Many larger issues emerge from the bull-taming bill in Tamil Nadu

~By Meha Mathur

While the state of Tamil Nadu has circumvented the Supreme Court ordered ban on the traditional bull sport of jallikattu, two key questions crop up. With one state having its way being able to assert its identity, will it open the floodgates for other states to assert their will, and could that weaken the delicately held Indian Union? Secondly, will the judiciary’s authority not be undermined and will its capability to intervene in cases of social wrongs and direct the society in the right direction not be severely compromised?

Already we see stakeholders in a belligerent mood vis-à-vis court orders—notice how Karnataka refused to honour the SC order to release Cauvery waters, even if it had a genuine problem of there not being sufficient water for its own population; notice how Punjab is backing out of Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal Water-sharing agreement with its neighbouring states; how Maharashtra blatantly defied the maximum height of the human pyramids as part of the Dahi Handi ritual on Janmashtami in 2016; how on the occasion of Makar Sankranti (January 14), people in several states went ahead with kite-flying using manja threads despite the NGT ban on manja, and the same happened in case of cock fights and bull races despite Supreme Court bans; how the Jain community challenged activists not to interfere with its traditions after a teenage girl died following a 68-day fast to help revive her family’s fortunes. And in 2015, the Supreme Court reversed the Rajasthan High Court order of staying the ritual of Santhara—fasting unto death—following petitions from the Jain community.

In case of jallikattu, the twin issues are of tradition versus modernity and regional sentiments versus centrally-enforced laws, as they are perceived to be—though there is also the argument that the fight is to protect local varieties of bull, which PETA, at the behest of global agricultural lobbies keen to enter the Indian market, is trying to harm.

Around the world

The world over, judiciary and polity are addressing the dilemmas of tradition and modernity. In ensuring women’s rights, child rights, LGBT rights and also animal welfare, they face stiff opposition from the champions of culture and heritage.

In Spain, there was a strange case of role reversal when, in October 2016, the Spanish constitutional court overturned the ban imposed on bull fighting by Catalonia, saying the state had exceeded its authority and that the state had the responsibility of preserving the common cultural heritage. But the mood in Catalonia was of defiance, with Barcelona mayor Ada Colau emphasising that his city was anti bull-fighting since 2004. He tweeted: “Whatever the court says, the Catalan capital will not allow animals to be mistreated.”

In England and Europe, there has been a long-drawn movement against consumption of veal—meat of male calves. Besides the fact that meat of a baby cow is tender and tastier than that of an adult cow, male calves are economically unproductive unlike female calves—they won’t be of use for milk, butter and cheese production. For this reason, male calves were either butchered within a few days or weeks of their birth, were kept in narrow crates restricting their mobility and denied nutrition so as to ensure a certain colour to veal. The European Union banned veal crates in 2007. The male calves now live up to six to eight months in the company of other calves, and get proper nutrition too, before being sent to abattoir.

England has resisted international pressure to discontinue this inhuman act, and has resumed veal consumption, though with certain changes.

In another continent, in another context, the constitution of Kenya states: “Any law, including customary law, that is inconsistent with this Constitution is void to the extent of the inconsistency, and any act or omission in contravention of this Constitution is invalid…The Constitution also makes general principles of international law and all ratified treaties a part of the domestic law of Kenya.”

Tradition to what end?

The moot point is: heritage conservation to what end? Do we perpetrate brutality for the sake of tradition? Have we not done away with scores of such traditions that were rampant in medieval times? Aren’t brutal forms of punishment that the emperors meted to criminals and their entertainment games involving lions and elephants and crocodiles a thing of the past? Aren’t even circuses winding up following judicial intervention?

There’s another debate that this episode has reignited—centre versus state, though the ban on jallikattu was first imposed by the Madras High Court, by Justice Banumathi. A video that was doing rounds on social media had as its tagline: “Not a bullfight, this is a fight with Delhi”.

To the generation that has not seen the early years of nation-building, like this author, India with its present boundaries is a given, and its borders are sacrosanct. Many of us are unaware that the prospect of many princely states and British administered territories contemplating remaining independent units post August 1947 and their populace not identifying with a pan-India sentiment was very much there.

Giving India its present shape was the work of leadership of that time. An understanding of how, various divergent entities were brought under one umbrella would illustrate how painstaking that task has been, and how precarious this arrangement is. On several occasions, this balance was disturbed—noticeably during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965 (against the government’s decision to enforce Hindi as the sole official language of the country) and the agitation for the formation of a separate Andhra state out of Madras in the 1950s, during which one person, Potti Sreeramulu died after a prolonged fast. The leadership of those times thought it wise not to miss the wood for the trees, shelved its language plan and reorganized borders of several states.

The hope of nation-building years gives way to a sentiment of anger for development and share in power having eluded them, and because of a very clear “talking at” approach of the present-day leadership.

The question is, how important is national integrity to us today? Regional and local voices will have to be heard and can’t be ignored any longer. It can’t be a top-down approach. The need of the hour is dialogue to understand others’ perspective and for each stakeholder to see reason.

But where does the judiciary figure in any balancing act? Can it take traditional and regional sentiments into account in passing its judgments?

Lead picture: Jallikattu protestors in Bengaluru; Supreme Court