Alanganallur village, 15-odd km north of Madurai - the third largest city in Tamil Nadu - is considered the sacred ground zero for the annual bull-taming festival of Jallikattu. While it is a popular rural sport in Tamil Nadu, it is especially so in the southern districts and Madurai is where most action is witnessed every year. Hence when the Supreme Court issued a stay on the ban of this sport days ahead of the start of the harvest festivities, the emotional outcome among the local population was not just disappointment but anger and rage as well. Fearing the possibility of law and order problem the number of beat cops in Alanganallur was been increased by the local administration nearly 10 fold to around 450 policemen picketing in sensitive parts of the village.
Apart from Alanganallur, Jallikattu is organized in two other villages around Madurai – Avaniyapuram and Palamedu. Participants and spectators from smaller villages around these three congregate every year to witness the once-in-a-year sport where young men usually below 25 years showcase their valor by taming the bulls.
This is the second year in a row when Jallikattu has not been held in Tamil Nadu. The anger and disappointment over ban has gone a few notches up this year in particular for two reasons. After last year’s ban, the villagers were particularly hopeful that the upcoming assembly elections in Tamil Nadu would pressurize the regional parties to back their demand to lift the ban. The Union Government’s nod to remove the ban issued on January 8 raised hopes and hence preparation for this year’s Jallikattu. Hence, when the Supreme Court issued a stay on the ban, effectively overriding the Centre’s decision to restart the sport, it turned out to be the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip with a dash of political colour.
On Friday, supporters of Jallikattu took to the streets and protested the apex court’s ban and lukewarm support received from the major political parties. Protesters believe that the issue has been blown out of proportion and claims by animal welfare interests are completely baseless. Murugan, a 36-year-old local from Madurai, who was among those leading the protests in Madurai said, “The local political parties (who have some voice in Delhi) did not convey the Tamil sentiments sufficiently. We are more upset with them than with the (SC) order or even animal welfare groups for that matter.” There is also growing consensus among the villagers to boycott the upcoming state assembly elections in the state to be displayed by the returning of voter ID cards.
The villagers say that unlike most other animal related sport, Jallikattu comes with a certain sacredness that is not easy for those “sitting in AC rooms in Delhi” to understand. Palanivel who is a bull owner explains. “It is child, god and the bull for us. These three are fed before we tend to our hunger. The quality of food served to the bull is always the best. Weekly bathing and trips to the vet are routines we never compromise. It does not matter what these costs.”
The villagers say claims of cruelty towards the bulls are baseless. Unlike other animal sports like horse racing or cock-fighting, no training is involved in Jallikattu. Without any leash, the bulls are released through a small bracket of stone pillars and they have to be subdued within a stipulated distance (usually around 50-100 meters) or time. “The selection of young men who wish to participate is stricter than that for army. Only the fittest are allowed getting into this sport. The bulls themselves have a short window of three years between age 3 and 6 to participate, though they usually live up to age 12-15, said Ramkumar, a local at Alanganallur who also bears a large scar on his chest received from a bull when the sport was still legal.
What irk the villagers most is the inconsistent standards used in the banning of Jallikattu, while selling of cows for human consumption continues. A policeman patrolling the streets of Alanganallur said every Tuesday three truck-loads of cows are shipped from his village to Kerala for beef. “It is hard for us to understand how the animal welfare activists are comfortable with that but not with a traditional sport that is practiced under strict rules and observation.”