It’s an essential part of Tamil culture and identity. That’s what thousands of protesters claimed as they gathered on Chennai’s Marina beach on Wednesday to demand that the Supreme Court lift its ban on the bull-taming sport of jallikattu.
Over the course of the legal battle to have the 2014 ban reversed, jallikattu supporters have sought to add weight to their cause by claiming great antiquity for the sport. They say it is mentioned in classical Tamil literature as “eru tazhuvuthal” or hugging the bull.
However, not everyone in Tamil Nadu buys into this narrative. A strong voice against the sport has emerged from the Dalit community, sections of which view jallikattu as a remnant of casteist village life in southern Tamil Nadu.
Among those who have attacked the idea that jallikattu is a key symbol of Tamil pride is Puthiya Tamizhagam leader K Krishnaswamy, one of the most popular Dalit leaders in Tamil Nadu. He has told Scroll.in that it was “irresponsible” of the young agitators to champion the cause of bull-taming instead of being concerned about the severe agriculture crisis that has gripped Tamil Nadu.
A feudal practice
Krishnaswamy offered several cultural, social and economic arguments against jallikattu, suggesting that it is not as inclusive a pastime as is being projected. The Dalit leader claimed that the sport is conducted in less than 20 villages in Tamil Nadu’s southern districts.
Though many protestors have suggested that bull taming is an important cultural symbol of all Tamils, Krishnaswamy advised caution. “Based on what evidence are such claims being made?” he asked.
Krishnaswamy claimed that jallikattu was part of rituals that were created centuries ago to ensure that human blood was spilled on the soil. Such rituals were believed to bring prosperity.
However, he argued that these rituals cannot find a legitimate place in any modern society that strives to uphold values of humanism. Across the world, environmentalism now accommodates the right of animals to lead a dignified life, he added.
Besides, Krishnaswamy noted that it was not easy or cheap to rear a bull or cow of the native breeds that are used for jallikattu. These animals need a lot of care and produce barely three litres of milk a day. They are also very expensive to maintain, he said, and costs escalate in times of drought.
He was cynical of the view that jallikattu helps to protect native breeds of cattle and that the ban on the sport is a conspiracy by foreign powers to wipe out such breeds. At a time when most countries are moving towards high-technology machines in agriculture, the dependence on bulls to till the land is not ideal, he said.
He claimed that jallikattu helps a few communities establish their dominance in villages, which in turn helps entrench caste. This is because most of the children of the more affluent people who own jallikattu bulls have given up farming and are seeking opportunities in cities. As a consequence, it is Dalits who are being engaged to rear the animals, tying these communities to the rural economy, and scuttling their attempts to free themselves from the feudal world, Krishnaswamy said.
A casteist sport
Dalit writer Stalin Rajangam agreed with him. Agitators invoking Tamil tradition to lift the ban on the sport are whitewashing the casteist features of jallikattu, he claimed.
Rajangam said jallikattu supporters point to the annual event in Alanganallur in Madurai, the most famous of jalikattu venues, to prove that the sport does not involve caste discrimination. The Alanganallur event is moderated by the state government, and members of the Dalit community participate in it. The temple priest who inaugurates the show is a Dalit.
However, the writer claimed that this is “mere tokenism”. He explained: “The real power to conduct the event lies with caste Hindus.”
Rajangam said that outside Alanganallur, in places like Sivaganga, the events are managed by men of the powerful Other Backward Class Thevar community. In the past, Dalit youngsters attempting to tame the bulls have been attacked. As recently as Sunday, when villagers in Singampunari in Sivaganga district defied the ban and let some bulls loose, Dalit youngsters who tried to tame the animal were attacked.
The writer said that it may be factually incorrect to describe jallikattu a pure Tamil tradition. In its current form, the sport probably developed during the period of Telugu-speaking Nayaks in the 16th century. This had nothing to do with the “eru thazhuvuthal [hugging the bull]” of the Tamil Sangam era, he said.
Rajangam added that the clamour to change the law in the name of tradition was a dangerous trend. “Tomorrow, they might question a law in favour of Dalits citing tradition,” he said.
D Ravikumar, general secretary of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, said that if jallikattu is to become to become a truly Tamil tradition, it will have to be democratised. This could be achieved only if the state takes over the event and allows everyone to participate. Till then it could only be described as the tradition of a particular community, he said.
However, Ravikumar argued that pro-jallikattu protests could not be deemed illegitimate simply because the sport is practiced only by a single community. Given that the very idea of Tamil Nadu is an assimilation of various regions with their unique cultures, the individual parts cannot be termed non-Tamil, he said.