Deaths at recent jallikattu events revive debates around a gory sport
In December 2022, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court reserved its verdict on a batch of petitions seeking to strike down a 2017 Tamil Nadu law, which protects the jallikattu bull sport or madu pidi vilayatu (a game of handling the bull) in the name of culture and tradition.
But, even as the Supreme Court (SC) Constitution bench is yet to pronounce the judgement, this Pongal, the jallikattu bull sport was conducted with more fervour than ever before in Tamil Nadu. It was actually on the decline earlier but the traditional sport got a boost after the protests against its ban had gained momentum. But, the deaths of participants and spectators at the recent jallikattu events have once again put the gory bull sport under the spotlight.
In an interview with The Federal, Madurai-based Mudakathan Mani, a well-known jallikattu participant said, “We had petitioned the government for setting up temporary ICUs near jallikattu locations, but to no avail.”
“We don’t need just ambulances, we need surgeons to operate on those severely injured. These events are conducted in small villages. Before the injured ‘player’ is taken to a bigger hospital, he succumbs to his injuries,” pointed out Mani, who has even set up an association for the welfare of the people who take part in this event.
Jallikattu in the limelight
Jallikattu requires fighters to pounce on a running bull, try to hold on to its hump and move along with the animal to a certain distance without falling or getting hurt. It requires quick and sharp reflexes to handle the bull, which will try to get away, shake off the fighter and, at times, stamp or gore the fallen participants.
The one who emerges as the winner takes home a prize that could vary from plastic chairs to bikes, refrigerators or gold coins. In the past, the one who was able to successfully master the bull became the most sought-after bridegroom of the village.
A longstanding legal battle
The legal battle to stop the event has been going on since March 2006. A crestfallen father A.Nagarajan of Madurai, who lost his 18-year-old son in a jallikattu, was one of the initial petitioners asking for a ban on this dangerous bull game. He petitioned Madurai district collector to reinstate the ban on the dangerous sport as a division bench of Madras High Court had revoked the ban. Ever since Nagarajan is part of the case against jallikattu, along with Animal Welfare Board of India and People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who cited animal cruelty apart from dangers it posed for the participants and spectators as reasons to ban the traditional sport.
Ironically, jallikattu shot into the limelight ever since it was banned by the Supreme Court in 2014. Millions thronged the 2017 pro-jallikattu Marina protest held to “protect culture”. It led to the removal of bulls from the category of non-performing animals with the AIADMK government passing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act of 2017 and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Conduct of Jallikattu) Rules of 2017. Jallikattu resumed in the state.
Much has changed from that day on ever since the 2017 Marina protests. There are improved barricades at the bull sporting events to stop participants from entering the ‘arena’. Multiple layers of coir are used in the jallikattu arena to ensure injuries sustained falling off from the bull are reduced. This has ensured spinal injuries are reduced drastically. But, chaos still rules, apart from safety issues in this game of life and death.
The death of jallikattu participant Aravind Raj
“On January 16, jallikattu participant Aravind Raj was killed in Palamedu (near Madurai) because the horns of a bull tore his lungs. Surgeons can stitch it easily if the injury is to the abdomen or other parts of the body. But when it comes to lungs, it will be difficult,” said Mani.
Palamedu is a small village north of Madurai. Aravind Raj was taken to a nearby Public Health Centre (PHC), which referred him to Rajaji Government Hospital in Madurai, which is 45 minutes away. And, it would take longer if you take into account jallikattu traffic jams.
Also read: Jallikattu season begins in Tamil Nadu
Raj was pronounced dead when the ambulance reached the hospital. “We cherish jallikattu as part of our culture and religion, but we are sad the way we are treated,” lamented Mani, who rose to prominence as his rides on jallikattu bulls were widely covered by the media.
“My forefathers told me this is a way to keep youngsters ready for a war in the past. Today, it is part of our religion and passion. I have received honours from many CMs of Tamil Nadu. But, it is a fact that the importance given to VIPs isn’t given to those who risk their lives in jallikattu. On January 17, at the Alanganallur jallikattu event too the participants were made to sit on the floor, while the dignitaries sat on a chair,” he said.
The caste factor also plays a part in jallikattu as most of the owners who rear the bulls hail from dominant castes, while, the participants of this bull sport are largely from the oppressed classes. At the January 16th jallikattu event in Palamedu, the announcers were not allowed to use the caste name of bull owners to prevent caste clashes. One of the initial petitioners Nagarajan who lost his young son, an upcoming artist, also hails from an oppressed Dalit community.
Jallikattu was on the decline
Jallikattu, a dangerous form of bull sport, was actually on the decline before the recent intervention due to the ban. Various scholars including Tho.Paramasivam have argued bulls and jallikattu were part of Tamil life for time immemorial. Ancient stone carvings of men handling bulls have been found in the past.
In 2014, when the ban came into effect, jallikattu was practised only in a handful of places in Tamil Nadu – in north Madurai, Sivaganga district and in Salem. After the 2017 Marina protests, jallikattu got a new impetus and was celebrated with much fervour and attained a pan-Tamil Nadu cultural identity. Earlier, districts like Coimbatore and Kanchipuram rarely held jallikattu events. Now, the DMK Kanchipuram district unit also plans to conduct another jallikattu event on the outskirts of Chennai this March.
The PETA argument
Meanwhile, the SC bench will give their verdict on a bunch of pleas challenging the constitutional validity of laws permitting jallikattu, kambala and bullock cart races in states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Harshil Maheshwari, deputy director, advocacy, Peta India told The Federal that at least 23 bulls and 86 participants have been killed in jallikattu ever since it was legalised in 2017. “More than 6,000 people have been injured. At least humans know what they are doing. But the poor animals will not know why they are treated so badly. Torturing of animals cannot be allowed in the garb of culture,” she said.
There is also sheer chaos in many of the jallikattu venues leading to the death of spectators, she added. After PETA filed a petition in the SC by 2017, challenging the constitutional validity of the TN act, the organisation followed it up with a detailed investigation on jallikattu events. PETA submitted the report to the SC in 2019.
“We are against all forms of cruelty against animals, not just jallikattu. Our petition in the SC is against unconstitutional laws passed by the Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra governments. And it pertains to kambala in Karnataka and bullock cart race in Maharashtra, apart from jallikattu in Tamil Nadu,” she said. They want the SC to revert to its 2014 A Nagaraja judgement which held jallikattu as being cruel to bulls and banned it.
In a matter of just three days from January 15, at least five people have died and more than 100 injured, said media reports. Injuries and deaths continue to be part of jallikattu.
The constitutional sanction for jallikattu has also opened the gates for many other traditional sports which were banned in the past. For example, the Madurai bench of Madras high court has given the nod for cock-fighting with restrictions in Tamil Nadu.
Ace filmmaker Vetrimaran is working on a film adaptation of Vadivasal (Vadivasal-the entrance through which bulls run past in jallikattu) written by renowned Tamil author Se.Su.Sellappa. The novel deals with a son taking to jallikattu despite his father’s brutal and bloody death in the bull game.
Three point debate
The recent deaths has once again triggered debates around jallikattu. The five-judge Constitution bench raised a query – how do you intervene in the “adventure spirit” in man? “People die while climbing mountains, so do we stop people from climbing mountains?” the bench had said in one of its observations.
However, the critical question involved here is whether jallikattu should be granted constitutional protection as a collective cultural right under Article 29 (1). (Article 29 (1) is a fundamental right guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution to protect the educational and cultural rights of citizens). The court has examined if the laws “perpetuate cruelty to animals” or are actually a means to ensure “the survival and well-being of the native breed of bulls”.
At the end of the day, it is really a triangular debate, which involves culture-tradition, passion for adventurous sport and the constitutional framework of present-day society. And, it remains to be seen what takes precedence in the eyes of the court.