Friday, January 8, 2016

On Jallikattu

The old Tamil tradition of Jallikattu, practiced by only a small grouo in the southern state, has been in the eye of the storm for some time. Opponents describe it as being extremely cruel to the bulls and based on that, the Supreme Court had banned it. However, the NDA government yesterday decided to overturn that (there is little detail on how that was achieved legislatively) and allow it to go on this year, a move celebrated by virtually all political parties in the state, with Chief Minister Jayalalitha thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the move.

There are several questions here, and I'm not taking sides. Perhaps the sport is cruel to animals - 'cruelty' can be subjective, especially when bulls are supposed to be beasts of burden and not domesticated pets. One can argue that using a bull to plough a field is cruel, but then it would have had no purpose. It is also a slippery slope, because slaughtering an animal for food is also cruel, and yet there is no blanket ban on eating meat in the country (the only bans are with respect to cows). Therefore, cruelty needs to be defined keeping the local conditions in mind, and not merely importing a European sense of what is cruel and what is not.

Then, there is also the question of protecting local sensibilities. Jallikattu has been going on for several centuries, well before the Indian Constitution came into force, and banning it by anyone other than the local population smacks of majoritarianism. The Constitution itself is replete with exceptions to protect local customs that might in ordinary circumstances be opposed to law, so the idea that a local practice can be preserved despite the majority having a contrary view is quite firmly rooted in Indian law. However, by that logic, something as inhuman as sati could never have been abolished. Therefore, arguments of majority dominance aside, there need to be some red lines that society cannot evade.

What are these red lines? Is Jallikattu in it? Is animal cruelty such an important factor so as to allow the full force of the state to stop the traditional practice of a small group of people? That is the real question - and there are no simple answers. 

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