SOME call it cruel, and no wonder. Baying spectators jab them with sharp sticks, or yank and twist their tails. Handlers are said to squeeze lemon in their eyes, rub chili on their genitals or force alcohol down their throats—whatever it takes to drive a bull wild enough to charge into a pen ringed with cheering, jeering people. The terrified beasts often trample or gore the boys who try to catch them by the hump and drag them down. Fear can also send a 450kg (1,000lb) bull crashing through barriers into speeding cars or trains.
But jallikattu, a form of bull wrestling practised in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is no blood sport: unlike in a Spanish bullfight, the bulls’ ordeal does not end in death. For Tamils, the “taming” of bulls is a noble tradition. Prehistoric cave paintings, ancient seals and 17th-century carvings from Hindu temples all capture the same, unchanging image of a daredevil youth straining against the ungainly shoulder hump that distinguishes the hardy native bos indicus breed of cattle. In myth Krishna pacified a bull; the great Tamil screen heroes have also tested their manliness against a raging beast.
In the blockbuster “Thaikuppin Tharam” in 1956, M.G. Ramachandran tamed a bull to win the respect of his uncle and the heart of his girl. Movie stardom was to propel MGR, and later also his leading lady, Jayalalithaa, to the pinnacle of state politics. Their party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or AIADMK, espoused Tamil exceptionalism: the idea that Tamils are racially, linguistically and culturally distinct from Aryan, Indo-European northerners. And what better proof could there be that the north does not sufficiently respect the traditions and dignity of the south than the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month to uphold a ban on jallikattu it had first issued in 2014, at the behest of animal-rights activists?
The police in Chennai, the state capital, attempted to enforce the ban by raiding bull pens and arresting scores of would-be contestants before the start of the jallikattu season at the annual harvest festival of pongal in mid-January. In response, a giant crowd of protesters gathered along a wide, sandy stretch of the Marina Beach in the centre of the city, hoping to prod the AIADMK government to defy the court. Similar protests snowballed across Tamil Nadu. Marina Beach became a seaside Tahrir Square, complete with vendors, volunteer battalions of cleaners and shows of solidarity among Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
From a defence of a traditional sport the protest metastasised into a wider declaration of Tamil identity against perceived alien influence, whether in the form of meddling from faraway Delhi, or of a Hindi-language cultural “invasion”, or of alleged attempts to impose north-Indian norms of Hindu practice. (Some pious Hindus from the northern “cow belt”, where cattle are especially revered, supported the ban.) Politicians of all stripes jumped on the bandwagon. Even the local head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu-nationalist group that defends the sanctity of cows, found a way to please the crowds. He said that while he was neutral about jallikattu he would fight against what he termed “a conspiracy to finish off native Indian breeds to help international companies to market their own breeds”.
Tamil pop and movie stars also piled in. Kamal Haasan, star of perhaps the most famous bull-taming scene in Tamil cinema, in the 2004 hit “Virumaandi”, sent out a series of shrill tweets in support of the protests. “PETA go ban bull-riding rodeos in Mr Trump’s US,” said one of them, referring to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an international animal-rights group. “You’re not qualified to tackle our bulls. Empires have been made to quit India.”
Chastened by the scale and passion of the protests, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister flew to Delhi for a hastily arranged meeting with Narendra Modi, the prime minister. The protests had spooked his government, too. The result: a fudge. The Supreme Court quietly agreed to suspend its ruling for a few days, allowing the state legislature to pass a new bill to legalise jallikattu. That may also be challenged, but in the meantime the sport has gone ahead with gusto: in the first few days after the lifting of the ban on January 22nd, three young men were killed in the bull pens.
Who’s the bos?
So, a great victory for the people, and a welcome defeat for government meddling and nannying courts? Perhaps, but the affair has left some uneasy. “I really have no opinion at all about the sport,” says Madhav Khosla of Columbia University. “But it is quite disturbing to see the Supreme Court so easily challenged, and basically forced to back off.”
Sadly, this is not the only such case in recent months. The state of Punjab, for instance, has openly defied the Supreme Court’s order to open a canal that will irrigate parts of neighbouring Haryana. A similar dispute has seen the state of Karnataka repeatedly refuse to release to Tamil Nadu, which lies downstream on the Cauvery river, a court-ordered share of its water. In both cases state governments have not only bowed to public anger at the court’s rulings, but ridden and amplified it. In a recent talk to officers of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s foreign-intelligence service, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a thoughtful public intellectual, warned of a decline in the country’s public institutions and a rise in populist politics.
Yet as Mr Khosla points out, such troubles are partly the fault of the judges themselves. All too often India’s courts have issued rulings that are either so harsh or so petty as to invite scorn. One recent example: the Supreme Court requires Indians to stand for their national anthem before every showing in every public cinema, including during film festivals. And surely, if the original ruling on jallikattu had mandated humane treatment of bulls rather than an outright ban, this rumpus might never have happened.