The spontaneous and massive protest against the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu, the ancient Tamil sport of bull baiting associated with the harvest festival of Pongal, has once again thrown open the question on whether activism involving religious and cultural practices is misplaced or desirable. The ban, which was later lifted by circumventing the judicial order through the ordinance route by the state government, was imposed by the Supreme Court following petitions by animal rights organisations, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). Though the government has claimed that the ordinance would lead to amendment in the law to make it permanent, it is not the last that one has heard about the controversy and the lifting of the ban.
Those demanding restoration of the practice of Jallikattu have been arguing that the tradition is over 2,000 years old and has its roots in the rural agrarian economy of the society. They argue that the sport was aimed at selecting the fittest of the bulls for procreation and breeding. Banning the Jallikattu would damage and destroy the native breed, they claim and assert that some of these breeds were already under threat. Jallikattu supporters say that the bulls used in the sport were specifically identified, trained and nourished by the owners and are treated as family members. The animal welfare activists, however, call it an undisguised cruelty against the bulls. They question the claim of any historic or cultural tradition associated with Jallikattu. In support of their arguments for ban on the annual event, they point out that the bulls were subjected to all kinds of cruelty. Indeed there have been reports that some people, in their enthusiasm to make it more dramatic and to provoke the bulls, throw chilli powder in their eyes, sharpen their horns and beat them mercilessly.
The background to unprecedented turmoil in the state over the issue goes back to 2007 when AWBI and PETA approached the Apex court to challenge a verdict of the Madras High Court in favour of Jallikattu. It was during the pendency of the petition that the central government issued a notification in 2011 modifying an earlier notification by adding ‘bulls’ to the category of animals banned for the purpose of training and exhibition. The Supreme Court upheld the notification in 2014 and decreed that “bulls cannot be allowed as performing animals, either for Jallikattu events or bullock-cart races in the state of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere in the country”. The ban was temporarily lifted by the central government a little ahead of the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu last year evidently under pressure from the ruling AIADMK and to please its leader J Jayalalithaa whose support for the Modi government was critical. The notification issued by the government modified the one issued in 2011 to allow Jallikattu in 2016. The Supreme Court again intervened following a petition by animal rights organisations and stayed the amended notification.
The immediate provocation for the mass upsurge against the ban was the arrest of about 200 young activists who were protesting against the ban at Alanganallur in Madurai district in mid-January. This led to a mass expression of pent up grievance of the locals who had been having a perception that the “Tamil pride” was under threat. This feeling of nationalist pride has earlier been expressed over the ‘imposition’ of Hindi and such other steps to bring in uniformity. Within hours several lakh people gathered to protest at several places in the state, including the famous Marina beach, and top stars like A R Rahman, world chess champion Vishwanathan Anand and matinee idols like Kamal Hassan, lent in their support. Simultaneously a social media campaign was launched and volunteers poured in from different sections of society to keep a ‘vigil’ against the ban. Most of them, including women and children, stayed in the open for over four days and nights.
The Tamil Nadu Assembly on Monday unanimously adopted a bill replacing the jallikattu ordinance paving the way to amend the Central Act governing performing animals. However the locals are demanding a permanent solution to the situation and some of them had to be evicted with the help of security forces. The moot question that arises from the controversy is whether the courts should take on the mantle of reformists and that too try to usher in reforms by force of law. The question had also risen recently on the question of Uniform Civil Code and triple talaq.
There is no doubt that some of the ‘ancient’ traditions are undesirable and have run out of their utility. In fact many of these have got distorted over the centuries or have been misinterpreted by the religious leaders. But seeking to ban such rituals or practices by force can have a counter reaction. The argument against cruelty, for instance, can be stretched to the very question of non-vegetarianism and slaughter of animals for the purpose of meat. And then there are contradictory judgments like allowing ‘culling’ monkeys which is a euphemism for killing monkeys. This is what has been done in Himachal Pradesh where they are accused of destroying crops. There is also the widespread demand for killing stray dogs and animals straying into human habitations.
If the courts get into the practice of issuing diktat in reforming traditional practices and customs, there would be no end to the judicial interventions they will have to make to bring in ‘reforms’. A top down approach in such cases can only be counter productive and can lead to hardening of conservative position. The more the government and the courts attempt to push, the more such a pressure can become counter productive. As in the case of Jallikattu controversy, well educated and well meaning people have joined in the protest to push reforms down the throats of people. They have a point. What is instead required is a reformist approach rather than a clamp down without affording opportunities to rectify the distortions that may have crept in the tradition. Besides enforcement of such a ban is hardly feasible as cultural practices enjoy widespread support and can’t be curbed through fiat. In the case of Jallikattu all the local parties including the AIADMK and the opposition DMK have opposed the ban.
Those demanding restoration of the practice of Jallikattu have been arguing that the tradition is over 2,000 years old and has its roots in the rural agrarian economy of the society
The government and the courts can ensure that steps are taken not to mistreat bulls and practices like throwing chilli powder in their eyes or using force to train them are dealt with appropriately. The government should involve community leaders and spread awareness against cruel practices. For this, the government must recognise the problem and initiate reforms. As regards the role of the courts, judicial activism must not extend to social engineering projects. Though courts can’t and shouldn’t remain immune to the contemporary developments, it is important that they focus on interpreting the law. Clearly there are limitations of reform by diktat. Thus it is understandable that the courts had taken cognisance of the cruelty and maltreatment of bulls in the name of Jallikattu, a better way would have been to push for reforms and regulations for the sport rather than imposing an outright ban.