Everyone in the Chavan household dotes on him. Their single-storey residence in Wategaon, a village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, is named after him: Lakshya. So is the motorcycle that’s parked at the entrance. Inside, his framed photos and trophies adorn the living room. “He hasn’t lost a single race, and he must have run in over 400. He is the Usain Bolt of bulls,” says 55-year-old Uttam Chavan, with a note of pride in his voice.
Grey, with white patches, a strong built and big horns painted a celebratory blue, Lakshya stands out among the cattle at the Chavans’ farm. His handlers — he needs half-a-dozen strong men to rein him in when he isn’t tied — scuttle around in reverential unease around him. “He charges if I come close or try to pet him,” rues Chavan’s 29-year-old son Hanumant, “But he fears my father and eats only if my wife feeds him.” Although Lakshya spends at least nine of the 12 months at the Chavans’ farm, this isn’t his permanent residence. Lakshya’s owner, Kiran Raut, lives 50 km from Mumbai, in Badlapur, but “city weather doesn’t suit Lakshya. He loses appetite over there,” says Chavan, who sold Lakshya to Raut eight years ago when he was 13 months old.
Today, in rural Maharashtra, especially among those who follow the now-banned sport of bullock-cart races, Lakshya is something of a celebrity. Pictures of the bull and videos of his races are widely shared on WhatsApp. A 15-minute documentary, Racing Bull Lakshya, chronicling his accolades, was recently made by a fan. “There are many strong bulls around, but none like Lakshya. He injured himself a year ago and had to undergo a surgery on his foreleg, but that hasn’t hampered his speed one bit,” says Hanumant.
However, it’s now been two years since Lakshya ran a race. The ban on bullock cart races came into effect in 2014 alongside the controversial Jallikattu. While the ban on the latter was lifted by passing a draft ordinance late last month, Maharashtra still prohibits the use of bulls for sport or exhibition. This has caused great displeasure among the state’s agrarian community, which has held a number of protests over the last year. On January 28 and 29, over 15,000 people came together in Khed to demand a lifting of the ban. “The bullock cart races are part of a 300-year-old tradition and an integral part of our jatras (annual village fairs). If the practice is banned forever, it will not only wipe out a tradition but also affect the local economy that revolves around the jatras. Besides, Jallikattu may involve animal cruelty, but the races don’t,” points out Ram Krishna Takalkar of the Akhil Bharatiya Bailgada Sharyat Sanghatna, the key petitioner demanding the lifting of ban on sports involving the bull.
From 300 ft to 3 km, the track lengths for the bullock-cart races vary as do the number of bulls that race together. However, the Sanghatna is batting for the sport’s revival chiefly on the basis of the format practised in western Maharashtra. Called bailgada, it has the bulls running with a small unmanned cart across a track between 350-450 ft long. A team or cart has four bulls tied together and only one team can run across the track at a time. The set of bulls with the best time wins. “It takes them between 10 and 15 seconds to run the distance and the carts aren’t even manned, so there is no point of animal cruelty, as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims,” asserts Takalkar.
PETA begs to differ. Poorva Joshipura, India CEO, categorically states: “There is no debate. No amount of regulation can eliminate the cruelty inherent in racing bulls, as the Supreme Court has found.”
Takalkar says, “We accept there is five per cent cruelty towards the animal. If the government objects to the distance the bull runs in certain formats, we are willing to cut down to 500 ft. We will even reach out to farmers who organise races where the carts are manned and get them to stop. But a blanket ban isn’t a solution.” Former MLA and party member of NCP, Dilip Walse Patil, goes a step further: “The solution isn’t the passing of ordinance by Maharashtra government. That can be challenged in the apex court. Ideally, the ordinance should be signed by the President, or an amendment be made to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, removing bulls from the list,” he says.
The anger against PETA, “a foreign organisation with no understanding of Indian agrarian culture”, is palpable in most villages. “Those people sit in air-conditioned rooms and make decisions about our lives, assuming that we are cruel. The bull is like a son to a farmer who may not eat himself, but will ensure that the bull gets his daily diet,” says Mayur Wable, resident of Mancher village, Pune district, who rears bulls for racing. “These bulls aren’t used for farm work and many farmers have air-conditioned cattle sheds for the summers. They are trained just to race,” he says.
The average daily expense for a bull’s maintenance is between Rs 300 and Rs 500. Lakshya’s caretakers spend up to Rs 2,500 feeding him — apart from the usual fare of hay, carrots, groundnuts, grains — a mixture of jaggery, cashews, pistachios, almonds and rice oil, “a kilo in the morning and another for dinner”. “A bull will participate in up to 20 races in a year, with at least a 10-day gap between each race. If it runs for 15 seconds in each, the bull runs for no more than 10 minutes a year. If I take care of my son all his life, do I not have the right to ask him to run for 10 minutes every year?” says Chavan.
A bull is at its prime for eight to nine years and lives up to 18 years. The rearers say they don’t sell them off to the slaughterhouse once they’re old. “We take care till their last day and when they die, we perform the last rites the way we would of a family member,” says Wable.
Locally bred, the bulls are chosen for their strength and speed when they are five or six months old. The ones that don’t fare well in the “test” are employed for farm work. Most bulls are castrated to “ensure their strength”. While the association for bull cart racing uses the breeding argument to make a point about preserving local pedigree, it seems like an afterthought. “Most of us own tractors. The use of bulls in farm work is declining. If we don’t use them for races, the local breeds will die out,” says Rahul Banker, a member of the Narayangaon association.
The association is also keen to distance itself from the caste aspect (Jallikattu excludes Dalit participation). “We have members from all communities participating, be it Dalits or Mohammadens,” says Banker. But as political analyst Anand Teltumbde points out, “How many Dalit farmers can afford to rear a bull at that cost?”
In the village of Wadgaon Kashimbeg, there are murmurs of a race at 3 pm on the sly. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in the jatra season, between January and May. The word will spread among the bull owners, and those from nearby villages will assemble with their animals on race day. These races are attended by a smaller crowd in order to avoid attention. But at 4 pm, the venue wears a deserted look. “It was cancelled as the cops seemed to have found out,” one farmer reveals. To make up for the loss, an impromptu “demo race” is organised nearby. A crowd lines up on both sides of the 350-ft track. Soon, two bulls are dragged to the starting point by half-a-dozen men. The bigger of the two, Raju, is fastened to the cart, locally known as gada, but Arjun is defiant. In a moment of confusion, the men let go of the reins and before anyone realises, Arjun has pushed his handler to the ground, scaled the fencing wall and run off into the wild. There is pandemonium in the crowd. However, before they can leave, the handlers are back with Arjun. He is still defiant but this time, another pair of hands are employed in fastening him to the cart. He is then let loose. The crowd bursts into a roaring applause as the two bulls take flight, leaving behind a cloud of dust.