Bull run History & Culture

Jallikattu: five dead, over 100 injured in three days — this dangerous sport needs safety regulations

A tamer trying to subdue a bull during the jallikattu held in Pavalathampalayam, Erode

A tamer trying to subdue a bull during the jallikattu held in Pavalathampalayam, Erode   | Photo Credit: M. GOVARTHAN

‘The law has safeguards to reduce injury to people and animals, but we are now in 2020, and it is the government’s duty to improve the provisions’

Avarangadu, Tiruchi district, January 17: 1 dead, 43 injured

Alanganallur, Madurai district, January 17: 1 dead, 29 injured

Vadamalapur, Pudukottai district, January 18: 1 dead, 18 injured

Kokkudi, Ariyalur district, January 19 : 1 dead, 24 injured

Kandupatti, Sivaganga district, January 19: 1 dead, 61 injured

As this goes to press, five men have been gored or trampled to death by bulls, and over a hundred left injured in Tamil Nadu, over just three days, while participating in jallikattu, the traditional bull taming sport that begins with the harvest festival of Pongal. Between 2008 and 2014, 43 people were killed and thousands injured in the State, according to the Animal Welfare Board of India.

Jallikattu, however, continues unabated and with full fervour.

It is 3 a.m. on January 17, the third day of jallikattu. It is still dark when dozens of bull rearers, from Madurai and several other districts of Tamil Nadu, gather with their prized beasts in Alanganallur. The bulls, some with flowers on their horns, line up at the vadivasal, or entrance to the arena.

Just beyond the vadivasal, the bull tamers, resplendent in neon green t-shits with the names of local politicians printed on the back, are getting a health check-up. “Breathe into the breathalyser,” M. Vinoth, a doctor, instructs them. “Now stick out your tongue. Did you have breakfast?”

7.30 am. It is already sweltering and huge crowds have gathered. The tamers take the jallikattu oath: “We promise not to hurt the animals and to treat the bull and each other with dignity,” they repeat after the district collector, T.G. Vinay. As soon as the oath is over, the thousands of spectators, many wearing caps and holding hand-fans, go wild. They shout, whistle and cling to the tall barricades. Tourists and VIPs watch from special galleries. A dozen ambulances, 25 veterinarians and 35 para-veterinarians are in attendance.

The bulls are released into the arena: some resist entering the barricaded space, while others charge in. The tamers must now hurl themselves on to the bucking bull and hold on to its hump. The man who retains his grip even as the animal spins three times wins the prize, which ranges from cows and cash to mobile phones, cars and flight tickets — all funded by sponsors. The owners of the bulls that manage to fight off the tamers also win prizes.

It is now past noon. V. Shridhar, 27, is contending with a particularly difficult bull that will not enter the arena. As he wrestles with it between the narrow holding area and the vadivasal, the bull gores him in the abdomen. A Red Cross team is just 10 feet from Shridhar but can’t reach him in the melee. When Shridhar is finally carried out on a stretcher, blood pours out of his wounds. By 1 p.m., he is declared dead.

Tamil pride

“The killer bulls are let loose into the ring, whose sharpened horns shine like Siva’s battle-axe / Then come the beating drums, sounding like thunder / Smoke goes up and dust is raised, maidens come and stand in a row.” This is a translation of a verse from Kalithogai, an anthology of ancient Sangam poems, which makes one of the earliest references to jallikattu. This translation, by poet M.L. Thangappa, is published in the book Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture, edited by historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy.

Jallikattu indeed has a long history, and is today represented prolifically in popular culture, including cinema. It has come to be associated with Tamil unity, identity and pride. Which is why, when the Supreme Court banned it in 2014, on the grounds of animal cruelty, it triggered widespread protests in Tamil Nadu, culminating in a massive uprising in January 2017. Alanganallur was one of the epicentres. “We were alarmed,” says M. Rajasekaran, a bull rearer. “The event is central to our Pongal celebrations. Year after year, several hundreds of us rear bulls and treat them as part of our family. Karuppu, my bull, is my child.”

Protests raged in Chennai too. Lakhs of people — entrepreneurs, students, teachers, government employees — thronged Marina Beach for a week. ‘Save Jallikattu. It’s our culture,’ the posters read. Swapna Sundar is the author of Occupy Marina!, a book on the jallikattu protests in Chennai. “Here, the identity with jallikattu was metaphorical and symbolic rather than literal. The demands were not so much about livelihood — these were people assured of livelihoods,” says Sundar. “What drove them was a sense of their self-determination being denied, especially at a time that coincided with a political vacuum after Jayalalithaa’s death.”

Celebrating cattle

Jallikattu is part of an agricultural tradition, a celebration of traditional cattle, says film historian Theodore Baskaran. He recalls watching jallikattu as a boy growing up in Dharapuram town in Tirupur district. “I remember sitting on the school’s compound wall and watching the event unfold on the road alongside. The bulls were released, and the tamers would try to ride it holding on to the hump. It would go on for hours. Those days, the prizes were veshtis and towels, now of course it’s cars.” The interesting thing, he says, is that jallikattu is part of a tradition that anthropologists call the ‘little tradition’. “It is connected to the village deity, and not related to Vedic deities.”

Heeding the passionate protests, the Tamil Nadu Assembly, in January 2017, brought into force a new jallikattu law, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2017, which effectively reversed the Supreme Court ban, although putting some regulations in place. The amended Act permitted jallikattu “with a view to follow and promote tradition and culture and to ensure preservation of native breed of bulls.”

The consensus was that the new, more rigorous, regulations would make the sport safe. The fresh rules required participants to be given a medical check-up before they enter the arena; for ambulances and doctors to be in place; for the arena to be surrounded by an 8ft double barricade so that the bulls don’t jump out and injure spectators. Responding to the Supreme Court’s 2014 verdict that the bulls are prodded, beaten and deliberately agitated before they are forced into the arena, the new rules mandated that veterinarians be present, and that the bulls not be physically abused or fed alcohol.

Yet, as critics point out, the sport continues to be dangerous to both people and animals.

J. Amalorpavanathan, former director of the Institute of Vascular Surgery, Madras Medical College, is concerned by the deaths and injuries that occur every season. “Any human interaction with a provoked animal is an invitation to death. We have seen everything from injuries to the bladder, bowel, liver and spleen to the rupture of lungs and major blood vessels in the body.”

Not so valid

As for the argument that it is necessary to preserve an ancient tradition, as Dr. Amalorpavanathan says, “Sati and untouchability were also practised in the name of tradition.” Sundar refutes also that the practice protects native breeds. “Honestly,” she says, “this is not valid at all. The basic foundation for [cattle preservation] is good agricultural and cattle science.” Other critics have described the sport as feudal, as excluding communities. Some have pointed to its patriarchal cult and the way it perpetuates hypermasculinity. “It reminds me of Roman gladiators thrown into the arena as the audience watched them getting gored,” says Dr. Amalorpavanathan.

Can greater safety regulations make jallikattu less dangerous?

Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an advocate at Madras High Court. He thinks the cultural practice should be protected, but also regulated and independently audited. He believes the law must mandate the use of more sophisticated safety measures. Referring to the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009, Shunmugasundaram says, “This law has safeguards to reduce injury to people and animals, but we are now in 2020, and it is the government’s duty to improve these provisions, to include better safety measures, perhaps protective gear, that are available today and that we did not have 10 years ago.”

As Dr. Amalorpavanathan says, “Society has to decide what it wants: a dangerous practice that passes off as tradition or human life.” Clearly, it’s time for the government to improve jallikattu safety regulations. While this can substantially reduce the risk of injury and death to humans, the fact remains that the sport is still innately cruel to the beast. Most human deaths and injuries are caused by bulls terrified by the noise and the crowds into which they are pushed out. On January 22, a panicked bull fell to its death when it raced blindly into a well in Tirupattur district. Pitting a petrified animal against several humans: does society really need such a sport?

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 6:57:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/jallikattu-five-dead-over-100-injured-in-three-days-this-dangerous-sport-needs-safety-regulations/article30643197.ece

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