Bulldozing tradition?

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While the judiciary has faced flak for extending its whip into the domain of age-old customs, it's for traditionalists to ponder whether we may have been doing the wrong thing all along.

The expression "taking the bull by the horns" arose in the pastoral plains of Western America. Forget the Rodeos. Domestic shepherds and ranchers would often have to tackle and grapple with their more rambunctious bovines to bring them into submission and back into the herd. Now, you'd have to be mad to try to grab the raging bull by its erratic feet. The only way was to meet the challenge head on, literally, and subdue the bull horn-first.

Given its recalcitrance, the bull is universally a symbol of challenge. Subduing it, a mark of valour. Bringing it down to its knees, a sign of conquest. In India, this has transformed into a sport involving not just the individual bull and its prospective controller but the entire community or village.

These activities are often unavoidably aggressive, prompting the Supreme Court to prohibit the long-standing Tamil Nadu tradition of "Jallikattu", in accordance with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The Centre, however, sought to revive the practice recently on the grounds of "tradition" and long-standing conventions in the southern States.

While the Supreme Court subsequently stayed the Centre's move, ordering an interim stay till March 15, many villages have openly defied the order and held the bull-sport even as police have looked the other way.

So, here are some instances, spread across Indian States, of how our bovine brethren, considered mascots of auspiciousness and fecundity, feature in cultural celebrations; some harmless and entertaining, others sheer life-threatening:

During the Makara Sankranti Festival, oxen in Siddalingapura, near Mysore, in Karnataka, are made to jump across a blazing wall of fire in order to exorcise any evil spirits that the village and its cattle may be under the influence of. It's a festival of harvest, and 'Kichchu Haisuvudu' is a spectacle that foreigners and locals, lining the bonfire of haystacks, find unmissable. ~ Photo: M.A. Sriram

In Andhra Pradesh, there is no subduing of the bull. But certainly, subjugation. In Arepalle Rangampet, the villagers form a cordon around a narrow snaking path along which bulls are allowed to trot along. Now, the lucrative part is that each animal has a slate tied between its horns, and the villager who is able to brave a horrible goring and snatch the slate can earn up to Rs.50,000 in prize money.

In 2014, the apex court had said animals, deemed as sentient beings, had the fundamental right to life under Article 21. Proponents of 'Pasuvula Panduga' (festival of cows) consider it a non-aggressive event and, thus, have expressed outrage over the festival being equated with Jallikattu. And it may seem that the human is more in danger than the bull in this case. But veterinary experts insist the bulls undergo severe trauma in this event. ~ Photos: K.V. Poornachandra Kumar

This scene shows Jallikattu in action on the outskirts of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The legal battle over this three-millennium-old practice is centered around the tussle between tradition and cruelty. It exposes the fissures in our existing laws, and the incompatibility between the democratic and the secular.

A 2011 notification by the Forest Ministry sought to prevent the use of bulls as performance animals. But on the back of a State legislation allowing it, the practice carried on unaffected. In 2014, Supreme Court held the law unconstitutional, resurrecting the 2011 notification. But questions still remain over whether tradition trumps cruelty. ~ Photo: AP

Another affected party of the PCA ban is the traditional buffalo fight held on the occassion of Magh Bihu in Assam. Scores of buffaloes are enlisted to butt heads and bodies in a spectacle of raw aggression, alongside traditional games, community fishing and feasts. No doubt, some get brutally gored. Here, the event is under way on a meadow in Ahatguri, Nagaon district, Assam, on January 16, this year. While the organising bodies agreed to adhere to the court ban, they admitted they would not be able to take responsibility for locals turning up and carrying out the practice as per their custom. ~ Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

As the bull occupies a role in many of India's diverse customs, it's a fair question as to how democratic such a ban is. Perhaps, as with most things ethical, the best decision can be made only if the practicioners honestly consider the harm done to our animal friends.

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