Of bulls, bans and elitist chauvinism

MARTINA ANANDAM

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THE Jallikattu issue did not catch my attention until it was popularized in a catchy song ‘Takkaru Takkaru1 by Tamil rapper-turned-composer, Aadhi aka Hiphop Tamizha. Not that I was unaware of Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu’s celebrated bull-embracing festival before that. My friends would talk about it in school during my early childhood days in Madurai. Local television channels would telecast Jallikattu live every January, the month of the harvest festival of Pongal.

My memory throws up vague images of the event: the camera(s) panning out to present throngs of supporters, exhilarated players waiting outside the ‘vaadi vaasal2 for the bull to charge, of the bull charging, leaping and bouncing off men who wrestle to hold on to its hump. A few minutes and it is all over – the next bull is let out and the process repeats. It didn’t impress me much considering that it can be relatively monotonous to a non-participatory audience

Jallikattu was a forgotten childhood musing until I hit the button on YouTube to watch the peppy song. The rap loosely translates, ‘We see the bulls and cows as our own begotten child, then how could we torture it? The politics behind such accusations and the ban is malice instigated for (exotic breed) business. Ban the sport, the native breed dies and foreign markets would grow. Ignorant "Tamizha", you will lose your identity and die a slow death. Lose your identity and you are going to be a refugee in your own land. Takkaru Takkaru this is our land!’

The song was the anthem of the 2017 Marina beach uprising and the social media unrest preceding the event. Memes were circulated in support of Jallikattu across Facebook and Twitter trending under the tag ‘We do Jallikattu’. Many of my friends shared it on their Facebook page, tagging me on the posts and inviting me to join the protest. Memes were soon flaring with impassioned messages urging Tamizhs from all over the world to unite in protest. I ignored the fervour and expected it to die down.

 

The ‘Jallikattu issue’, quite simply put, is that the Supreme Court of India banned the sport of Jallikattu in 2014.3 This caused quite a stir in Tamil Nadu, the host state of Jallikattu, leading to farmer protests all across the state. The protests were also brought to the capital city of Chennai with a few representatives staging a peaceful black flag protest and holding placards asking for the ban to be lifted. This was a common sight every Pongal thereon. The media would cover the protest in Chennai and thus having done their bit, move on.

8 January 2017 was different. Thousands of people from all across Tamil Nadu gathered at the Marina beach, the ground zero of the protest. From farmers to teachers to IT professionals, all gathered at Marina demanding to lift the ban on the sport and asking for a permanent solution to the issue. The protest grew stronger thereafter, with people getting into smaller groups, chanting slogans against PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and other animal welfare organizations who were instrumental in bringing about the ban. They asked instead for a ban on these ‘western organizations’ trying to impose upon the natives foreign views and claimed pecuniary motives. The protests continued for five more days until 23 March 2017.

 

I chanced upon a trending video on Facebook of a heated news debate with pro-ban and pro-Jallikattu panellists. The debate was at its cantankerous best when one of the pro-ban proponents tried to shut up the moderator with – ‘Most of them (the protesters) don’t know about Jallikattu.’ I had watched many such debates by then and heard many views on the issue. Animal welfare organizations such as AWBI (Animal Welfare Board of India), PETA, and PFA (People for Animals), the petitioners in the case arguing for the ban, elaborated the ‘animal cruelty’ aspect of Jallikattu. The video made by PETA4 shows various abhorrent actions such as poking the bulls with sticks, biting and injuring the bull’s tail and feeding it ‘clear liquid’, later dubbed as liquor. The sport was tagged as nonsensical barbarism and archaic.

I was aghast at such a spurious claim. The panellist and the animal welfare pro-ban proponent in question was not present at the Marina gathering. What encouraged her to go live, on national television, claiming that the people who gathered at Marina were ignorant when she clearly had no evidence to that effect? She added that this type of a melancholic protest was not new to Tamil Nadu, implying that it should not be seen as anything path-breaking, or likened to the Tahrir Square uprising as the media claimed.

 

In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. A number of protesters who were interviewed by journalists after the Marina protests, were in fact cattle owners, farmers and agricultural scientists. What the panellists failed to see is that the uprising at Marina was waiting to happen. It was the culmination of many such protests conducted in the many Jallikattu hotspots of the state since 2014, in villages around Alanganallur and Palamedu. The many impassioned Facebook posts and Tweets are testimony to the growing awareness among young men and women who found the demonstration as justifiable means to safeguarding of what they saw as their tradition and an integral part of their identity.

By claiming that the Marina protesters were ignorant of Jallikattu, thereby delegitimizing their act of solidarity and dissent, the animal welfare groups made a grievous mistake – a self-goal in all its majesty and perversity. The lady did not stop there. She claimed that the uprising was politically motivated and that the protesters were suffering an ‘identity crisis’.

Bitter as I as, I wasn’t surprised. This condescension is not new and quite personal. As a conservationist, I have come across many sharp-tongued wildlife biologists with a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. I have seen people even advocate ‘conservation terrorism’. ‘What in the world is that?’ I asked one such ‘conservationist’ friend, a little irked. ‘Let us get rid of human beings. Let the earth take over’ my condescending friend replied. Unfortunately, this is the ‘field reality’ for me and my like-minded colleagues. But to witness such condescension and open discrimination on national television was all too new and overwhelming. I couldn’t help musing at the irony of the situation. For all the ignorance they accused the protesting Tamil people of, the pro-ban proponents are woefully under-educated about the sport and the people who practice it.

 

Jallikattu or ‘yeru thazhuvhuthal’ (bull embracing) has been a tradition since Sangam times, dating back to about 300 BC.5 The sport could have evolved over the thousands of years it has been practiced. The native stud bulls are nurtured and reared as part of the farmer’s family. The bulls help in ploughing the field (not all breeds), in inseminating the cows and by staying undefeated, upholding the farmer’s pride in Jallikattu.

The farmer who rears the bull knows his animal inside out. He knows when the animal is sick and when it is ready to fight. The animal responds to his herder like a child responds to his mother. Many bull-rearing farmers claim that the animal is very affable to little children and women but does not let anybody else come close. The bull is its owner’s pride and the death of a bull is grieved and mourned like the loss of a loved one. There are many native breeds that participate in Jallikattu such as Puliakulam, Malaimadu, Umblacherry, Kangeyam etc. As the pro-Jallikattu proponents presented their case in a local debate show, Neeya Naana, in January 2016, they described in clear detail the process of Jallikattu.

The bulls are prepped all year round for the annual event. Before the event, the bulls go through a bevy of stringent regulations such as blood tests to test liquor traces and other physical exams. Once through, the bulls are then ushered to the vaadi vasal or the gate, and let out one at a time. Some bulls prance once the gate is opened, others crouch and wait, while some seasoned bulls gallop down the arena, nonchalant of the crowd. The participants stand inside the arena. They are to hold on to the hump of the animal for a distance of 15m while the bull prances and jumps and fights to shrug off the player: that is the extent of the contact. Only one person is allowed to hold on to the bull at any given time. Once the bull passes the arena, it is then roped in by the owners and subjected to another medical examination.

 

Jallikattu is native, indigenous science. Where a farmer can’t afford a bull, the bull owned by the village temple is employed to inseminate the cows and, therefore, loved and revered by the entire village. I remember while living in Madurai, ‘Kovil Kalai’, as temple stud bulls were referred to, would strut around the temple area. The massive black Kangeyam bull, with its impressive height and behemoth looks, was extremely friendly to children. I remember stopping on the way back from school to feed the bull banana skins and marvelling at the gentle giant.

Time and again, in the many interviews I pored over and the many people I spoke to, all attested to the fact that these bulls are revered as a part of their family. ‘They bring it up with such devotion and care, with reverence accorded to their god. I wouldn’t dream of hurting my bull to win any prize. It certainly isn’t worth it,’ said a taxi driver in Coimbatore who also owns his own bulls back in his village near Dindugal.

The Jallikattu event is also an opportunity for small-scale farmers to showcase their stud bulls and for purchasers to buy or rent them. The event helps showcase the bull’s virility and strength as the winning bull is later chosen and brought in to inseminate the cows. This cycle ensures a healthy and sustainable lifecycle that helps sustain the native breeds. This is indigenous knowledge which deserves appreciation and ingenuity that demands credit.

Instead, these very scientists and agriculturists are subject to condescension and legal action by animal rights activists. As much as one appreciates their dedication to animal welfare, I am amused by their preposterous strategy to bring this about. Time and again history has shown the fate of exclusive, animal-centric conservation and the perils of leaving people out. Timeless discourses exist to prove that it has never worked.

 

Quite simply, for any change in a democracy, it is indispensable to include people. Demonizing people as ‘barbaric’ or ‘ignorant’ is not only counterproductive but extremely destructive. I have worked with farmers to address wildlife conflict issues in the high altitude Himalaya and I am acutely aware of how far this ‘knowing your audience’ goes in conservation. The farmers are the keepers of the land and everything that lives and breathes on it. They are scientists who know their subject better than anyone could ever know. Instead of recognizing and appreciating this knowledge, the ‘I know better than you because I am an animal rights activist, period!’ attitude is not only in bad taste, but is a fool’s errand in conservation.

One such article published in The Wire by an anonymous writer exemplifies this blatant discrimination.6 Referring to the event revered by millions in Tamil Nadu as a ‘silly season’, likening the men who participate in the event to elephants in musth, and stating that Jallikattu is a thing of the past and of a society which did not know ‘science’ is not only blatantly chauvinistic but does little to further the cause. The author accused Jallikattu of being inherently patriarchal and oppressive to women because back in the days, prospective brides were compelled to marry the one who tamed the bull of her family.

I am not even going to debate this version of history: maybe it was so, maybe not. But there is absolutely no evidence to claim that is how it is now. Many women participate in the event by prepping the bull for the event and its many corollaries. Such spurious claims are an insult to women who participate in Jallikattu and who define their identity in the society they live in. Forget patriarchy, this is exactly the kind of imperial feminism one needs to be weary of; it is just an all new version of oppression and elitist chauvinism.

 

In contrast to this brand of feminism, Selvarani says in her interview to The Hindustan Times, ‘But I have never felt different as a woman at the ‘vaadi vaasal’. The men only respect me more. I am the one who lets Ramu (one of the bulls) or one of my other bulls into the arena. Because only I know them well, I understand them.’7

Patriarchy characterizes many societies across the world, western or eastern. Contemporary practices can be traced to patriarchal pasts but that does not mean we abandon them all together. Many real world feminists have modified such practices. We have also removed ourselves from any imperialist feminist views and redefined feminism. As a new age feminist who defines and dictates her own perspectives and action, I don’t see how Jallikattu is an evil against woman, especially when those allegedly ‘oppressed’ women think otherwise.

 

Sadly, this condescending attitude was common in animal rights activists who represented their cause on television and in the written media. The activists did not want to engage with the pro-Jallikattu proponents on an equal platform. Rather, the pro-Jallikattu fans were demonized as barbaric, ridiculed as petty, misogynistic, their opinions invalidated as oppressive and archaic, and were branded as uncivilized people who needed to be civilized by the benevolent, all knowing, providential noble crusades like the animal welfare activists. Rings a bell, doesn’t it? It is almost like we are back in colonial times when the British stripped us off our indigenous knowledge, imposed ‘legal’ tariffs on small businesses and pushed us into poverty, kicking our livelihood and identities out of us.

The pro-Jallikattu protesters therefore took their fight to the streets and peacefully so as to not disrupt state function. It was a peaceful and leader-less protest. All politicians who came to participate were sent back as the protesters did not want to be associated with their petty politics. Animal rights groups continued to allege that the protesters were ‘politically motivated’. The preposterousness of these accusations saw no bounds. The pro-ban animal welfare groups outdid themselves when they told the Tamils what their identity should and should not be. They declared that Jallikattu should not be hailed as signifying Tamil identity and that there are many other elements of being Tamil that could be used instead. They were pretty much asking the Tamil people to rethink their history, their heritage, their legacy and the identity they hold true to.

 

If the bulls were indeed tortured, poked around with sharp sticks and fed alcohol, was there any effort made to have a conversation with the committee organizing or those that help organize these events?8 Or what about talking to the farmers and bull owners? This would have been the natural recourse if the activists had actually recognized and validated the people and their culture. The committee is the one body that could have done something about these abhorrent practices. Rather, the event organizers and the participants in general were looked upon as outlaws who deserved to be exorcized out of these uncivilized practices. Double it down with some legal action against poor bull-owning, self-sustained farmers who simply cannot afford legal recourse. Besides, they have a life to live and no peace loving middle class citizen would want to fight an expensive, unaffordable legal battle for what was so far their fundamental right.

The uprising at Marina beach was but an outpouring of such pent up anger stemming largely from the shame of having to lose an integral element of their living and identity to a group of people who ‘don’t even know the difference between a cow and a buffalo.’9 ‘Ban Peta’ slogans resounded alongside anti-animal welfare slogans across the beach, with people holding their ground and refusing to budge for five straight days until the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act was amended. The Tamil Nadu government brought in an Ordinance but people demanded a permanent solution. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, 2017 was passed on 31 January 2017 and thus brought into effect.

The damage though has been done. Not only have people come to see all NGOs as elitist western agents but the uprising also gave rise to a tangential uproar against ‘western’ products post-protest. The ban and all it entailed was looked at and likened to colonial suppression, where western values and interests were imposed on local Tamils for western gain, and rightly so. The insults to native sentiments and vehement disregard and disrespect tended towards pro-Jallikattu proponents backfired with adverse consequences that could be permanent. The protest and its aftermath saw conspiracies sprouting everywhere, claiming that PETA and other pro-ban NGOs were linked to western corporates trying to infiltrate small-scale farming and replace native breeds with exotic Jersey and Holstein breeds. This is a debate that warrants its own space and is beyond the scope of this discussion.

This is a classic case of neo-colonial hangover where a misguided sense of authority and enlightenment encourages people towards nonsensical pursuits with disastrous consequences. To legally arm-twist people into relinquishing their identity and expecting it not to backfire is naiveté at best and stupidity at worst. We would do well to remember that hate begets hate. You can’t claim to love animals of another species while insulting and disrespecting members of your own.

 

Footnotes:

1. Tamizha, Takkaru Takkaru (official music video). Online video. 25 June 2016. Available from: https://www.youtube. com/watch?v= no8-RcTP2rs. Accessed on 1 August 2017.

2. The place where the bulls are held before being let out into the arena.

3. Animal Welfare Board of India V Nagaraja and Ors (2014) (7) S.C.C 547,602.

4. Official PETA India, PETA Investigations. Online video. 12 February 2013. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=coZvTRHt2m4&t=12s. Accessed on 1 August 2017.

5. H. Anugula, ‘Banning Jallikattu Will Undermine Tamil Nadu’s Indigenous Cattle Breeds’, The Wire, 2017 (online). Available at https://thewire.in/19157/banning-Jallikattu-will-decimate-indias-indigenous-cattle-breeds/. Accessed on 31 July 2017.

6. Anonymous, ‘Jallikattu is Nothing But Animal Abuse and Machismo Packaged as Tamil Culture and Tradition’, The Wire, 2017 (online). Available at https://thewire.in/101273/Jallikattu-animal-abuse-tamil-culture-tradition/. Accessed on 31 July 2017.

7. Kavitha Muralidharan, ‘Inside the Macho, Divisive World of Tamil Nadu’s Bull-taming Sport Jallikattu’, The Hindustan Times, 2017 (online). Available at http://www. hindustan times.com/india-news/inside-the-macho-divisive-world-of-tamil-nadu-s-bull-taming-sport-Jallikattu/story-HyPVBni8jupH0 Faagn6oTI.html. Accessed on 31 July 2017.

8. The committee is called Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Peravai. The group does not have a website.

9. HotStar, Neeya Naana: Pongal Special, online video, 10 January 2016. Available from http://www.hotstar.com/tv/neeya-naana/1584/pongal-special/1000081575. Accessed on 1 August 2017.

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