The Centre last week issued a notification which makes it possible to legally organise jallikattu, a popular bull-taming sport patronised by farming communities in Tamil Nadu. This reverses a 2011 decision of the UPA government, which, by placing bulls in the list of animals that shall not be deemed as performing animals, had effectively banned the sport. In 2014, the Supreme Court endorsed the Centre’s decision when it upheld the view that jallikattu, and other sporting events like bullock-cart racing, violate the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. Animal rights groups have now sought the apex court’s intervention in the matter while the political class in Tamil Nadu, in a rare show of unanimity, has welcomed the Centre’s decision.
Jallikattu and other such sports are a part of agrarian culture. They give play to expressions of masculine violence, but they also showcase the prowess of cattle breeders and rearers and the skills of farm hands in managing cattle. Rural communities involved in these sports see legislative and judicial attempts to ban them as an assault on their tradition and cultural rights. While it is also true that culture must not be seen to be frozen or fixed in time, bans or unilateral legal intervention may not be the best way to bring in reform. The concerns of cruelty towards animals raised by the activist community in the context of jallikattu are valid and there is a case for more humane treatment of farm animals. Over the years, debates on the ethics of the use of animals, not just in sport but also in other fields of entertainment like the circus, have helped in sensitising society to animal rights. But the shift from an anthropocentric vision to ecocentric wisdom can be achieved only through education and negotiation. Blunt instruments like bans only polarise the debate and may eventually cause a breakdown of the law.
On jallikattu, political parties seem to be driven only by the populist impulse. Jallikattu patrons are politically influential in rural Tamil Nadu and the state is headed for elections this year. The political calculus also explains the double standard of the BJP, which seeks to take credit for liftng the ban on jallikattu in Tamil Nadu even as it sings paeans to the cow elsewhere.