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The Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre on Friday, overruled a 2011 notification by the Manmohan Singh government, thus clearing the way for conduct of the bull baiting sport of jallikattu in Tamil Nadu.
Significantly, in May 2014, the Supreme Court had upheld this 2011 notification by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to include bulls in the category of animals that could not be exhibited or trained as performing animals for Jallikattu events.
The Modi government’s move comes after sustained pressure from Tamil Nadu politicians such as Chief Minister J Jayalalitha to lift the ban and allow the sport, given its popular position in Tamil culture. What makes the move even more interesting, is that apart from Tamil groups, the other source of sustained pressure on this topic was the Hindutva lobby, who view jallikattu as a Hindu practice and, therefore, a ban on it, as an attack on religious freedom, even as a humiliation of Hindu tradition.
Jallikattu was banned in the first place for being against animal welfare. The sport consists of baiting a bull, where the animal is let loose in an open area, as young men throw themselves onto the bull, in an effort to “tame” it and grab prizes or cash affixed on the animal’s body. During this activity, the bull is chased, beaten, stabbed, jumped on and some of the more enthusiastic participants even twist or bite the bull’s tail, in order to further agitate it. The animal is forcibly made to drink alcohol and many a times, its nose it ripped open, in order to drag it onto the play area. Regulations have often been proposed for jallikattu, but as many animal rights activist have pointed out, they are impractical since the sport cannot take place without the bull being terrified. It’s only a panicked bull which dashes about in terror that enables a jallikattu bout to take place.
What is of course, extremely ironic in the Hindutva stand on jallikattu is that the movement simultaneously sees bovines as divine and has, across a number of states, lobbied for a ban on bull slaughter as a means to stop animal cruelty. Till now the BJP governments in four states – Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh – have made slaughtering a bull a criminal offence with harsh penalties and jail sentences. In fact, much of the Hindutva movement is based on cow protection, with gau rakha samitis or cow protection societies providing the backbone of right wing mobilisation in India since the late 19th century. Even today, states like Haryana run gaushalas or bovine shelters out of state money and Rajasthan even has a minister for cow welfare.
If Hindutva and the Bharatiya Janata Party strive to even provide comfort for stray bovines, how can they simultaneously allow the torture of a bovine for sport and merriment?
Cow protection as a majoritarian tool
The answer to this paradox lies in the fact that cow protection politics in much of India has little to do with actual faith but is more to do with majoritarianism and Muslim-bashing. The cow is used as a symbol to politically mobilise by the Hindutva movement – even India’s first large-scale riot was driven by the issue of cow protection. But once the need for political mobilisation is satisfied, cow welfare per se is ignored.. This is why, apart from beef, other items which necessitate cow slaughter such as leather are left untouched by the law. In fact, two years back, in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP voted against a bill which sought to ban the sale of cow bones and fat.
It is this same double standard that is now being applied to jallikattu. Even as the BJP runs programmes for cow welfare elsewhere, in this case, it paradoxically promotes the torture of bulls for sport and pleasure.