The harvest festival of Pongal was celebrated recently over three to four days in the India state of Tamil Nadu. The raging debate over the sport of “Jallikattu” reopened in the months preceding the festival and took on new and ferocious colors this time, most prominently regarding the question of what it means to be a member of the Tamil community. Jallikattu is a sport where contestants attempt to tame a bull and sometimes retrieve gifts like money or gold tied to the sharpened horns of the animal. Typically associated with notions of masculinity, community pride, and honor, it is estimated to have a history dating back more than 2,000 years.
Supporters of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, which added “bulls” to a 1991 notification that prevented the training and exhibition of certain animals for performance, and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), supported by the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal welfare activists, together constitute the groups that support a ban on the conduct of Jallikattu. The Indian Supreme Court, on two key instances in 2014 and 2016, supported this ban – arguing in 2014 that bulls were not anatomically designed for such performances.
The proponents of Jallikattu argue that as farmers have moved toward high-yielding cattle varieties, native bull breeds have been disproportionately affected over native cow breeds. They argue that the incentive to retain bulls has decreased due to mechanization processes, allowing breeds to die out. Jallikattu as a source of pride and honor provides farmers the incentive to retain and rear these native bulls whose numbers have seen significant drops over the past two decades. Moreover, this also allays fears that communally owned bulls (typically in the care of temples) may not be replaced when they die out. A resurgence in the popularity of Jallikattu provides reason for their permeation.
The opponents argue that the depiction of the bulls as equivalent to family is potentially overstated, as when the Jallikattu is conducted, bulls are subjected to disorienting substances like alcohol or chili powder, which are anointed on the genitals of the animal. They point to the suffering the bull sustains, such as instances where multiple people attack a singular agitated bull, and believe that being raised in an atmosphere of cruelty is hardly the ideal means of saving indigenous breeds.
While Jallikattu has not been conducted during Pongal for some time, sentiments in favor of its conduct continued to grow, with late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa writing to the central government in 2015 requesting the implementation of provisions to allow the conduct of Jallikattu. Recently, Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam urged the Indian prime minister to issue an ordinance permitting Jallikattu this year. Welfare activists made a statement that ordinances are open to judicial review and that they would ensure that they would not be implemented easily. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court refused to revisit the relevant verdict in time for Pongal 2017 this month and the practice continued to bear illegal status.
January 2017, however, proved to be the moment of a grand reclamation of sorts for proponents of Jallikattu, who decried the ban in multiple ways. Protesters gathered en masse in different cities to protest the ban, and in the city of Madurai alone, about 200 people were detained for protests demanding that the event be held despite the verdict. Ahead of the festivities, cart-races — which were banned alongside Jallikattu — were held as a show of defiance. Further, on the third day of the festival, in the areas of Madurai, Trichy, Namakkal, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Erode, and Salem, Jallikattu was either conducted despite the ban or stopped mid-way by police forces.
What went along with this reclamation, however, was a particular enunciation of Tamil identity as intricately linked to this festival. On social media, an overwhelming number of proponents of Jallikattu have made arguments in favor of saving the practice, reiterating how central it was to Tamil culture. The monolithic entity that Tamil culture seems to have become during the progression of the debate over Jallikattu has culminated in the proponent camp decrying any and all opposition of Jallikattu as inherently anti-Tamil.
Critiques of Jallikattu point to not just the animal cruelty, but the virulent masculinity it propagates, the relegation of women to the role of caregivers to the bull, the systemic denial of low-caste communities in active participation of the festivities, the emphasis on other ritual aspects of the Pongal festival, and so on. These critiques are met with shockingly similar responses by the proponents, who call these arguments out for being anti-Tamil.
In addition to politicians, leading actors and members of the Tamil film industry have overwhelmingly come out in support of Jallikattu and called for a removal of the ban. The few that have either made ambiguous statements or made an argument against it have had to contend with invasive questions, threats, and misogyny. PETA has suddenly become synonymous with cultural destruction and attempts at constructive debate are being viewed as hostile.
As students and everyday citizens, some of whose everyday experience is far removed from the agrarian contexts and rural settings in which Jallikattu is acted out, come together to protest the ban in the days after Pongal has concluded, this reaction has intensified on both social media and on the ground. The larger debate on animal welfare vs. culture and rituals — the need for judicial intervention into cultural practices — is still a battleground for judicial and political actors.
Earlier today, the central government finally approved the ordinance that will allow Jallikattu. If the president signs off at once, it is likely that the event will get clearance by the end of the week. In the meantime, popular sentiment, which has flooded key streets and meeting points across Tamil Nadu for the fourth consecutive day, seems to have produced a unified clarion call to repeal the ban — a clarion call that bulldozes criticism by delving into deep questions of identity and thereby solidifying a particular notion of what it means to identify as Tamil.