Jalikattu: A case on controversy

There are cases in controversy and there are cases around controversy, India has an eclectic exception, a case on controversy. A case with its foundations in controversy, practices in controversy, and continuance in, again, controversy, no marks for guessing there. It is so tightly wound around the controversy that it is a case for understanding the nature of controversies.

Jalikattu is a tradition that rears its head around the start of India’s harvest festival, “Pongal.” It involves releasing a bull into a field as people try to jump and grab it by the hump for a certain specified time. It is said to represent the symbolic taming of wildlands into agricultural fields, an invocation towards the victory of man against all that is deemed wild and unruly (certain parts also involve taking off flags from the horns and waving them about).

The inception of this practice is disputed but eminent historians characterize this practice to be as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation of the Ganges plain. It was more common in the Sangam Ages and has continued with little variation, albeit the introduction of a Jalikattu Premier league, but then our nation possesses a peculiar proclivity for imbibing commerce in any activity.

Jalikattu is a familiar guest in Indian courts and has been the subject of numerous though contradictory judgments;  it continued unrestrained till 2010 when it was partially prohibited after a petition by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). It was completely prohibited in 2014. In 2016 the then Chief Justice gave concrete remarks over the impermissibility of an age-old tradition solely on the plea of culture. However the state chief minister, O Paneerselvam ominously pledged to restore the practice, the Modi-led government cleared it through an ordinance, and bull-taming was legalized in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Opening the defense for Jalikattu is a favorite among the political and business circles of Tamil Nadu, the defense almost inevitably reaches a stop at culture, with some evoking divine authority, freedom of religion, and self-determination all in the folds of the bigger cultural argument. It has been used so frequently and redundantly that it has taken its place as a sacrosanct, hallowed principle in the region. The Defense for Jalikattu is a phenomenon in itself, a cause célèbre free for use by politicians, filmmakers, nationalists, etc. It can almost be argued that only the bull is unable to use it.

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