POLITICS

The Jallikattu Fire May Have Been Doused For Now, But The Tamil Nadu Government Has Just Opened The Pandora's Box

Jiski lathi uski bhains.

24/01/2017 4:34 PM IST | Updated 24/01/2017 4:44 PM IST
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Indian police try to control a protest against the ban on the Jallikattu bull taming ritual at Marina Beach in Chennai on January 23, 2017.

There's one lesson we have all learned from jallikattu. It has nothing to do with hoary Tamil traditions. And it has even less to do with the welfare of bulls. We have all re-learned the old adage – jiski lathi uski bhains. He who has the stick gets the bull.

That has come true literally. If you have the people power to stir up an angry agitation, and if you have the muscle to paralyse a city and threaten to keep the chaos going, ultimately the bhains will be yours.

The Tamil Nadu assembly has passed a pro-jallikattu bill to give the agitating protesters a "permanent solution". The bill exempts the bull sport from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. And thus by one stroke of the pen the will of the people or at least of superstar Kamal Haasan and thousands of protesters on Marina Beach will triumph, and the Supreme Court's decision to ban it under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act circumvented.

The usually vocal Maneka Gandhi, who once called it a "terrible festival," and her People for Animals (PFA) have gone into radio silence.

The usually vocal Maneka Gandhi, who once called it a "terrible festival," and her People for Animals (PFA) have gone into radio silence. The PFA will not go court against the jallikattu ordinance.

ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images
An Indian man with his hair shaved in the shape of a bull poses during a demonstration against the ban on the Jallikattu bull taming ritual in Chennai on January 20, 2017.

In the process, a rather dark precedent was established. Any sport that results in cruelty to animals, whether fringe or mainstream, can now follow in the footsteps of jallikattu. Some already are. Neighbouring Karnataka is already gearing up to exempt kambala, a buffalo race on slush tracks, which had also been stayed by a petition filed by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Karnataka chief minister P C Siddharamiah has said: "The state government backs kambala and I request the central government to do for (kambala) what they did to facilitate jallikattu." And in a rare show of bipartisanship, state BJP president BS Yedurappa has agreed wholeheartedly. And many other sports can follow suit – cock fighting, camel racing, dancing bears if their practitioners can appeal to state pride.

The other discomfiting angle in this whole fight is how quickly it became a conversation about the foreign hand. PETA's foreign roots were used to discredit its argument even though that has nothing to do with animal welfare. Ashok Rai of the Mangalore Kambala Committee tells the media that kambala has been around for 600 years. "That's why I don't understand why an American NGO like PETA should come and spoil our lives," says Rai. Angry protesters in Tamil Nadu want a ban on PETA instead of a ban on jallikattu.

ARUN SANKAR via Getty Images
An Indian man gestures with his body painted with an image of a bull during a demonstration against the ban on the Jallikattu bull taming ritual in Chennai on January 20, 2017.

We also saw plenty of whataboutery in the fight that only served to harden positions. What about biryani eaters? What about animal sacrifice during Eid? What about leather bags and leather shoes? These are not really arguments for preserving jallikattu.

These are arguments to shut down arguments. Animals being raised for food is not the same as animals being abused for sport. Saying jallikattu is just one day a year and the rest of the year the animal is well cared for is also specious. Would we say it's not domestic abuse if someone only slapped his wife around one day a year? We should be honest and admit that we think a tradition, even if it is cruel in the eyes of the court, even if it's cruel for a day, is worth preserving because it's a tradition. Whether Spain chooses to keep or ban bull fighting is irrelevant to our conversation about jallikattu.

Before 2014, there were a few lakh people who watched jallikattu or were connected to the sport, but there were crores who did not care about it.

On the other hand PETA's own stridency hardly helps matters. Using court diktats to shut down traditions only serves to inflame passions. If the same energy was used to try and figure out ways to make the sport more humane that would have been more constructive. Laying down the heavy hand of the law to dub people as just uncouth and barbaric rarely helps change attitudes.

Social activist Shunmuga Anandam tells ET: "Before 2014, there were a few lakh people who watched jallikattu or were connected to the sport, but there were crores who did not care about it." PETA helped galvanize many who did not care, and turned jallikattu into a symbol of thwarted state pride.

And it is true that in our self-righteous zeal we can miss the full story from the other side. As a child I remember watching the poor dusty sloth bears roaming the city streets and doing some shuffle of a dance to entertain children. The bears never looked happy though the children cheered. Now we rarely see bear dancers and snake charmers on the streets.

In the end, any conflict between culture and tradition and what's regarded as social progress is always fraught. One side thinks of it as a bull issue, the other side thinks of it as a Tamil issue and it's very hard to find middle ground.

That's a victory for animal rights but as Madhu Kishwar points out in Indian Express that the madaris who trained bears and monkeys and the saperas who charmed snakes suddenly found their centuries old tradition turned into criminal activity by the stroke of a pen. Today they are among the "most marginalized and brutalized social groups in India," writes Kishwar.

"Nobody even thought of employing them in zoological gardens, or putting their centuries-honed knowledge of forests, medicinal plants and wildlife to creative use in modern occupations."

In the end, any conflict between culture and tradition and what's regarded as social progress is always fraught. One side thinks of it as a bull issue, the other side thinks of it as a Tamil issue and it's very hard to find middle ground. It does not matter if it's jallikattu or women entering temples or triple talaq.

The basic argument remains stubbornly the same. They are not all comparable from a rights standpoint but every time we carve out a jallikattu exception we make it that much harder to make progress on other social issues. "The state needs to be guided by the Constitution," says Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. "But what has been happening in recent years is that justice and equality have been equated with whatever has been the most vocal, the most vociferous argument."

Politicians have in the short term defused the jallikattu fires and sent the protesters home. But the Pandora's box has also been opened.

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