Jallikattu: Denial meets drama and violence as drought-hit Tamil Nadu seeks release with bulls

A decade and a half ago, the midsummer nights in Delhi were haunted by the shadows of a certain monkey man. Laced with a chimpanzee's agility and the notorious intent of a human being, the character was blessed with Wolverine’s nails and Spiderman’s flight. He chose to frighten people mostly sleeping on rooftops and on folding cots along the streets of Sahibabad in Ghaziabad, along Delhi’s eastern border and in pockets of East Delhi. He caught the intrigue of state forces and civil society.

While the Delhi police checked with the city zoo if a chimpanzee had escaped and swiftly put a Rs 50,000 prize on its head, the National Institute of Human Behaviour (NIHB) and Central Forensic Laboratory (CFL) analysed the personality, socio-economic and psychological profiles of the victims and concluded that this is certainly a human being. Meanwhile, media channels romanced the ongoing collective delusion and the desire for supernatural sightings in a mundane world. For once, don’t look at the incident like it’s spinning out of a cinema reel.

Students protesting to lift the ban on Jallikattu. PTI

Students protesting to lift the ban on Jallikattu. PTI

That year, heat waves and power cuts were competing with each other for litres of human sweat. Clearly, the government didn’t consider sleeping in the breeze of ceiling fans or water coolers in soaring temperatures as some sort of a right. But, the state might just get up and save those people should they be threatened by a beast.


Little wonder then that the jallikattu furore has erupted in a state that is both thirsty and hungry. When a society is denied basic rights, it does all it can to attract the attention of the world towards it, first through debate, then by drama and ultimately by violence.

A report card: The National Human Rights Commission recently issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government based on news reports that 106 farmers have died or committed suicide in the state due to crop failure. The Tamil Nadu Agriculture Minister R Duraikannu declared Thanjavur district as "drought-hit" because the damage suffered by crops was heavy. He visited Papanasam, Ullikadai, Thiruvidamaruthur in the district before making the statement. Tamil Nadu sought the Centre to urgently sanction Rs 1,000 crore for relief and rehabilitation measures to mitigate the ill effects of the drought. The state demanded a total of Rs 39,565 crore from the National Disasters Response Fund (NDRF). Out of the 16,682 revenue villages in the state, 13,305 villages have been identified as "drought-affected".

In 2016, the northeast monsoon arrived in the State on 30 October. The shortfall was 96 percent in Chennai and 69 in the rest of the state. Against a normal rainfall of 164.7mm between 1 and 27 October, the rest of the state received a frugal 50.6mm. In fact, Chief Minister O Panneerselvam in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted that the drought situation has been caused by deficit rainfall in Tamil Nadu. Adding to the worries of the state was Karnataka's failure to release water in accordance with the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. As against the quantum of 179 TMC feet of water which was to be released by Karnataka during the period from June 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016, only 66.5 TMC feet of water was released. As a result, the storage in Mettur Dam, the reservoir that serves the Cauvery Delta, failed to secure paddy in the Cauvery Basin of Tamil Nadu.

The pent up frustration of a state has found a release in jallikattu. With a history of nearly 2,000 years, this bull-taming sport is organised once a year during Pongal in districts like Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul. The etymology of the word is such: Salli kassu stands for coins and kattu means package. The coins are tied to the bulls of domestically-reared cows, and the bulls and are the prize money for participants (generally men in their 20s) who are able to tame them. The festival combines a show of machismo by the young and fosters their bond with bovines that are integral to farming families.

In July 2009, the government of Tamil Nadu passed the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act (TNRJA), which laid down conditions for holding jallikattu, like seeking written permission of the district collector, between January and May of any year and with the condition that it must have taken place for at least five years. In July 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests banned the use of bulls as performing animals.

The protests against the ban are no new thing. They happened in 2014, 2015 and in 2016. But this year, with the aim of bringing the blood fights to a halt, the international animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is actively protesting the festival. Their side of the story is that along with protecting bulls that are liquored and smeared with chilli peppers during jallikattu celebrations, 43 people have died and 5,000 people have been injured at these events between 2008 and 2014. The locals insist that the festival serves as a way of saving high-quality breeds of bulls, which are on the verge of extinction; the Kangayam bulls are preserved mainly through the tradition of jallikattu.

Pro-Jallikattu protesters during a violent clash with the police near Marina Beach in Chennai on Monday. PTI

Pro-jallikattu protesters during a violent clash with the police near Marina Beach in Chennai on Monday. PTI


After Jayalalitha’s death, Tamil Nadu is showing signs of a child newly released from the clutches of a disciplinarian parent. Besides, with a wave of nationalism blowing through the nation, people are reaching out to jackets of community identities and protecting themselves by glorifying their histories, language and customs. With the help of the IT (many of them come from farming families and relate to the sport in sentiment), Marina Beach has turned into a symbol of mass angst.

"If our children are hungry and can’t make a living, don’t tell us how we should be taking care of our animals," says one protestor. "Don’t glorify Spanish bullfights in Bollywood films made for NRI audiences and tell us we are archaic," says another.

Yet another one points to made snana, a ritual in Karnataka in which people from the Scheduled Tribes roll on the plantain leaves and food leftovers of lunch served to Brahmins in the temple town of Kukke Subrahmanya in Dakshina Kannada district. The practice is categorised as a "blind belief" in the proposed Karnataka Prevention of Superstitious Practices Bill (2013) but the tribals believe it is part of their tradition and strongly resist any intervention by the state.

"If made snana goes on unchecked, why are we asked to put an end to our festivities? We became Indians since Independence but have been Tamilians for 2,000 years," he said.

Staged on social media, the drama of jallikattu revolves around the real life story of denial that is performed in desperation.


Published Date: Jan 25, 2017 01:43 pm | Updated Date: Jan 25, 2017 01:43 pm


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