Taming the bull

The protests that we have witnessed over jallikattu are much deeper than a clash between traditionalists and liberals; they are about a people who desperately want to preserve their culture.

Updated - January 18, 2017 04:40 pm IST

Published - January 18, 2017 03:30 pm IST

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The nerdier voices among critics of jallikattu point out that it is really a strong tradition only in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu. The more emotional voices appeal to a sense of kindness towards animals, and remind us that while we may be the most advanced species on the planet, we cannot force animals to behave in a certain way for sport. To induce “wildness” and then to “tame” the bull, purely because it is part of “our tradition,” is barbaric, they say. “What gives us the right?” they ask, ranting against their own species in general. Some critics point out that the sport is not safe for the participants, both human and bovine. The more cynical among the critics wonder aloud if Tamil Pride and Fervor go into hibernation for the rest of the year, to resurface next Pongal to raise its voice in favour of jallikattu. Does our culture really hinge upon whether we can tame a bull, they ask even as they sneer at what they describe as the crassness of the event. The stiffer and stuffier critics point out that the entire discussion is pointless because the Supreme Court has made its decision, and we must all respect it. “Rule of Law, above all else,” they reiterate, as they shake their heads disapprovingly at the protests, the human chains, the slogans and the placards.

Not to be left behind, the advocates of jallikattu put forward a strong case too. They point out that it has been a tradition for centuries, predating Spanish bullfighting. They point out that the bull is never harmed, maimed or killed by design, unlike the celebrated Spanish sport. They point out the inconsistencies in a society that doesn’t have a problem with a bull being whipped every day as it pulls a cart, but arbitrarily deems the taming of a bull in a quasi sporting event that is held once a year to be ‘cruel’.  I have come across some fantastic stories and conspiracy theories put forward by the advocates, questioning the motives of those who seek to ban the event.

Several earnest conspiracy theorists have been trying to convince me that if one seeks to ban jallikattu, one is playing into the hands of a Western Conspiracy, designed to weaken the genetic pool of Indian cattle, so that the Indian animal rearing industry is more dependent on foreign bull semen. I seriously doubt the facts, am unable to make the leaps in logic that the authors of these pieces make with such effortless ease, and don’t quite subscribe to the paranoia, but I am impressed by the fervor, the passion and the conviction that is so obvious in every furious word, every well intentioned ‘share’ and every angry ‘like’. There are those who remind the critics that we live in a free country, and that freedom of expression of cultural pride cannot be threatened just because it offends the sensibilities of a few. Some advocates keep their arguments much simpler – “we have always done it…it’s who we are…if you aren’t from here, you won’t ever understand what it means to us.”

The last few days have been fascinating for me for reasons that have nothing to do with bulls, freedom of expression, or cruelty to animals, or far-fetched conspiracy theories.

A few years ago, before the PETA activists raised their voice, jallikattu was a perfectly legal event, and in some parts of Tamil Nadu it was the social event of the year, celebrated with much fanfare. Other parts of Tamil Nadu celebrated Pongal like many other festivals – a little bit of prayer, good food, entertainment and maybe even a small picnic. Jallikattu was never a unifying cultural force all over the State, or a rallying cry for all Tamilians, nor was it an indispensable part of the Pongal celebration across the State.

I have spent most of my life in Madras (or Chennai, if you must insist on calling it that), and in all the years of it being a legitimate event, I have never felt or noticed any great excitement about the jallikattu within the urban bubble that I lived in. Of course, we would watch clips of jallikattu action recorded in Theni, Madurai and Tirunelveli on Doordarshan, and, for just a few minutes, we would experience awestruck wonder, shock and sometimes horror, before we returned our focus to more familiar, sanitised, urban forms of entertainment.

And yet, even as I write this piece, there is talk of student protests, human chains, talk of tradition, culture and Tamil heritage. People who have never seen a jallikattu, are arguing passionately about its place in Tamil Culture.

What has changed?

What is Tamil heritage anyway? No one seems to really know.

Rightly or wrongly, in school we learned more about dynasties that ruled from Delhi and Pataliputra, than those that ruled from Kachipuram, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi and Madurai. Sadly, as a consequence we know more about the Mughals, the Tughlaqs, the Guptas and the Mauryas than we do about the Pallavas, the Cholas or the Pandyas. While there is some merit to the argument that perhaps these dynasties weren’t as powerful and did not have the same national impact as the Guptas, Mauryas, Mughals or the Mamluks, even that seemingly reasonable argument cannot fully explain the lopsidedness of the history textbooks that are being forced down the throats of poor unsuspecting boys and girls today.

We should understand that symbols are powerful weapons in this context, and can be political dynamite if wielded skillfully. The most potent symbols are simple ideas, devoid of nuance or subtlety, easy to comprehend, and with tremendous mass appeal.


There are lots of other examples around us. Valmiki is well known for his version of the Ramayana (there is much evidence to suggest that his creative effort was indeed the original Ramayana), but few are even aware of the Kamba Ramayana, an original interpretation of the story of Rama and a piece of poetic genius in its own right, written by the Tamil poet Kambar. And while many have heard of Kabir and his dohas, the Azhvar saints of Tamil Nadu and their devotional poetry remain relatively obscure. Some Right-wing scholars and historians blame Macaulay’s educational system for this distortion, but it would be bordering on the ridiculous to lay the blame for this travesty at the door of a man who died more than 150 years ago, especially when you consider the fact that India has been independent and free to make its own educational policy for the last 70 years, and so-called Dravidian parties have been ruling the State for the last 50 years.

The Dravidian political movement peddled a superb cocktail of rhetoric, designed to fill young Tamilians with pride, energy and paranoia in equal measure, to guard their culture and promote it zealously in the face of the threat of a ‘Hindi’ cultural whitewash. This subtle but very real sense of insecurity and xenophobia is what that makes it impossible for a non-Dravidian political party to contemplate a future within the State and keeps even all-conquering national parties as peripheral players. Perhaps it is time we all moved on from this  paranoia of ‘losing our culture’, but this fear is deeply ingrained and unless the political rhetoric that feeds it changes drastically in Tamil Nadu, it is difficult to see things changing in the near future.

We should understand that symbols are powerful weapons in this context, and can be political dynamite if wielded skillfully. The most potent symbols are simple ideas, devoid of nuance or subtlety, easy to comprehend, and with tremendous mass appeal. Our colonial masters didn’t quite understand their power and potency, and paid a heavy price for their arrogance. Whether it was a salt march, handspun cotton or greased cartridges, seemingly trivial events and ideas consistently blew out of control as they ignited the imagination of a nation, and turned the tide of public opinion against an administration that was out of touch with reality.

Make no mistake, the provocation and subsequent taming of an animal purely for human entertainment is cruel, and, in many ways, it typifies the arrogance of the human species. And yes, we subject animals to all sorts of cruelty. And yes, one form of cruelty does not justify another. It is equally true that merely because something offends the sensibility of a few, there isn’t sufficient cause to ban it. 

On the surface, the protests in Tamil Nadu may be viewed as a clash between traditionalists and liberals, or, if you choose to frame it differently, as a clash between differing definitions of what exactly can be construed as cruelty. There are those who would view the ongoing protests in the framework of a 'freedom of expression' issue. 

To my mind however, the protests that we have witnessed over the last few days are much deeper; they are about a people who desperately want to preserve their culture, and are protesting against what they see as an attempt to destroy an institution which is hundreds, perhaps even more than a thousand years old. Perhaps, instead of sneering at the custom itself, or judging them for being cruel to animals, we can empathise with the fact that all of us yearn for a connection with the past, however contrived or trivial that connection might appear to the outside world.

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