Days ahead of Pongal, a harvest festival celebrated in parts of south India, a fresh debate over Jallikattu erupted once again with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Pannerselvam writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting him to overturn the existing ban on the bull-taming sport. Many also weighed in on the issue, most recently Tamil actor Kamal Hassan and Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu. For the uninitiated, here is all what it is about:
What is Jallitkattu?
It is a traditional bull-taming sport organised in Tamil Nadu during Pongal. Also known as Eruthazhuvuthal or Manju virattu, the sport involves a natively reared stud that is set free inside an arena filled with young participants. The challenge lies in taming the bull with bare hands. Ideally, participants try to grab the bull by its horns or tail and wrestle it into submission. A few also tend to latch on to the bull by clinging to the hump at the back of its neck. The participants are usually young men in their 20s.
When did it start?
The practice dates back to as far as 2000 years ago, according to a few historical accounts. It mainly was active in the districts of Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Theni, Pudukkottai and Dindigul of Tamil Nadu until its ban in 2011. Organisers of the event argue that it is closely associated with village life and the bulls are specially reared for this purpose. Breeders often claim they treat the bulls like their own children and spend large sums of money towards their upkeep. Many participants, however, are either fatally gored, trampled or mauled by the bull.
What is the controversy surrounding Jallikattu?
In 2011, during the UPA rule, the Environment Ministry added bulls to its 1991 notification banning the training and exhibition of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs. The notification was challenged in the Supreme Court and was upheld in 2014. Under the NDA government, the ministry in 2016 modified its earlier notification and declared that the sport could continue despite the existing ban. This was in direct contravention with the apex court order, and was duly challenged by animal welfare organisation such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Subsequently, a stay order was issued by the court. The notification issued by the ministry became controversial as critics accused the government of appeasing Tamil voters with an eye on the upcoming state assembly elections. In 2017, the issue erupted once again after the death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Her close aide and newly anointed AIADMK general secretary, Sasikala Natarajan was embroiled in a war of words with DMK working-president M K Stalin over Jallikattu. Stalin accused the AIADMK government of doing little to overturn the Jallikattu ban. Sasikala countered the accusation saying that it was under the UPA rule, of which DMK was a key alliance partner, that the ban was first imposed. A string of Tamil leaders have also advocated for lifting the ban.