Jallikattu uprising is a spontaneous pushback against the tyranny of antiseptic western ‘liberalism’

Talking to Hindustan Times, 49-year-old Selvarani from a farming family in Madurai says though she rears jallikattu bulls as part of a family tradition, they never perceive them as animals. “We don’t call them bulls. They are not animals. We call them by their names. I have about four of them and they are our kula deivam (the family deity). If the ban is lifted, I intend to take Ramu [Selvarani’s favourite bull] for Jallikattu.”

Selvarani says it is her family tradition and she doesn’t remember when it started. In the same article, Tamil Professor Bhoomiselvam, for whom “jallikattu is a part of life,” says customs like “bull taming” are a symbolic way to domesticate them for farming.

If it is a primordial custom, how old is it?

Seals of the Indus Valley Civilization, writes Himakiran Anugula in The Wire, prove that this ancient sport is nearly 5000 years old. Details of this “bull hugging” sport are found in antediluvian Tamil literature that dates back to 2nd BCE – 2nd CE.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

There are enough cross-references in other regional literature of that time to suggest that this sport, which has now come to represent Tamil identity, was prevalent in many parts of western and even northern India. The genesis of the sport lay in the practice of rearing a few specific varieties of native bulls for their superior semen quality. Through various endurance tests (of which jallikattu is one) these bulls are primed for mating. The gene pool remains secure and the quality of livestock including a healthy male-female ratio is ensured.

According to Sudhirendar Sharma, director of The Ecological Foundation in New Delhi, sporting traditions like jallikattu not only signify the deep bond between humans and the beast, it is also a very vital part of rural cattle economy. In his article for Outlook, Sharma writes: “Ever since the Supreme Court had banned jallikattu and similar racing events in May 2014, there have been reports regarding distress sales of quality bulls from many parts of Tamil Nadu… and several of these found their way to the slaughterhouses. Since evolution of quality breeds is a product of complex interplay of nature and culture, cultural events hold special significance in preserving native species.”

Simply put, if practices like jallikattu are banned, these bulls will eventually lose their value. Already, among the six native species of superior cattle in Tamil Nadu, one breed has become extinct. For many farmers who rear these animals not as pets but as family members, this ban has meant a cruel blow to their economic well-being.

Kangayam is one such species of cattle. According to The Quint, a family would typically spend around Rs 250 to Rs 800 per day to treat these beasts with malai, bananas, sesame oil and daily baths and massages. A ban means these farmers would suffer a catastrophic drop in prices from Rs 1.5-2 lakh to Rs 60000 because in absence of the sport the bulls are fit only for the meat market.

Through various examples, the point I am trying to make is that far from being an expression of cruelty, ancient cultural traditions such as jallikattu are based on scientific logic, uphold the fragile rural economy, ensure survival of native genetic species and is a precious celebration of rare bonding between man and the animal. The beast is a part of the family, farmers revere the animal and often go to the lengths of remaining hungry while ensuring that their cattle are well fed.

According to animal welfare activists, many of whom suffer from selective application of misplaced activism, Jallikattu bulls are regularly fed with alcohol or rubbed with chilli powder to ensure artificial excitement. Yet the truth remains that out of around 10,000 Jallikattu bulls who are part of the sport, such irregularities have emerged in only about 7 or 8 cases. As The Wire points out, the animals are given substances like glucose water for stamina and are duly registered with the authorities with photographs as well as the owner’s information.

If a few errant instances are the basis of a ban, what stops authorities from slapping a blanket suspension on cricket which has seen many instances of match fixing and betting?

Even more preposterous are straw man arguments where sporting traditions are compared to customs like the sati. The trouble with ignorance is that it suffers from a crippling self-certitude, not having recourse to the doubt that knowledge endows. This stupefying self-certitude usually goes hand-in-hand with staggering arrogance. The result is an unfortunate mix of sublime ridiculousness. Sporting traditions like Jallikattu or Kambala (in Karnataka) have nothing to do with misplaced honour rituals like the sati that have no roots in ancient Indian culture and are more a result of the late perversion that had crept in.

Far from being an expression of cruelty, jallikattu is pitting man and beast in a celebration of bonding. Comparisons such as these are borrowed from an antiseptic version of western liberalism which has no connection with our roots, traditions and identity. The normative principles of this version of ‘liberalism’ suffer from an inability to understand the deep-rooted cultural ethos of a multi-cultural nation like India where these traditions have existed side by side with contrarian ones since time immemorial. Little wonder that there has been a vociferous outpouring of anger against this force-feeding of monochromatic ‘liberalism’ that actually runs counter to India’s pluralistic liberal tradition.

The seemingly apolitical uprising that has seen a gathering of over 30,000 students, working professionals and women in Chennai’s Marina Beach alone, not to speak of bigger gatherings across the length and breadth of the state, ought to tell us something about the tyranny of ‘liberalism’ — an imported idea that rules by stick, not consensus. The faster we understand this, the better for us.


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