Protest, civil disobedience and questioning authority are good things – they are essential for maintaining democracy. Strident protest that attempts to drown out other voices is counterproductive. Rather than pitch ideas to counter ideas, such protest may seek to crush contrary ideas through sheer muscle power.

The protests against the jallikattu ban in Tamil Nadu are spreading across the districts, bringing people together as Tamils – almost all people. It is not a unified voice. Dalit political parties have a different point of view. See this.

There is much talk about Tamil culture, about violence and cruelty to animals, about crucifying the animal rights organisation PETA, the Animal Welfare Board of India, and the importance of jallikattu in maintaining the gene pool of indigenous breeds.

What is being talked about and skimmed over in the high-decibel discussions on social media by pro- and anti-jallikattu may bear some reflection. There are no clear monosyllabic answers.

On the protests

The protests have been largely civil if one is to acknowledge that no buses have been burnt or stones pelted, and if one were to ignore the “Fuck You PETA!” posters on Chennai’s Marina beach, or the vicious casteist remarks circulating in the social media. In Chennai, young people have turned out in large orderly numbers. Solidarity has been massive. The absence of political parties and the usual suspects in the leadership is refreshing. I wholeheartedly support the right of the protestors to protest, and conditionally support the protest itself.

On the demands of the protestors

The demand for removal of the ban on jallikattu is defensible; the demand to ban the animal rights organisation PETA is not. Banning PETA does not make PETA’s ideology and allegations disappear: those ideas have wider subscription. Banning ideas by outlawing their agents vitiates the situation and counters the democratic ideals that the protests claim to underscore.

On the ban and the allegations of the pro-ban lobby

The pro-ban lobby has only one allegation – that the sport is cruel. As evidence, they point to instances where animals are tortured and suggest that that is the norm. A friend pointed out an additional point: that regardless of whether the bull is agitated or subjected to pain to prime it for the event, the very act of chasing the bull and hanging on to its hump is traumatic and should be avoided.

The first point does not hold water.

I witnessed jallikattu during the Pongal festival of 1995, when I visited the Alanganallur jallikattu and the home of a bull-rearer. The bull was tied in the front yard, and was seemingly contented. It looked well-fed, healthy and far better cared for than many of the agricultural labourers who lived in the colony behind the village. The farmer told me that she tended to the bull with great care and love. “Like the eldest son in the household,” I remember her telling me suggesting that even the daughters of the household may not be as well cared for.

Inflicting pain on the animal, even if it is only to goad the animal is not part of the equation and certainly not the tradition, say farmers and other observers. Torturing and goading entered the tradition with the entry of commercialisation in the last few decades, where jallikattu events began coveting sponsors and advertising huge prize money. Even then, such instances were not the norm.

In any case, such instances could have been checked by effective implementation of the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009, which contains provisions and mechanisms for ensuring the safety of bulls and viewers.

The Supreme Court order of 2014 which bans jallikattu states that the sport involves the taming or overpowering of bulls. Clearly, the judge has not been to a jallikattu bout. The sport involves hanging on to the bulls hump for less than half a minute if that. Taming is not an option because the bulls cannot be tamed without a whip or other weapon. This encounter involves neither.

The act of having sweaty, testosterone-pumped men jumping onto the back of bulls is bound to be traumatic to the bull. But there is an agrarian cultural context within which the sport is located. To dismiss that context with arguments that equate jallikattu with sati are hyperbolic. The sport continues to have much to do with parading virile bulls – as desirable studs for insemination of other native cattle.

The relevance of tradition

Traditions do run the risk of eroding into rituals devoid of updated contexts. However, at least with respect to the context of rural agriculture, the cattle economy and the preservation of fast-disappearing native breeds, the festival has cultural relevance. It has not, however, updated itself to the changed social context.

The agrarian culture symbolised by jallikattu is under assault. Modern, predatory and the far more violent White Revolution and the transnational dairy industry that view cows as milk-yielding machines are seeking to replace traditional agricultural practices and succeeding.

The World Health Organisation of Animal Health says that “an animal is in good state of welfare if (as indicated by scientific evidence) it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express innate behaviour and if it is not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear and distress”. During the days of the sport, it is a fact that the animal suffers from fear and distress. Barring that, the animal is in a “good state of welfare”. If the jallikattu Kangeyam bull is subjected to stress and fear for ten days in a year, the plight of a hybrid Jersey milch cow is a life of pain, exploitation and poisoning. This alone ought to give us pause before a knee-jerk demand for the sport to be banned.

Whether this suffering of the bull is acceptable is culture specific. The subculture in the agrarian communities of Tamil Nadu find it acceptable. The subculture of the Animal Welfare Board of India, PETA and others advocating for a ban on the sport finds it unacceptable, even barbaric.

However, the same subculture that finds this pain and trauma unacceptable may find castrating bulls and neutering dogs acceptable. It may dismiss the trapping of street dogs for neutering – a horribly traumatic process that inflicts injury on the dog – a necessary evil.

The Supreme Court order of 2014 does not at all deal with the extant connections between jallikattu and agrarian economies, or the violence of the White Revolution. Rather, it attempts to extinguish culture as invalid and irrelevant by legal diktat failing to realise that it is culture that shapes the law, and not the other way around.

On things left unsaid

Regardless of the outcome of this agitation, the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu’s delta districts will continue to unfold. Before the month of Chithirai (April-May) is through, and the jallikattu season comes to an end, there will not be enough water to drink, leave alone to give the Kangeyam bull its daily bath. The bull may be the symbol of Tamil agrarian culture. But the real backbone of that culture is the poromboke or commons – the meichal (grazing) poromboke and the wetlands. The wholesale takeover of these commons needs to be countered far more vigorously and over a far longer duration if we stand any chance of making it through the remaining century.

The erosion of the commons mirrors the erosion of the cultures of the poromboke, by the entry of commercialisation and industry. When seen in the context of rampant industrialisation, the decimation of native breeds of cattle, poultry and crops, the jallikattu ban raises flags about the robustness and depth of such single-species, charismatic megafauna conservation measures. The tragedy is that despite having the undivided attention of the world media, the opponents of the ban have failed to articulate a larger vision of Tamil culture that is inclusive, socially just and environmentally sensitive.

Of all the reasons to criticise jallikattu, cruelty against the bulls, I feel, is the flimsiest. This single-point argument by the pro-banners also exposes how far removed they are from the realities in rural Tamil Nadu. I can think of at least two other reasons to be critical of jallikattu.

One, it celebrates a certain machismo at a time when the need of the hour begs for less machismo – particularly of this simmering violent kind. Even the protests exude a machismo, with many of the protestors tending to paint any dissent as pro-PETA and refusing to go beyond the chest-thumping declarations of “Naan Tamizhan da, Naan Tamizhachi da!” I am Tamil, I am Tamil.

Second, the sport and the festivities reek of caste discrimination, and the failure of the movement to highlight it, and bring its reform as part of its agenda is a fatal lapse. In southern Tamil Nadu, where jallikattu is in vogue, the sport and its festivities are exclusive, and dalits are not allowed to participate in the sport or festivities as equals. Dalit political parties have rightly broken ranks with the ongoing agitation against the ban, triggering a rash of abusive comments by their historical oppressors. It is not that they seek to be included in the celebrations. Rather, they see this as cultural revivalism with the associated caste connotations unchanged.

Curiously, no petition has sought to reform that. No Supreme Court order mentions this. Its failure to evolve into an inclusive festival is jallikattu’s biggest lapse. If the movement refuses to reform this, that will be the movement’s biggest mistake. True reform would then lie in restoring a jallikattu tradition that is devoid of cruelty to animals, inclusive of all communities and practiced in a context where there is real reason for agrarian communities to celebrate.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.