Raging bulls and bleeding girls: Why the apex court is being simplistic on Jallikattu and Sabarimala

Controversies in India sometimes reveal more about the contestants than about the subject of controversy. The two protagonists recite their arguments oblivious of each other, each content with his own world and indifferent to the other’s arguments. Whether it is beef bans, or debates on rationalism or sexuality and rape makes little difference. Now that the debate on Jallikattu has died out after the Supreme Court stalled the bull-taming festival, one sees a similar strain in it.

There was one difference however in the latest row. Jallikattu as a phenomenon produced some of the best researched pieces on cultural history one has seen in print for a while. Yet while the essays were superb in detail, the argument remained one of incommensurables, between a plea for sensitive tradition and a battle for a humane modernity. However, in taking the bull by the norms, both sides left a sense of disquiet about how controversies are resolved in India.

Mediating between the two groups was the Supreme Court of India. Watching the court in action one wondered how knowledgeable it was. It tried to blend sociology, history, law, animal welfare and politics, and ended up presenting an unconvincing picture, behaving more like a cantankerous mother-in-law than a judicious body. Yet one sympathised with the court. It was mediating between a range of certainties, between the faith of traditionalists and the conviction of animal lovers. In addressing all of them, it satisfied none of them, cutting a picture sorrier at least than the bulls on display.

The court was trying to be reductive, attempting to simplify a kaleidoscope to the clarity of a lens, and it failed miserably. Its final decision to stall Jallikattu for a year added little to the power of its analysis. A wag described it as a desperate attempt of a Don Quixote to play out the realism of a Sancho Panza. The arguments just didn’t gel and the court’s attempt to master an interdisciplinary issue cutting across rights, livelihood, ways of life, custom, cruelty, economics, electoral politics, made one wonder whether it rather than the bull was the real victim of the controversy.

Underpinnings of modernisation

Adding a cynical veneer to this confusion were the political parties, most of whom vociferously supported Jallikattu. The Jallikattu community is a major Other Backward Classes constituency and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Congress all expressed an electoral urgency to restart the event. The Bharatiya Janata Party went hypocritical on media, saying the South needed to be represented. Only a group of outsiders can make such a pathetic statement. Worse, the BJP tried to communalise the issue, turning it into a defence of a Hindu tradition and drawing comparisons with the beef controversy.

Reviewing what is a rich controversy in terms of historical sweep and ethnographic detail, one senses two ways of constricting the row, two grids of thought which provide structure to the arguments. Underlying both is a sense of modernisation, a belief that it is inevitable. One side contends that ways of life can be mixed or hybrid, while the other insists that modernity has a ruthless logic. The first can be called the way of life or modernity of tradition thesis and the second the logic of modernity argument.

The second constricts the world in terms of animal welfare and rights. But its tacit assumption is that traditional ways are over and that the animal world is now neither a cosmos nor an ecological complex. Because it is disrupted and in fragments it needs rights, it requires regulation and demands the interaction of the animal welfare board. The animal world, in this perspective, is no longer a continuum. It discretely classifies animals into those that are scientific specimens, those which are pets, those which are food, and the few wild species which can be the object of tourism. A perspective based on this set of domains does not take inspiration from the symbolism of the forest, or the power of nature but from the socialised nature of the animals.

As specimens, one can challenge vivisection but here again human interest pervades animal rights. As moral philosopher Peter Singer points out, over 63 million animals are used for scientific research in US laboratories alone. The second focus is on food, where factory farming, the industrialisation of food creates violence to chickens, cattle, pigs. The third is the domain of domesticated pets, which raises the highest degree of sentimentality.

Regulating violence

The court, at one level, is applying this perspective to a pastoral-agricultural way of life where the relation between man and animal is radically different. Here man and animal constitute a work complex and a ritual complex. Animals are often worshipped, as during Pongal. One can also think of the Jain Pinjrapols, where men would die rather than let the animals suffer. Accompanying this literal affection for the animal is a ritual complex where rites of manhood as rites of passage centre on contests with animals. Jallikattu belongs to this order where men who “conquer” the animal are seen among the most eligible bachelors. In these ritualised battles, there might be violence but little calculated cruelty. One should not confuse manhood as condition with machismo, which is an imitation of it and which is more prone to cruelty.

One also has to understand that as the pastoral-agricultural complex comes under attack, cruelty and commercialism can come in. But to confuse a ritual complex with what is called a cruel sport might be futile. There is a third and more complex point to be made. In such societies which create ritual tests of violence, cruelty would be rare. There is no attempt to sanitise violence as in modern societies which only banalises it. Ritual is a mechanism for channelising and regulating violence.

The world of Jallikattu, seen through the second perspective, presents a different picture of a pastoral-agricultural way of life. Here religion, livelihood, economics, lifecycle rituals combine to create a complex world which cannot be scrutinised in fragments.

The court has tended to see Jallikattu in terms of the first world, scholars have often presented the second case.

A dose of anthropology

This same grid of perspectives seems to extend to the recent menstruation debates, where the court asked the the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, whether it has a constitutional right to prohibit women’s entry. Why can menstruating women not enter Sabarimala, the court asked. Why should it be a man’s domain?

Feminists have made this argument and one would say it works for the workplace where women need more rights and more kinds of rights. Yet to treat Sabarimala, a religious complex, and a secular workplace as equivalent entities does not make sense. One is not quite sure that women’s rights are being violated. Maybe there is a sensitivity to the condition of women which men occasionally recognise.

Studying these controversies, one realises that politics could do with a dose of anthropology, not as a colonial administrative instrument, but as an act of scholarship which often tells you a badly thought reform may destroy more rights and create more violence than one imagines today.


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