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Fighting over bulls in India's Tamil Nadu

Court ban on traditional sport kicks off cultural battle

Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad

Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad

Updated: May 19, 2014 09:26 PM GMT
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Fighting over bulls in India's Tamil Nadu

Bullfighting Tamil Nadu style. Photo: Balakumar Somu

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May traditionally marks the end of the season for a popular sport in India's Tamil Nadu state.

However, this season could see the end of the sport altogether after India's top court banned it earlier this month.

The sport is called Jallikattu, a form of bullfighting in which hundreds of men chase down bulls to grab prizes tied to the horns or try to hold on to the hump of a bull for a predetermined distance or time.

It takes place from January to May during the harvest festival and during temple festivals across the southern Indian state.

Critics such as the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) say Jallikattu involves immeasurable suffering inflicted on the bulls, while dozens of people taking part are injured and killed each year.

The Supreme Court in its May 7 ruling agreed, saying the animals being used are “severely harmed” which was in breach of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

The decision to ban the sport as well as bull cart racing was hailed as a landmark ruling by animal rights activists, who allege that bulls are poked with sharp objects, sprayed with chili powder and given alcohol to make them aggressive.

Each year “countless bulls and people suffer and die," a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spokesperson said, adding that the court ruling was a “victory for animals in India”.    

Local political parties and festival organizers in Tamil Nadu condemned the ruling, calling it a huge injustice.

They say allegations are unfounded and that Jallikattu events take place under strict supervision by state officials, following guidelines set down by a 2009 law regulating the sport. The Tamil Nadu government has already called for a review of the Supreme Court decision.

Other supporters say the sport is part of a cultural heritage dating back 2,000 years and are threatening to ignore the court’s ruling.

“Sometimes court decisions clash with religious-cultural practices that people have been following for years,” says Uma Maheshwari, assistant professor of cultural studies at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad.

In cases where people are deeply attached to certain customs, it is unlikely that legislation could succeed, she said.

Reports say people have hoisted black flags in several villages to protest against the latest court decision, forcing authorities to enact curfews in some places to avoid clashes.

Some Jallikattu organizers say they believe that the court has not understood the feelings of rural people.

“It is not just a game," says Balakumar Somu who runs a Jallikattu website which includes a detailed socio-cultural history of the event.

“People outside do not know the significance of it. It is a celebration of bulls, as they are considered sacred in villages."

Such festivals are essential in preventing the extinction of native cattle breeds, he said.

Families, temples and Church communities in Tamil Nadu raise several native varieties of bull just for the sport. If the sport is banned these bulls will be sold off for meat, breeding will cease and lead to the extinction of these varieties, Somu explained.

Christian parishes organize close to 30 percent of the Jallikattu events in Tamil Nadu, said Somu, a member of Jallikattu Peravai, an organization formed in 2009 to protect the sport, which has seen Jallikattu events drop from 3,000 to 15 over the last decade.

"The court order will be the last nail in its coffin"  if nothing is done, he said.

But animal rights activists are adamant.

“Words such as tradition and religious practice cannot justify this cruelty to animals or violence to people,” said Chaitanya Koduri, science policy advisor for PETA India.

India has seen several cruel traditions banned over the years, such as sati, the practice of widows self-immolating on their husband’s funeral pyres, he said.

“This one should end too.”

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