Jallikattu and Tamil Pride

Jallikattu is in the news again.  Last January, I had written about it in the Mumbai Mirror.  I thought it would be in the fitness of things to pull them out and post the two pieces here.  Hence this post.


  It is another example of the interplay between policy, politics and law. Bowing to political pressure around election time in Tamil Nadu, a political system that is inclined to favour a ban on cow slaughter for trading in beef, was happy to favour removal of a ban Jallikattu.
Jallikattu is an ancient, bloody, bull-taming Tamil sport, played during the Pongal festival and involves human beings recovering a packet of prize money tied to the horns of a special breed of bulls that charge down a path. Yet, today, when this column is published, Tamil Nadu will witness another Jallikattu-free Pongal. Hearing a challenge by the Animal Welfare Board and others, the Supreme Court has issued an interim stay on the government’s notification permitting the sport. The court has refused to vacate its stay when a bunch of intervening petitioners from Tamil Nadu sought to have the stay revoked. This is not a final view of the court. It would eventually hear arguments on whether the government was right when it conducts a final hearing in the matter.Jallikattu has remained banned for the past four years. Arguments in favour of revoking the ban range from Tamil pride (“Jallikattu is one such precious heritage that has been preserved over millennia and our duty is to take this forward”) to counter-intuitive economic theories (“If Jallikattu is banned, livestock keepers will be forced to abandon the raising of native livestock, which already stands threatened due to the extensive use of mechanised agriculture. It would be the death knell of native cattle species in Tamil Nadu”).

The court has found that despite the safeguards claimed to have been introduced by the government to enable the sport to be played, it appears that the sport would still violate law preventing cruelty to animals. State governments have been asked to file replies on the issues raised in the petition being heard by the court. Until the petitions are heard, the sport will continue to remain banned.

The argument that introduction of “safeguards” on paper would remove cruelty to the bulls even while protecting heritage follows the famous Indian expectation that virtue can be legislated. Capacity constraints in enforcing law rendering provisions of law meaningless are legendary. Examples abound. We have a fantastic law on domestic violence without investing in infrastructure that is necessary to implement it. We create tribunals to dispense substantive justice without the constraints of formalities involved in courts but we do not create the state capacity to select the men and women who would conduct proceedings in the tribunals. The same is the case with punishments for violating the expectation of virtue. We have the most stringent anti-corruption law in the world—even removing the requirement to actually prove gratification—but corruption is rampant. We introduce death penalty for sexual assault on women, ignoring repeated pleas of women’s rights experts, and assaults continue unabated. On the contrary, the higher punishment increases the risk of victims being killed so that they do not live to tell the tale.

The more evident view is that the government clearly knew that the courts would strike down the removal of the ban. It seems to have consciously simply kicked the can upwards for the courts to protect animals since it was getting too politically emotive to continue the ban. More than the government’s removal of the ban or the court’s reinstatement of the ban, what is to be celebrated is the effective working of the tension between institutions.

The Animal Welfare Board acted autonomously and challenged the government’s revocation of the ban to test its belief that the law was being violated. Maneka Gandhi, an animal rights activist who is also a minister in the government openly expressed her disagreement with the move, provocatively terming the sport as a copy of Spanish bull fighting.

That the claim to pride in Tamil heritage cannot be monopolized too has become underlined. Senior officials of the Animal Welfare Board who challenged the government are Tamil. Senior counsels who fought against the revocation of the ban too were Tamil. For the record, so is this writer.

(This was published in the Mumbai Mirror on January 15, 2016, here: http://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/columns/columnists/somasekhar-sundaresan/Tamil-terror-or-Tamil-pride/articleshow/50583302.cms)




The conflict between social conventions and social change is spreading across the Indian subcontinent. First, sections of societies in two South Indian states had a fracas that stirred sentiments nation-wide – on the issues of women entering the Sabarimalai Temple in Kerala, and the reintroduction of Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. Then, a similar clash among segments of Pakistani society arose. Lawmakers struggled last week to table and pass stricter laws against child marriage, in the teeth of opposition on traditional and religious grounds.

Even speaking of the two in the same breath may be considered unnecessarily provocative. Last week’s edition of this column, simply articulating what the Supreme Court had done as an interim measure with Jallikattu, met with emotive reactions. An urban non-traditional Tamil was seen as having no sense of the matter at hand, and worse, as having no right to even discuss the issue.

A supporter of a ban on entry of women into the temple may feel that ban on Jallikattu may be right. Equally, an animal-lover supporting a ban on Jallikattu may have “religious” and sentimental opposition to letting women enter unfettered into the temple. One may hate child marriage but support Jallikattu and still oppose female entry into the temple. Given the breadth of polarising subjects, there are exponential combinations.

Recognising the right of a 16-year old to consent to marriage may sound jarring and unconscionable to the same human mind that roots for a 16-year old accused of rape to be executed, castrated or imprisoned for life. For the rapist, a human mind may justify thus: “If fit to commit adult crime, then fit to be treated as an adult criminal.” For the consenting 16-yeard-old, the same human mind may not be able to say: “If fit to conceive a child, then fit to be treated as an adult spouse.”

What a human perceives as unconscionable and unacceptable change in societal norms depends on the person’s own conditioning and politics and the consequent definition of a comfort zone. But if one were to dispassionately look through arguments made by those for and against each of these positions, a common thread will emerge. At the heart of the discourse lies a conflict between one segment of a society pushing for a new normal and another segment unable to accept that no tradition is permanent. Each can find reasons and arguments to support the stance taken.

No law can obtain happy endorsement from every single segment and sub-segment of society. There always has to be a give and take, a delicate balance of competing and conflicting objectives and desires, and a baseline acknowledgement of merit in some element of the contrary view. The mood of society varies with time and with that, the position taken by the laws which society desires to bound by, would vary too.

This is how eventually a society finds its own comfort zone. Dissenters critique the law if it does not suit their politics. And root for bringing about change. At every point in time in the history of any law, there will have been a greater emphasis or underlining of the interests of one segment of society over another. There is no other way that practices like sati or dowry would be banned by the law, and there is no other way that such practices would still be prevalent despite the law. Even as recently as the 1990s, incidences of sati and the construction of “sati temples” were reported, leading to a nationwide furore.

Child marriage, child labour, dowry, or for that matter, the caste system, all lend themselves to arguments for and against. It is amazing how the human mind can find reasons to support an argument for or against a legal intervention – if that intervention could lead to change, change that could be deemed desirable or undesirable, depending on one’s politics.

At the end of the day, all humans yearn to belong to a tribe. Tribal convention and belonging is as human as the desire to find meaning in life. After all, even those seeking to change the existing tribal conventions, constitute their own tribe.

One thought on “Jallikattu and Tamil Pride”

  1. Law vs judgment of society- Could’nt have put it better. We have to find our balance. And law is not the panacea. It could at best , be the beginning of social change. We have to work with people and communities to make real change. Bringing laws in ,cannot be our only contribution to changing the social discourse. In fact , pushing laws into a society without actual social change can very well lead to social divisiveness.


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