The protests against the Supreme Court ban on jallikattu gave us striking photos of thousands of youngsters gathered at Chennai’s Marina Beach, using the flashlights of their mobile phones, instead of the traditional wax candles, as a mark of solidarity. A somewhat less visually striking yet equally remarkable outcome of the ongoing debate on the bull-taming sport is the rare congruence of views of the Indian Right and Left. That their scripts read the same on a matter of culture is even more staggering.

So, while the Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) passed a resolution in support of the jallikattu, played during the harvest season of Pongal, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh openly sided with Tamil “sentiment” even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed the government’s inability to intervene in a matter that is in court.

News7 Tamil/via YouTube
News7 Tamil/via YouTube

Perhaps the ideological distance between the likes of anti-Genetically Modified Organisms activist Vandana Shiva and Subhash Palekar, the pioneer of “zero budget spiritual farming” and an RSS agrarian poster boy who was awarded Padma Shri in 2016, is considerably lesser than commonly thought.

Several spiritual leaders considered sympathetic to the BJP government too have been vocal in their support of jallikattu ever since the court ban. Sri Sri Ravishankar, the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, calls the bull-taming sport the Tamil cultural equivalent of Japanese Sumo wrestling. “It may not stop with the jallikattu,” he said in a Pongal video last year. “Then you may ban the Mysore Dasara or the Thrissur Pooram festival where hundreds of elephants take part in the festival. It will be a great injustice to the tradition of Tamil Nadu if jallikattu is banned.”

Jaggi Vasudev, also known as Sadhguru, founder of the Isha Foundation, a spritual organisation headquartered in Coimbatore that works extensively with rural communities in Tamil Nadu, supports the banned sport for two primary reasons. According to the Yoga guru, jallikattu is a once-a-year opportunity for young rural men to express their valour and physical prowess – something that keeps them away from alcohol and other intoxicants. Secondly, the rearing of special jallikattu bulls keeps a check on the extinction of native Indian cattle breed.

Cattle concerns

The second argument is shared by many pro-jallikattu voices, who argue that the sport gives farmers and breeders an incentive to rear and nurture native breeds, who do not yield as much milk as foreign ones. From nearly 130 varieties, the pool of native breeds is now down to 37, according the national animal census. The situation is so dire today that states like Gujarat and Punjab now import Gir, Tharparkar and Kankrej bull semen from Brazil. India had gifted these native cattle to Brazil in the 1960s. The 2007-2012 Livestock Census points to the fact that not only did the number of native cattle go down by 19% in this period, the cattle population in Tamil Nadu – the land of jallikattu – recorded the sharpest fall in cattle numbers by nearly 22%.

Animal rights activists who debunk the connection between the survival of native cattle breeds and rural sports like jallikattu claim that there are other pain-free ways of preserving the animals. The argument betrays a lack of knowledge about the economic ground realities.

On the ground

There are several instances of governments forcing farmers to use high-yield European cross-bred cattle such as Holstein Fresian and Jersey to attain milk production targets. The near extinction of Kerala’s native Vechur cattle (the smallest breed in the world) thanks to official policy, and its recent revival owing to the efforts of a veteran genetic biologist Sosamma Iype and veterinarian Abraham Varkey is instructive.

In an example of bizarre policy-making, the state government ruled in 1968 that farmers would need to get a licence from the animal husbandry department to own a Vechur bull. It also gave animal inspectors the right to castrate this variety of bull if they came across it, in an attempt to promote more productive cross-breeds when they encountered this variety.

In his book Everyone Loves a Good Drought, journalist P Sainath, hardly a friend of the nativist Right, wrote about a state policy-induced agricultural dairy disaster in Odisha’s poorest Kalahandi district. To promote cross-breeding with European cattle, all of Odisha’s native Khariar bulls were castrated. The exotic cross-breeds, low on immunity and unable to adapt to local conditions, failed to survive. This in effect ruined the entire district’s cattle population, driving milk self-sufficient communities towards desperation.

In the absence of jallikattu and rekhla, bullock-cart racing popular among the Gounders of Western Tamil Nadu, the economic incentives for preserving native breeds like the Kangeyam and Pulikulam vanish. The prices of such bull calves have halved post the jallikattu ban. The flattening out of agricultural diversity and the consequent homogenisation of cultures has long turned into a state project, irrespective of the governments’ professed ideological affiliations.

Just as we lost healthier and more sustainable native millets in the pursuit of resource-guzzling but more profitable wheat, cane and rice, we risk losing our indigenous cattle diversity as well.

Caste conundrum

Amidst the sea of support for jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, there are some Dalit factions that welcome the ban not on grounds of animal cruelty but because it helps cement the caste hierarchy. Dalit leader and head of the political outfit Puthiya Tamizhagam, K Krishnaswamy, has been one such dissenter.

He questions why the sport, played in a mere four districts of southern Tamil Nadu, should be linked to the Tamil identity. He contends that that jallikattu helps a few communities [read Thevars, the largest Other Backward Classes group in the state with enormous political clout] establish their dominance in villages, which in turn helps entrench casteism. “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,” Krishnaswamy said in an interview to Scroll.in. “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.”

Is caste a consideration in jallikattu? It would be disingenuous to argue otherwise. Despite tokenisms like accomodating Dalit priests at some venues, the taming of rampaging bulls reinforces the idea of the martial superiority of Thevars. There are some Dalit villages that hold their own separate jallikattus.

In a Facebook post a few days ago, Tamil writer G Karl Max argued that despite the undeniable caste connotations of the sport, the decision to ban it is inherently undemocratic. He wrote:

“In our tradition there are hardly any cultural practice that is divorced from caste. Should we ban jallikattu on that count? I would say yes. But only when the the Dalits, as the oppressed, make a strong case for it themselves… But what’s happening now is that the people who have successfully managed to get jallikattu banned are those who have no understanding or connections to Tamil society and life. They are complete outsiders. Only by unequivocally rejecting them can we begin to reclaim Tamil identity.”