AN ANCIENT SPORT, NOT SAVAGERY

Monday, 07 July 2014 | ADITYA REDDY | in Oped

Driven by exaggerated Western notions of animal rights, the Supreme Court’s ban on Jallikattu not only hurts the cultural mores of Tamil society but also puts the bulls, the court seems to care for so much, on the path to extinction, writes ADITYA REDDY

The Supreme Court’s recent ban on the traditional Tamil sport of Jallikattu sacrifices cultural sentiments for the exaggerated notions of animal rights. Also, the apex court has ruled on a whole gamut of issues upon which it has no independent expertise and with little or no reference to scientific data. For instance, without reference to a single piece of literature on the subject, the Supreme Court has held that Jallikattu was never a part of Tamil history. The judges naïvely suggest that because the literal meaning of the Tamil word yeru thazhuvuthal is ‘bull-embracing’, Tamil warriors in the Sangam era played a competitive sport  that only involved gently embracing bulls. While Jallikattu, in its current format, may have been introduced by Nayak rulers only four to five centuries ago, there is sufficient evidence, in the form of rock art sites and literature, that similar sports involving bull-chasing and bull-baiting were popular in Tamil Nadu for millennia. Similarly, after a lengthy exposition on bull psychology, the apex court says that bulls are herd animals and suffer from anxiety when left alone. Such conclusions do not take into account the difference in the behavioural pattern of wild bulls and domesticated ones, which almost always are reared alone.

Moreover, the court has gone on to recommend that animal rights should be elevated to the status of fundamental rights. It says Jallikattu is an example of speciesism — a term coined by American animal rights activists to describe the denial of equal moral rights to animals. The judges equated speciesism with casteism, racism and sexism, without noting that, unlike the latter practices which are universally accepted as social evils, there is a difference of opinion among scholars on whether speciesm is inherently bad. American judge Richard Posner argues that merely because animals and humans have the same sensitivities or preferences, it is wrong to expect man to treat an animal on par with another man. In his debate with animal rights activist Peter Singer, he explains, “If the only way of preventing a dog from biting the infant was to inflict severe pain on the dog — more pain, in fact, than the bite would inflict on the infant — should we let the dog bite?” The apex court has shown little grasp of such complexities in its understanding of animal rights.

The Supreme Court’s extreme views on animal rights ignore historic faultlines, that are especially stark in Tamil Nadu. As academic MSS Pandian points out, in Tamil Nadu, the term ‘strictly vegetarian’ connotes caste by other means. Vegetarianism is such a differentiator in Tamil society that Mani Shankar Aiyar had to attract non-Brahmin voters in Thanjavur by proclaiming his appetite for chicken biryani. On election eve in 2004, Ms J Jayalalithaa had to withdraw a ban on animal sacrifice in temples fearing a political backlash from backward communities. By telling such a people that animals should get fundamental rights similar to that of humans, and preaching to them the vices of speciesism, the Supreme Court has fortified its reputation as the proverbial Ivory Tower.

To hold Jallikattu illegal, the court had to first find that the sport causes pain to bulls and then that the sport itself is unnecessary. The Spanish Senate recently declared bull-fighting to be an integral part of Spanish heritage and granted it constitutional protection. Yet, unlike bull-fighting in the West, Jallikattu is bloodless. But the Supreme Court has not spared even one line in its lengthy judgement to discuss the rules of Jallikattu. In none of its three variants does Jallikattu require the bull to be hurt. In its most common form, a successful Jallikattu participant holds on to a running bull for a minimum of 15 metres or 30 seconds. Another important rule is that the bull should be caught only by its hump. It is believed that in the olden days, the bull owner would run along side the animal with a 10 foot-long stick to beat any participant who tried to grab the bull’s tail.

But the court only mechanically quotes extracts from reports prepared by the Animal Welfare Board of India which contain instances of abuse like cutting off the bull’s ears, fracturing and dislocating its tail bone, biting and twisting its tail, poking it with knives and sticks, forcing it to drink alcohol etc. None of these practices are inherent to Jallikattu. Such incidents have been reported in the past and the Supreme Court itself, in an earlier order, imposed stringent conditions to ensure the safety of bulls. In fact, with strict Government scrutiny, Jallikattu events dropped from around 750 a few years back to barely 30 in 2013. If the Court was concerned only about the suffering of the bulls, it could have directed the installation of cameras in the arena and in the Vadi Vasal (the gateway into the arena) to punish participants who injure or torture the animals. But it did not even consider the possibility of safeguarding the interests of the bulls while allowing the sport to go on.

The Supreme Court’s finding that Jallikattu is an unnecessary and “non-essential” activity is disturbing. It calls the sport mere “amusement and entertainment”. This demeans the emotional attachment that the people of Tamil Nadu have with the sport. Jallikattu is conducted in the auspicious days after the harvest festival of Pongal and it forms a part of temple festivities. But the Court says there is no evidence of the sport having any religious significance.

Fundamental Duties for citizens in the Constitution of India encourages the preservation of the country’s “Composite Culture”. The term means culture drawn from all the strands of Indian society. By labelling the cultural practice of one section of society as “amusement”, the Supreme Court has displayed apathy to cultures that are not necessarily familiar to those sitting in Delhi and religious beliefs that are not backed by mainstream religious sources such as holy books. Jallikattu is traditionally organised by some communities that take pride in their martial history. They believe that the sport inculcates the martial spirit in their youth. Nobody has the right to judge the worth of these sentiments.

No modern society should tolerate sadism. There may be sports or cultural habits that are inherently sadistic, but Jallikattu doesn’t fall in that category. Villagers can be educated against abusive practices and there can be enough legal safeguards to punish wrongdoers. But for a large majority of owners, Jallikattu bulls are more than prized possessions. They are treated with great dignity and love, looked after till their very end and given a ritual burial. Also, Jallikattu bulls are chosen exclusively from fast disappearing native breeds like Kangeyam and Pulikulam. Without Jallikattu, these breeds will most surely become extinct. If the Supreme Court had kept its eyes open to these realities also, it would not have been so unfair.

This news article has been reproduced from “The Pioneer” (Online edition) – dated  07 July 2014.
The original article can be accessed at http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/edi/an-ancient-sport-not-savagery.html

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