'Jallikattu' in action. Photo: AFP / Dibyangshu Sarkar
'Jallikattu' in action. Photo: AFP / Dibyangshu Sarkar

Hours ahead of the Pongal harvest festival, protests erupted across India’s Tamil Nadu state against the Supreme Court’s ban on ‘jallikattu’, a traditional bull-taming sport.

In Madurai, a group openly defied the court’s ban by organizing jallikattu with 22 bulls. Three lawmakers insisted the rural sport would go ahead as planned during the four-day festival which starts on Saturday. No arrests have been made so far.

On Wednesday, 28 people were arrested in coastal Cuddalore for conducting jallikattu near a temple.

Lawmaker Subramanian Swamy, who hails from Tamil Nadu, says emergency President’s rule should be imposed if the state goes ahead with jallikattu defying the court ban.

Leading a protest in front of the collectorate in Chennai Friday, MK Stalin and his sister Kanimozhi of the DMK party denounced the federal government for failing to protect jallikattu. Stalin demanded Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s immediate intervention in the matter which has triggered a political race, especially among Dravidian parties, for one-upmanship.

He said all parties in Tamil Nadu were united in their fight against the ban on the centuries-old ritual. The ruling AIADMK party also staged similar protests in front of the secretariat in Chennai.

Playing politics

Jallikattu, staged mainly by the farmers in the Madurai district, was banned in 2014 on animal cruelty grounds.

Last November, the Supreme Court dismissed the state government’s petition to review its ruling. Neither the AIADMK, DMK, nor either of the main national parties, protested at that stage.

However, a week before the start of the Pongal festival, parties suddenly begun clamoring for jallikattu even as the apex court turned down a fresh petition.

Parties are playing Pongal politics with an eye on elections, according to RK Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist from Chennai.

However, supporters of the sport say it is linked to Tamil pride and culture. They claim the bulls are treated like family members and worshipped as deities. Therefore, why make a fuss about an event that is held just once a year? There have been no accidental deaths linked to jallikattu since 2012, they point out.

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Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam says the state government will ensure that the sport is held peacefully across rural areas if the ban is lifted.

In a letter to Prime Minister Modi on Wednesday, AIADMK general secretary VK Sasikala said the annual event is linked to the agrarian customs, practices and psyche of the Tamils and called on the government to amend the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

Critics of jallikattu, however, call it a cruel sport where bulls are forced to run in panic as participants torture them by feeding them with alcohol, rubbing chilli powder in their eyes, twisting and biting their tails and punching and stabbing them with knives and sticks.

“There is nothing heroic about a mob terrifying a sensitive animal by pouncing on it. For onlookers, it may be fun but what about the pain the poor animal will be undergoing?” Odil D, a Bangalore-based journalist and native of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, said.

The row has caused ripples in  neighboring Karnataka state, where the high court passed an interim order in November 2016 banning all Kambala (buffalo) races until the disposal of a Public Interest Litigation suit filed by the Indian branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

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