Jallikattu: Unsettling and Unsettled

For a while now I’ve remained quiet and largely ignorant of the events that have unfolded as a result of the PETA ban on the Tamizh sport of Jallikattu, and for a variety of reasons. For starters, I clearly didn’t know enough about it apart from what Television, Media and Advertisements have fed me, and I say that with a little sense of shame. I also have spent a large chunk of my life away from the country, and I think that contributes largely to my
previous feeling of apathy towards the cause. I’ve been blessed with parents who don’t fork any cultural traditions down my throat and perhaps I took that flexibility as a reason to not indulge in my roots at all, again something I’m not too proud of. But over the past few days, I’ve been interacting and debating with friends and family to build up my general understanding and opinion on the issue, I think I benefit that way from a certain kind of agnosticism that I’ve been maintaining up until now. Its intriguing to say the least to hear both sides of the debate and further more, to be able to observe and understand from a third-person perspective, and makes me wonder if Football matches too would inspire this sense of curiosity in me if I remained as agnostic, but I’ll leave that to another day.

This article will be an attempt to build my understanding of the issue, and perhaps eventually get to where my stance lies. As I’m writing this, I still feel a sense of uncertainty but I sincerely hope with the last word of this piece, I would’ve made up my mind.

Tamil Pride:

To start off, I think it’s important in pointing out that the kind of numbers that have come out to show fraternity for the cause are not all purely “pro-Jallikattu”, and I think a lot of people on both sides mistake their participation as exactly that. There’s a sense of anti-Center sentimentality that has come to evolve, this feeling of us not being a perfect cog in the system that has been set in place by our constitution, this sense that we feel and thrive as a culturally and socially independent state despite legally being under the authority of the centre. There’s a linguistic and cultural apathy and indifference to the matters of the centre that seems to stem from the fact that as a state, Tamil Nadu has been subject to several hardships culturally and politically, leading to a very evident inherent alienation that we face from the rest of the country. So a lot of people here aren’t exactly protesting for the sport of Jallikattu itself, but rather for the preservation of a cultural tradition that matters a lot, to say the least, to the people of this land. I think it also has to do with the fact that for the most part of history, Tamil Nadu has largely remained unconquered by foreign empires, because of distance from the centre and the existence of local powerful kingdoms that were very difficult to overthrow. This adds a sense of separate oneness that I feel has remained for centuries, and is clearly being witnessed here. This ‘Tamil Pride’ has rapidly become the major reason behind the participation of a large number of protesters, and that’s something I understand but refuse to accept as a reason to participate. This kind of spirit only propagates anti-nationalistic ideas and leaves no room for a healthy dialogue, which can be witnessed by  But then again, why cross borders and look at issues here when you’ve got plenty elsewhere around the country right? But then, doesn’t it become simply a matter of pointing fingers and saying, “Well they did it too, so why can’t we?”

A quick walk across the city of Chennai and one can witness the seething belly-churning angst that people feel against this infringement of an event that has been played for centuries, one can only feel the rage of people in villages where the sport is actually played in its full-fledged grandeur. Shops, IT companies, malls have closed down, but employees are present outside, holding banners and posters asking for Jallikattu to stay. But amongst these posters, and something I found way more interesting are posts which speak of Tamil Nadu as an independent state from the rest of the country. This unity isn’t new-founded either but has been the outcome of a long existing apprehension in people’s hearts over several issues over the years, the Karnataka Water issue, the increasing rate of suicides of farmers, to name a few. The 2015 South Indian floods and Cyclone Vardah in 2016 were two events which also fostered massive social interaction and volunteerism amongst people, as people from all around came together to help out and provide support to those who were displaced or injured as a result of the floods. No political agenda, hardly any government support, just pure public heart. And when such a crowd comes together for a cause, and in such numbers, its impossible to even think their cause isn’t worth fighting for.

Animal Cruelty:

Coming to the argument of animal cruelty, the main issue is that people on both sides of this debate have slightly radical ideas of the sport. PETA fanatics have blatantly labeled it as nothing more than a painful mistreatment and barbaric act of cruelty against animals, while Pro-Jallikattu members argue that it’s very peaceful and is actually “bull-hugging”, and that a lot of love goes into the event, as women and men all around the locality come to worship and offer their prayers to the bull and everything is done in a very civilized manner. I for one can’t agree with either side.

For one, as educated an opinion as PETA officials may possess, they never really will have as good an opinion about the issue as the farmers who actually tend to these cows and take care of them. It’s like a vet telling you that every time your dog spins around it means something specific, but only you know that that gesture by your dog means something else. Why? Because you’ve been raising it all its life, only you can understand what its movements mean accurately, no matter how educated and backed by science another’s opinion is. Also, this a tradition that has been played for centuries or more, which is integral to the cultural fabric of societies all around the state. You must create a proper dialogue if change is to happen, especially when the two parties involved are of completely different backgrounds, cultures, education, and modernity. You must engage in a proper discourse before taking a decision. I understand the task is tricky, especially considering we’re debating over beings we consider lower than us on the food and utility chain, beings we consume for their meat and byproducts. But we gotta start somewhere right?

On the other hand, Jallikattu isn’t as soft and lovey-dovey as people would say it is. It still involves provoking a bull, it still involves invigorating it and making it do something it doesn’t want to, it involves grabbing an animal while it flees, it involves a sport being played by engaging an animal in the name of pride and entertainment. Now one could argue that we don’t exactly know what the bull is feeling and so it’s not up to us to decide whether we’re actually mistreating it or not, especially since we rear it with such love and compassion and treat it like family. But when we see a fleeing animal, one is naturally inclined to think it didn’t really sign up for it. Granted, it’s nowhere near as cruel as Tauromachia is, where the bull is hooked and killed after the event, but it still involves putting an animal through something it doesn’t want to. Not to mention people die while participating, 2 died just a few days ago.

Now, there is the argument that stricter rules and regulations would help. But that only makes me ponder the possibility of regulating a sport where one of the competitors is a voiceless and less-than-intelligent being that has no way of knowing what those rules are? And even if there was a way to regulate, how much interference will be tolerated before it comes to change the very way the game is played?

Toxic Masculinity:

Another dimension to this whole debate is the sexist nature of it all. Pro-Jallikattu supports would say it isn’t simply because women and children from all around the village come to offer their prayers and watch the game, while some women even claim that the prospect of having their husband regarded as the “manliest” around isn’t too bad either. And if it is sexist, why are there women supporters joining in on the protest? Right?

But if there’s one thing I’ve witnessed it is the blatant hypermasculinity the sport has propagated and in a way heightened in our society. The fundamental nature of the sport has somehow been lost amidst all the discussions of how the ban is a threat to the Tamizh identity and how protection of an indigenous breed is dependent on Jallikattu, and that’s that this is a game of warriors, moustache-curling, lungi-tying, thigh-slapping, chest-brandishing warriors. Somewhere amidst all the arguments, the basic machismo essence of the sport has been shied away from discussions. Prior to this protest, Jallikattu was never revered for its ability to preserve a breed of cow or its ability to bring together woman and men and children from all around, no. It was always about finding who the “manliest one of them all” was, it was always about a man proving his courage and bravery for the whole village to see, it was always about man taming beast to prove his worth. This patriarchal essence of it all is so evident when we see the way these ideals are portrayed in movies and media. Tamizh cinema has always portrayed Jallikattu as a sport where the victor turns out to be a big, brawny musclehead who wins the respect of the village, and the hearts of the ladies. It’s never been about the bull itself.

About 6 months ago, Hip Hop Tamizha, someone who’s been crystal of his support ofJallikattu and its implication to the Tamizh identity, and someone who protestors looked to as a leader and an icon, released a music video labelled ‘Takkaru Takkaru‘. The video was said to be instrumental in catalysing the masses to protest. The video comprises of two halves. The first sees two sets of men beating the crap out of each other, coming out of badass SUVs,and of course,curling their moustaches,with some scenes of Adhi smiling and tending to a cow dabbled here and there. The second is a short documentary of sorts where different people of different backgrounds talk about the necessity of the sport and how it helps them. Throughout the video, all I could feel was my male ego being fed yet again of images of strength and power. Seriously, I wanted to beat someone up for no random reason and curl my moustache too, even though I physically can’t (leave it to you to figure out which one of those I can’t do). I’m bewildered as to what the purpose of this video was. Was it to instil a sense of rage in me? Was it to make feel less of a man because I don’t fight? More importantly, in what way did this have anything to do with protecting cows? And where are the women in all of this? What’s their role in this entire hullabaloo? And my god, where can I get one of those badass moustaches?!

The point is, the victory of this protest also marks the victory of such notions of hypermasculinity. While the romanticised idea of oneness with the bull is evident, the patriarchal nature of it all seen through the absence of women in all of this and the revered traits of machismo and muscle is even more so. And unfortunately, it only seems like it’s here to stay.

As I reach the end of this article, I now feel the full complexity and gravity of the situation. It’s tricky, to say the least and involves parties of such radicalised natures and ideals. Add in vehemence caused by the Karnataka Water dispute, demands for a Tamil Eelam state, and the seemingly less-than-legitimate shift of power in the state, you’ve got a boiling chamberpot of angst waiting to be stirred. As far as I’m concerned, Jallikattu to me feels like another trope of patriarchy and animal cruelty that seems detrimental to our society. I’m sorry, but the benefits mentioned simply do not convince me. Regardless, what we do need to do is talk and not shut down the other side simply because they’re uneducated and orthodox, or because they’re not from here and “wouldn’t understand.”


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