New Delhi: The four-day harvest festival of Pongal begins today, also marking the start of jallikattu, a controversial bull-taming “sport” that involves aggressive confrontation between cattle and humans and is popular in Tamil Nadu.
Jallikattu was banned by the Supreme Court in 2014, but the Tamil Nadu and central governments stepped in to reverse the bar amid widespread protests in the state.
The ban, many fans argued, was an assault on Tamil pride. Supporters also claim that jallikattu helps them identify strong bulls for breeding.
As thousands of bulls are readied for “battle” once again, ThePrint looks back at the debate around jallikattu, which critics see as a barbaric sport that often results in the death of its animal and human participants.
A bloody sport
Jallikattu traces its genesis to the Tamil classical period (400-100 BC).
The term jallikattu comes from the Tamil words “salli kaasu” — while “salli” means coins, “kattu” is the package tied to a bull’s horns as prize money.
Typically, bulls of specific varieties are let out into a crowd of human participants, who attempt to grab the animal by its hump and stop it from escaping.
For farmers, jallikattu holds enormous cultural significance. It is a moment to exhibit their own strength and those of their bulls, whom they claim to love.
Supporters say the sport celebrates the spirit of the hard-working Tamil farmer, who toils day and night on the farm with the help of his bulls.
However, animal rights activists claim bulls are almost invariably assaulted during the sport and often intoxicated.
It has been alleged that bull owners often rub lime juice and chilli powder into the animal’s eyes and genitals to make them ferocious — because, activists ask, how else can bulls be made to run?
Moreover, animal rights organisations claim bulls are often stabbed with knives or sticks, punched, jumped on and swept across the floor as the human participants try to tame them.
The court ban and how it was overturned
In May 2014, after a decade-long battle by animal welfare organisations like the Federation of India Animal Protection Agencies (FIAPO) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Supreme Court banned the sport and imposed penalties on its practice.
The order was upheld in 2016, when Tamil Nadu was bound for assembly elections, after the central government sought to reverse the ban by effecting certain conditions.
It triggered massive outrage and protests in Tamil Nadu.
In January 2017, when the Supreme Court rejected a plea seeking an urgent hearing on a clutch of petitions seeking permission for jallikattu that year, the protests became louder.
The protests Tamil Nadu witnessed were compared to the violent demonstrations of the 1960s, when the central government attempted to make Hindi the official language of India.
The ruling AIADMK and opposition parties backed pro-Jallikattu groups.
After more than a week of protests, the Tamil Nadu government passed an amendment to the central government’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 to allow jallikattu. The amendment was subsequently approved by the President of India, effectively overturning the Supreme Court ban and allowing the sport to be played without any legal hurdle.