Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 09 June 2023

SC backs TN position on Jallikattu

Source: By Amrith Lal: The Indian Express

five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court has upheld the amendments made by Tamil NaduMaharashtra, and Karnataka to The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, allowing JallikattuKambala, and bullock-cart races.

The court overturned the verdict of a two-judge Bench in ‘Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja’ (2014), which had banned practices such as Jallikattu, the traditional bull-taming sport of the Pongal harvest festival.

The five-judge Bench noted that Jallikattu has been held in Tamil Nadu for at least a century, and “we will not disrupt the view of the legislature that it is part of the cultural heritage of the state”.

In the 2014 ‘Nagaraja’ judgment, an SC Bench of Justices K S Radhakrishnan and Pinaki Chandra Ghose had ruled that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 “over-shadows or overrides the so-called tradition and culture”.

In its judgment delivered on 18 May 2023, the Constitution Bench said, “We do not accept the view of Nagaraja that Jallikattu is not a part of cultural heritage of the State of Tamil Nadu. We do not think that there was sufficient material for the Court to come to that conclusion.”

Pongal and the culture of Jallikattu

Pongal in Tamil Nadu is a celebration of nature, and thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest. Similar harvest festivals of Makara SankrantiMaghi, and Magh Bihu are observed in other parts of the country at the same time, in mid-January.

In Tamil Nadu, the festival lasts for three or four days, and on the third day, Mattu Pongal, cattle are worshipped. The bull-taming events then start, especially in the southern districts of the state, when the elite Jallikattu breeds test the strength and skill of farm hands in especially constructed arenas.

Contests in AvaniapuramPeelamedu and Alanganallur, villages neighbouring Madurai, set the tone for the season, which continues until April.

Supreme Court’s 2014 verdict

The two-judge Bench backed a perspective that puts animal rights on a par with the fundamental rights that the Constitution of India guarantees to its citizens. Drawing upon Upanishadic wisdom, the Bench had advised Parliament to “elevate rights of animals to that of constitutional rights, as done by many of the countries…, so as to protect their dignity and honour”.

Jallikattu is doubtless a violent sport, in which there is only one winner — man or bull. The Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory body under the central government, and animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) presented evidence, including pictures and videos, that the Jallikattu animals were physically and mentally tortured.

Bulls are beatenpokedprodded, harassed and jumped on by numerous people. They have their tails bitten and twisted and their eyes and noses filled with irritating chemicals,” the judgment said.

Case for culture and tradition

Even though the case for Jallikattu as culture and tradition failed to impress the Bench in ‘Nagaraja’, it is not that there exists no tangible evidence to show that this battle between man and beast is indeed a cultural representation.

Indeed, Jallikattu has been celebrated in Tamil cinema as an integral part of agrarian life. Novelists, including the late DMK leader M Karunanidhi, have woven plots around Jallikattu. Then, there is the aspect of political economy, of which Jallikattu is the cultural manifestation.

Jallikattu is about showcasing the quality of cattle, the breeding skills of cattle rearers, the centrality of cattle in an agrarian economy, and the power and pride they bring to farmers and land-owning castes in rural Tamil Nadu. As a tradition, it links an agrarian people to the elemental aspect of their vocation; where a man risks his life to tame unpredictable nature. The bull, like land, is both his friend and foe. When the beast is bested, it brings bounty; defeat most likely means death.

In the Jallikattu heartland of Madurai and its neighbourhood, life is hard. Agriculture is a way of life, but the land is perennially short of water. Heat and thirst are debilitating in the flatlands that spread from the foothills of the Western Ghats across the Vaigai basin to the lands bordering the fertile plains of the Cauvery in the east.

This is the landscape that in the ancient past hosted the Tamil Sangams, but in recent times agriculture has become a difficult occupation. Jallikattu here is almost a cathartic experience — overcoming the violence of a harsh land where resources are scarce and life needs to be tackled with skill and cunning.

Example in Tamil literature

Perhaps the best guide to the cultural universe of Jallikattu is C S Chellappa’s brilliant novella, ‘Vaadivasal’ (Arena), a slim volume written in the 1940s, with a handful of male characters and bulls.

Picchi, a young man from Usilanoor village, comes to the Periyapetti arena to tame the Vaadipuram bull, Kari, that had taken his father’s life in a previous Jallikattu. Picchi is not after winning pride and prize; he is at the arena to settle what resembles a blood feud.

An old man tells Picchi: “For warrior castes like ours, staying alive is never the primary goal. For us shedding blood is just like spilling water… Pounce on the bull after thinking it through. If your first hold falters and slips, all will be lost.”

The pride of the bull-tamer is the primordial character of the warrior, willing to die but unwilling to accept defeat. Picchi tames the bull and avenges his father. He tells the zamindar whose prized bull he defeated that he did not mean to disrespect him; he was doing only what a son ought to do. The zamindar admires the bull-tamer’s skills and courage, but shoots the bull that had let him down.

In his introduction to N Kalyan Raman’s beautiful English translation of Vaadivasal, P A Krishnan says, “In deft sentences full of rural idioms and in a dialect that is special to Madurai and Ramanathapuram of the Tamil country, he (Chellappa) tells us all about hierarchy, love, intimacy, pride, friendship, revenge and, above all, the man-beast duel.”

The inescapable cultural context

Vaadivasal’ is in a social space where pride is a culture and tradition in itself. It gives clues to why the ban on Jallikattu was so fiercely contested.

For agrarian communities like Thevars and MaravarsJallikattu is one of the few markers of their social standing and identity in a fast-changing world. The contest, which evidently celebrates masculinity, is almost an act of cultural resistance to an urban modernity that tends to marginalise rural and agrarian values.

Jallikattu’s linkages with Pongal has lifted it above its regional and community origins and transformed it into a symbol of Tamil culture and pride. Pride in Tamil culture is central to Dravidian nationalism, which continues to shape the political discourse in Tamil Nadu. Indeed, the political consensus in favour of Jallikattu is inescapable.

Tradition and culture are not immune to change. But it is facile to argue that the rights discourse can be conducted ignoring the cultural context. The argument to move from an anthropocentric vision and adopt a biocentric ethics will have to be discussed and negotiated in cultural terms as well.

In the absence of such engagement, the supporters of animals rights are likely to be seen as a deracinated group that is insensitive to local culture and tradition.

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