PETA or any animal rights activist but by A Nagaraja, a man who lost his son to the sport in 2004. Thus, a ban on jallikattu was necessary to save human life, if not on the grounds of cruelty to animals.

Conversely, the vast army of pro-jallikattu protesters also has a case that cannot be brushed aside easily. Citing references to the bull taming game in Tamil literature written 2000 years ago, they have claimed that it has been part of Tamil culture for millennia. Others have argued that it is the last remaining bulwark against the gradual extinction of native bull breeds. The fact that the ‘Seize Marina’ movement has been led – and manned – by highly educated and tech savvy youth makes it difficult to ignore it as the ranting of obscurantist Tamils. Coming as it does soon after Tamil Nadu was denied its rightful share of Cauvery waters by Karnataka despite a Supreme Court order, the protest against the ban on jallikattu is being interpreted as the collective outpouring of anger against what is being seen as a ‘conspiracy’ to ride roughshod over Tamil sentiments, the same impulse that led to the anti-Hindi agitation in the 1960s. The dangers of fresh attempts to overturn the ordinance promulgated by the Tamil Nadu government to enforce the ban on jallikattu should thus be obvious.

It seems a lasting solution lies only in the long term. It calls for plenty of patience on the part of animal rights activists and prolonged and dogged persuasion to convince the people of Tamil Nadu why jallikattu is not indispensable to Tamil culture and tradition. May be there is a need to tweak the argument by presenting it as a threat to the life and limbs of human beings and not just a case of animal rights. Efforts must also be made to convince the Tamil people that it is not part of some ‘conspiracy’ to hurt their sentiments by outsiders. Any attempt to enforce the ban in a hurry could prove counterproductive.