I guess I am going to take the bull by the horns in this article; well, not literally! After all, I respect the culture of the bovine species.
But first, what IS culture? Is culture an immutable characteristic of a race or people? Is culture all the social and familial practices and traditions that a race or people have? Or is it something different and higher? Does culture change over time, as people who share that culture grow in understanding, sensitivity, and wisdom?
The recent protests in Tamil Nadu and across the world by Tamils regarding jallikattu inspire this reflection. The depth of passion and the intensity of the protests, the numbers that gathered and the social media support garnered were both surprising and revealing.
Surprising because for the impartial observer, surely there were far more important issues over which to protest: demonetisation immediately comes to mind with its consequent deleterious effects on small and medium businesses, contract labour, and agriculture, to name a few.
Revealing because, again for the impartial observer, it demonstrates how, in a swift-changing world that creates more instability than we can handle, something like a ban on jallikattu can light a fire of resentment because it symbolises our deep desire for stability in long held traditions, beliefs and practices, however anomalous those might be with reason or an awareness of rights, both human and animal.
Now that we’ve done with the basic analysis, we need to ask: in the 21st century CE, what possesses educated, well-travelled people to speak in favour of a sport that in no way can be beneficial or pleasant for the poor bull? I ask this because support for the protests and the so-called culture embodied by jallikattu came from well-known national and international personalities such as Kamal Hassan, Vishwanathan Anand, and AR Rahman, among others. We would imagine such people to be well read and knowledgeable about animal rights, about the fact that animals never consent to these brutal sports, about the realities of such sports and the harm they cause to the animals. And yet on social media and in interviews, these people stood up for the protestors in the name of Tamil culture and tradition. Surely Tamil culture is more and deeper than a crazed running after equally crazed bulls to satisfy some irrational machismo!
History is filled with cultural and traditional rites and ceremonies which have been discarded with the passage of time. Beliefs and customs once held as rigidly unchangeable have fallen by the wayside. We know of many of them in India: sati, child-marriage (still practised but condemned), dowry (again, still practised, but illegal). The rigid caste-system, unfortunately still existing and practised in India, is much milder than what it once was and there are laws preventing discrimination on the basis of caste (though their effectiveness is moot!). And these are just a few!
The belief in the superior wisdom of the human race is a fragile one: on one hand it is based on the presumed pragmatism of the human being, the capacity to think ahead, to plan, to reason; on the other hand it is predicated on the ability of the human being to accumulate knowledge and wisdom and learn to change and adapt. A fragile belief, indeed, because so many of these qualities are present in living creatures that are not human, only expressed in a way we perhaps do not understand. Never have we found, for example, animals using other animals for commercial benefit at the cost of the captive animals’ freedom, health, and life. Never have we seen in the non-human world wanton destruction of life-giving resources or of habitat. Never will we find among animals the desire to kill for sport or trophies. Never would we discover among non-human species a thirst for complete domination even at the long term cost to the dominant species. And we believe we are wise beings!
At the base of this discussion is a simple question: Why do I believe that my culture calls me to breed bulls specifically for the purpose of a tradition in which they are forcibly enraged, and then equally forcibly tamed? The fact that the bulls are bred implies they are already tame. Perhaps in the ancient past, when bulls were found in the wild, they were tamed in order to use them for agriculture or animal husbandry. That time is long past. Now to carry on a tradition without meaning, we breed bulls (hence, tame), make them wild (artificially by enraging them), release them in a crowd to be tamed (forcibly), all without their consent! And then, to add insult to injury, platitudes are given: the bulls are reared as part of the family, they are treated very well, they are honoured, they are bred only for this, and so on. To add still more insult, comparisons are made to wrestling and boxing, ignoring that in those sports, two consenting humans participate – stupidly or not is not the issue here!
If culture elevates us and gives us a sense of identity, then we would have to accept that a cruel sport like jallikattu lowers us and destroys that identity. For a sport that can result in bulls being injured, losing a horn, suffering humiliation at the hands of madly screaming men, is not one that elevates the human; rather it makes the human being bestial and brutal, qualities that animals do not possess intrinsically.
This is so much a projection of the patriarchal world view: one in which domination, control, violence, and subjugation are considered normative. And that is a culture that has harmed humankind and the rest of creation drastically. Isn’t it time we stand against such a mindless, self-serving, destructive culture? Jallikattu is just a symbol – not of Tamil culture, however much the protests might affirm that, but of a bestial patriarchal value system that demeans us and that needs to be radically altered to raise us to a value system that is integrative, collaborative, and respectful of life in all forms.
Suren Abreu, Green Madcaps, 31 January 2017