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17 January, 2017

Conflicting pulls and pressures

BRP Bhaskar

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to fast-forward Indian society into the digital era, scattered groups across the country are striving to hold it back, if not drive it back to the medieval ages.

Ironically, in the forefront of the onward-to-the-past movement are numerous shadowy outfits set up by followers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, fountainhead of the Hindutva ideology of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

After Modi led the BJP to power following a sensational victory in the 2014 elections, these groups unleashed a wave of violence across the country raising divisive religious and cultural issues in a bid to recreate an imagined homogenous Hindu India. Arson and lynching have been part of their campaign, and most often Dalits, Adivasis and minorities were the victims.

Their activities adversely affected Modi’s developmental plans for the country. Yet he made no public condemnation of the acts of violence for fear of offending his supporters.

But misguided Hindutva foot soldiers are not the only ones trying to drag the country backward in the name of religious or cultural practices. Those who were most actively engaged in that effort last week were political parties of Tamil Nadu who have no affinity with the Hindutva school.

Under the leadership of these parties people in many parts of the state organised the ancient game of “jallikattu” in which able-bodied men strive to bring under control trained bulls, defying court decisions banning it. In some places the police intervened and foiled their plans.

References to jallikattu in ancient Tamil literature show that the game is at least 2,000 years old. Some scholars push its history back to 5,000 years ago on the strength of some images in the Indus Valley seals. There is increasing evidence that the Indus Valley civilisation was the work of the Dravidians who inhabited the northern region before the arrival of the Vedic Aryans.

However, the term jallikattu is only a few hundred years old. It is said to have originated during the time of the Madurai Nayak dynasty (16th to 18th century) when a small bag with gold coins (jalli) was tied (kattu) to the bull’s horn and the villager seeking the prize had to untie it even as he held on to the animal’s hump.

During the colonial period, some British officials tried to discourage the sport because of the danger involved but in keeping with the policy of not antagonising the people they avoided a formal ban.

Villagers organised jallikattu with great enthusiasm during the harvest festival of Pongal until 10 years ago when a woman judge of the Madras high court, R. Banumathi, who heard a petition seeking permission to hold the traditional “rekla” (bullock cart) race, banned oxen races and jallikattu, holding them violations of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

An NGO, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took the issue to the Supreme Court and it upheld the ban in 2014.

Both the Central and state governments framed rules to ensure safety in jallikattu, hoping they would help overcome opposition to the sport. But the critics were not mollified. PETA and the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations challenged the rules before the apex court.

Ahead of last week’s Pongal celebrations, supporters of jallikattu made a vain bid to secure an interim ruling from the court but it refused to oblige. Even as political parties mounted campaigns in support of jallikattu in the name of tradition, the state government urged the Centre to promulgate an ordinance.

Reports from New Delhi said an ordinance was ready but it did not see the light of the day. Credit is due to Modi for resisting the temptation to go ahead with the ordinance which may have earned some political support for his party, which is extremely weak in Tamil Nadu.

Protests against the ban on jallikattu raged all over the state. The police arrested scores of people and used force in some places to disperse law-breakers.

All supporters of jallikattu do not base their arguments on tradition. According to some, the sport sustained people’s interest in livestock and its disappearance may lead to extinction of indigenous breeds. It is for the state to evolve scientific methods to protect local breeds and not fall back on archaic practices.
The role played by political parties in fanning the flames over this issue for electoral gains suggests that Indian society must witness many intense struggles before feudal-era practices become things of the past. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 18, 2017

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