As we are approaching the mid-week of January, the state of Tamil Nadu is gearing up for its grand celebration of Pongal, the most auspicious festival for the farming community in the Tamil month of Thai. Thai Pongal is primarily celebrated to convey gratitude to the Sun God for bestowing the farmers with energy for agriculture. Part of the celebration is the boiling of the first rice of the season consecrated to the Sun – the Surya Maangalyam. One of the most salient traditions of the Pongal festival is the tradition of Jallikattu (or Yaeru Thazhuvuthal), a 2000-year-old sport of bull baiting and taming. Jallikattu is an exhibition of heroism and bravado, and, for some, it is the matter life, livelihood and self-esteem.
However, in the ambit of the last five to six years, Jallikattu has courted much controversy tantamount to a ban on the sport announced by the Supreme Court in 2014. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had approved a notification in 2011 which included bulls in a list of animals that “shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animal”.
We will explore all the facets of this ancient sport discussing the controversy and the debate that still has a large mass separated.
What is Jallikattu?
Jallikattu is a bull taming sport played in Tamil Nadu as a part of Pongal celebrations on Mattu Pongal day. The bulls are bred specifically for the sporting event, and a specified breed of cattle bred for this purpose is known as ‘Jellicut’. Throughout the year, the bulls are reared and groomed for one day show in the Jallikattu arena.
Jallikattu can be categorised as three different forms of the sport:
Vaadi Manju Virattu, where a baiter tries to tame a raging bull in the arena until it is restrained completely or a baiter holding on to a raging bull in the arena for a particular period or distance. Then comes the Veli Manju Virattu, where the bulls are just allowed to run from end to end. And lastly the Vadam Manju Virattu, where the baiter tries to tame a bull which is tied to a pole with a 15-metre long rope within a particular time.
The calves that are raised to become bulls are provided with a nutritious diet so that they mature into tough and sturdy animals. The calves, once they reach adolescence, are taken to small events to familiarise them with the atmosphere. They are also given specific training based on the variant of the event it is meant for.
The reason for the ban
Animal activists groups, the FIAPO (Federation of India Animal Protection Agencies) and PETA India have opposed against the practice since 2004. The Animal Welfare Board of India had filed a case in the Supreme Court for an outright ban on the sport because of the cruelty to animals and the threat to public safety involved.
The Supreme Court in 2014 banned Jallikattu as it violates provisions of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA) and militates the constitutional duty of treating animals with compassion, Article 51A (g).
It also reiterated the overall reading it had provided in the past, to Article 21 (Right to Life), which prohibits any disturbance to the environment, including animals, considered essential for human life.
Uplifting the ban in 2016 and SC’s stay order
On January 8, 2016, the MoEF had permitted the continuation of the tradition under certain conditions. The ministry’s decision was perceived to be vested with political agenda of gaining support from the politically powerful OBC Thevar community in the Jallikattu belt. However, after hearing petitions, the Supreme Court on January 12, 2016, ordered a stay on Jallikattu, issuing a notice to the Centre and state government refusing to lift the stay.
Similar demands arising this year
With the date of Pongal approaching, thousands of citizens of Chennai took to the street on Sunday urging the state government to ensure the conduct of Jallikattu. More than 5,000 supporters gathered at Marina beach seeking permission for holding it. The volunteers propped banners and posters and raised slogans against PETA, demanding the government to act on their demands. Political party DMK have been pressing the Centre and state government to take steps to hold the sport on Pongal this year.
The debate over the ban
There is a roaring debate — two separate universes of opinions — on Jallikattu, and also there is an absence of an inclusive approach to the problem. The ancient sport of the colonial times has been in practice mostly in the districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul.
A Jallikattu bull is picked after a set of visual, physical and behavioural examination processes of the bull calves on the third month of its birth by the village elders. They are chosen by its figure, hump, horns and its anatomical ratios. They are exempted from castration and any kind of draught work. They are brought up to a certain period in the native villages before being sold to the buyers from various rural districts of Tamil Nadu. It is because of this sport, the native breed of cows are kept alive. Besides the bulls have upper hand in this competition as their sharp horns can be fatal for humans who participate in voluntarily, after knowing all the risks associated with it.
There are allegations that during Jallikattu, bulls are purposefully scared and petrified and then made to run across the crowd, which eventually leads to the destruction of anything that come up in their way. Various cruel means are taken into course to scare and anger the bull like pinching, nailing, stabbing with sticks that have nails at the edges, twisting their tails and even forcefully making them drink alcohol and other drugs. The ropes around their nose are painfully yanked and then they are dragged into the crowd of people who further anger the bull.
However, those who are involved in Jallikattu say that the bulls are well fed, trained and are fully prepared before they hit the Jallikattu arena. All bulls are declared fit to participate only after a set of strict medical examinations which includes alcohol tests by government sanctioned veterinarians by equipment like breath analysers.
Though the death toll of humans have crossed 200 in the last two decades and there are risk of fatalities, injuries, the baiter takes responsibility of his own life. The baiters are made to undergo a set of medical examinations which includes alcohol tests. Then they are allowed to participate after signing a document of the declaration.
While animal rights activists group can ponder on the points that the sport is dangerous for the animal as well as the participants, Jallikattu is adored for opening up a great bonding opportunity between human and animal.