Tamil Nadu is caught in a near-spontaneous mass upsurge in support of jallikattu, the bull-taming spectacle held during the time of the harvest festival of Pongal. Tens of thousands have gathered in public places, most notably on Chennai’s Marina beach, on a day-and-night vigil, seeking the reversal of the Supreme Court-ordered ban on the conduct of the annual ritual. In the name of cultural pride and custom and tradition, students and youth have risen up. The show of solidarity has been peaceful, in sharp contrast to the aggression shown by some enthusiasts on social media in targeting certain celebrities for their earlier support to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam felt compelled to respond to this movement, and rushed to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and wrest an assurance on an ordinance to nullify the Supreme Court ban. But whatever the views of the youth taking part in the demonstration, jallikattu in its present form is of relatively recent origin, intended to make bulls run amok for the sake of spectacle. Instead of the traditional form of one man against one animal, latter-day jallikattu is a mass-participant ritual of hundreds of men chasing a bull and trying to hold on to its hump or stop it by pulling at or twisting its tail.
Few other feudal traditions have survived in modern, progressive India in the name of masculine valour and cultural pride. When the Supreme Court banned this spectacle that took a heavy toll on both the animals and the human participants, it did so after attempts at its regulation and the orderly conduct of this “sport” were deemed a failure. In 2013, under the watch of the Animal Welfare Board of India, the onus was on the State of Tamil Nadu to ensure that jallikattu did not violate the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. But, the opportunity to ensure a jallikattu that was free of cruelty to the animals and injuries to the participating youth was frittered away.
Efforts that are now on to nullify the effect of the Supreme Court judgment through the ordinance route thus carry a serious risk of judicial reproach. Last year, the Centre did try to get around the court order by issuing an executive notification that granted exemption from restrictions on the use of bulls as performing animals in traditional sports. The proper course for the Centre and the State government is to persuade the Supreme Court that a jallikattu that does not involve, or at least almost eliminates, cruelty to animals and that guarantees the safety of spectators and participants alike is indeed possible. It is all right if popular sentiment can influence legislation, but it cannot undermine the rule of law.