I read the newspapers with surprise on Friday morning. The Times of India had given more pages to jallikattu than Cricket. The Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh centuries in the one-day cricket match against England on Thursday disappeared to the margins as jallikattu became the theme of the day.

It was an inversion I was gleeful about. It was as if the North has begun taking the South seriously.

As I called up friends, I realised that something new was happening. It was not the old debate on jallikattu dictated by the Supreme Court and animal rights activists. Both groups, as a leading lawyer told me, have a way of thinking in binaries. In fact the expert said the sadness of this court is that it thinks in binaries of right versus wrong, environment vs culture, cruelty vs sport, tradition vs modernity. The binary does not allow you to think flexibly. It does not allow for experiment or adjustment.

Binaries create political correctness and fundamentalism. They destroy humour and never allow an event to be viewed from a different perspective. Jallikattu and the Spanish bullfight are different. Jallikattu is a rite of passage, a coming of age ritual in an agricultural world. Man and animal are equally matched. Jallikattu, he explained, “was no Roman sport demanding blood thirsty crowds and circuses”.

I called up another friend, an anthropologist. He also ranted against the court, saying it cuts a stencil, creates a definition. Definitions remain frozen in time. With commercialisation there was some cruelty in jallikattu, but this is new, an add-on. It is not a genuine part of the sport. “Supreme Court gets officious on definitions,” he explained. “Their descriptions become inflexible. But an event, a word varies in meaning and in use.” Instead of an official lens, he recommended a kaleidoscope.

The anthropologist was right. When one talked to people and read the news, one realised that jallikattu was no longer a symbol. It was also a symptom, a reaction to how a culture or a people get defined. Another friend had an explanation. “Jallikattu is a metaphor. It is all about a sporting chance. Bull and man have to be evenly matched,” he said. “Tamil Nadu is also asking for a sporting chance against the North, a sporting chance against politicians, who tend to monopolise the definition of justice or morality.”

I realised the accuracy of what he was saying. First, the protest at Marina Beach was peaceful, its peacefulness echoing the inherent non-violence of Jallikattu. Second it was by students, who were clear that they did not want politicians to join them. It was reminiscent of India Against Corruption protests in New Delhi as a precursor to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party, raised hopes in other corners. It was clear politicians were not welcome. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s MK Stalin might have been the first to raise the issue publicly, to challenge Modi and chastise Panneerselvam. But when he went to Marina beach he realised he was taking a different bull by its horns and was quietly sidelined.

The protest, like Pongal, was a celebration of renewal – of discarding the old and embracing the new. It wanted to show it went beyond the Other Backward Classes vote bank politics.

A villager tries to control a bull during a bull-taming festival on the outskirts of Madurai town, about 500 km from Chennai January 16, 2014. Image credit: Reuters

A trial of strength

The solidarity over Jallikattu suddenly relayed a polyphony of messages which went beyond the narrowness of electoral politics. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and Chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand were quietly explaining that cultural roots of Jallikattu were misunderstood. Vasudev observed that Jallikattu was a trial of strength, a test for rural youth to show their sense of manhood. Acerbically he added, “If you take this away, how will boys become men? You can’t become a man by going on Facebook.”

Vasudev’s comments might raise a titter on Twitter but he was a bit unfair to Facebook. Facebook has been a trigger for singular forms of protest from Arab Spring to Marina Beach. But his main point is valid, a society, an urban society particularly, desperately needs rituals of manhood to contain violence.

Talking to others, I realised here was a society protesting about an unfairness of interpretation. Jallikattu, it seemed to emphasise, was caught in the standard binaries of cruelty and care. It was trying to explain that a society can treat animals with care, that jallikattu is like cricket, in emphasising fairness. Exaggerated critique sometimes destroys not only a sport, but a way of life. Tamil social scientists were demanding a more sporting, fairer reading of culture.

For many, jallikattu became a major issue because of fundamentalisms of modernity that dogged it. Seen as a feudal agricultural sport, it was defined as cruel by court and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. What society was asking was a more nuanced way of reading culture. The efflorescence at Marina Beach was a protest against misreading – of culture by Law, of manly sports by the animal rights activists, and of both by the North. As a debate on an emic reading of culture, it is a lesson to experts not be caught in procrustean reading of a society. One hopes the court carries a hearing aid or a translation of the events at Marina Beach.

Shiv Visvanathan is Professor and Director, Centre for the study of Knowledge Systems, Jindal Global Law School