Culture is a many-splendoured thing. The dictionary defines culture as the arts, ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society. What it doesn’t define it as, is a tool to whip up mass public sentiment, as it has done in the past week or more. From Chennai’s Marina Beach to New Delhi and even abroad, Tamils across the world have banded together in the name of culture to protest against a 2014 Supreme Court ban against Jallikattu, a bull taming sport popular in parts of the state during Pongal celebrations. “Save Jallikattu, it’s our culture. Ban PETA”, read banners carried by protestors. While critics feel the practice amounts to animal cruelty, supporters of the sport had hoped that the ban would be lifted ahead of Pongal. The protest saw political parties in the state joining hands in support of Jallikattu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance that “all efforts are being made to fulfil the cultural aspirations of the people.” Modi’s assurance came a day after the Centre cleared an ordinance drafted by the state government to circumvent the Supreme Court ban. On Saturday, Tamil Nadu Governor Vidyasagar Rao approved the ordinance allowing Jallikattu to be held across the state on Sunday.
In the age-old war between culture and tradition on one side and reform on the other, this battle has gone to the culturists. For Jallikattu is hardly the first cause that has leaned heavily on the culture crutch for support. Even where the campaign has been against more severe instances of socially and morally unjust practices, whether it be women’s suffrage in the US or women’s education, abolition of sati and child marriage and widow remarriage back home, or the movement against the caste system, over the years all of these have run into a solid wall of opposition based on what is perceived to be a part of “culture”.
The past few years have seen progressive discourse on many issues that have for years been put out of the reach of debate. Women have moved court against the system of triple talaq and polygamy. The Centre is pushing for a uniform civil code of law – a move which has again been opposed in the name of religion and tradition. Last year the Haji Ali Dargah Trust allowed women entry into the Mumbai shrine after a prolonged legal battle. The fight for women to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, where entry is banned for women, has also reached the courts. Voices for Dalit rights and against the caste system have gained increasing resonance across the country. All these movements are indicative of a society poised for change – a society where reason and basic rights are respected more than traditional practices that might be rooted in ignorance and blind faith.
Of course, the going has been far from easy. And culture has been the common stick used to try and beat back change. “Culture has always been violative of individual rights. It can be oppressive,” says Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), that has been at the forefront of the movement to abolish triple talaq and polygamy. The arguments in favour of the practice – as being part of religion, culture and tradition – are hardly different from those that had been raised when the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 had made polygamy illegal for Hindus.
“Culture is used by those in a position of power or advantage to hold on to that influence,” says Trupti Desai, who has led the campaign for entry of women in places of worship. “If something is wrong, if something is unjust, it can’t be justified in the name of culture and tradition, or to satisfy public sentiments. It needs to be changed. As society changes, so must culture,” says Desai.
Some feel it is the same male craving for dominance and display of power that fuels the outrage against the Jallikattu ban. “Jallikattu is more than a sport. I have been to many Jallikattu events in the past. It’s a blatant show of masculinity,” says NG Jayasimha, a member of the Animal Welfare Board of India. “Women rarely come to even watch. Traditionally, the winner used to get to marry the woman of his choice, or the daughter of the owner of the bull. Which means that the woman had little say in the matter. I don’t know whether that practice is still followed.” He adds, “Also, there is a deep casteist undercurrent. Till recently Dalits were not allowed to participate in Jallikattu events.”
“If something is wrong, if something is unjust, it can’t be justified in the name of culture and tradition, or to satisfy public sentiments. It needs to be changed. As society changes, so must culture ,” says activist Trupti Desai.
Soman agrees. “Already some Muslim patriarchs have started speaking in favour of Jallikattu. I am sure that at some point they will link its cultural importance to other oppressive practices which are carried on in the name of culture,” she says. There are also the associated financial gains to be considered, to make it important for the practice to carry on.
“Be it the economy associated with the raising of the bull, or the bets that are placed on the sport and the gold and other gifts given as prizes, there is a huge amount of money riding on Jallikattu. It is the same with temple sacrifices, where the people who stand to gain from it are the temple priests who are often involved in the trade of the animals raised for sacrifice,” says Jayasimha.
Shades of grey
But while the social and economic trappings around Jallikattu seem to be similar to traditions that have been opposed for being unjust, many feel it can’t be said to be symbolic of the friction between perceived culture and change. “It is more complicated than sati or triple talaq, which are more black and white. It is easy to oppose those in the name of humanity and reason. But here, the focal point of the protest has come to be Tamil pride. The emotional reaction to the ban is disproportionate, but there are a lot of greys here,” says historian Ramachandra Guha, who says he has just returned from Chennai after getting a first-hand experience of the protest. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan agrees. “The protest is less about Jallikattu now and more to do with what Tamils see as oppression of Dravidian culture,” he says.
“Culture has always been violative of individual rights. It can oppress. Take marriage, for example. The oppression that often takes place within that is justified in the name of culture and tradition,” says Zakia Soman of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan
The question being asked in Chennai, and by Tamils elsewhere, is why if Jallikattu is banned in the name of animal rights, should animal sacrifice be allowed for Eid, or cock fighting or camel racing be allowed in other parts of the country? While two wrongs don’t make a right, and a beginning has to be made somewhere, the situation – given the high voltage public sentiments – is no doubt a tricky one for both the legislature and the judiciary and has always been so.
Senior advocate and former additional solicitor general Raju Ramachandran recalls how once the Supreme Court had thrown out a petition against animal sacrifice, with the judge saying that the court couldn’t intervene in such age-old religious practices.
Often though, the legislative or judicial support for or against culture depends on the social and financial might of those it affects. “I am against the protest in favour of Jallikattu because it is against animal rights. But in general I am all for culture and traditions,” says sociologist Ashis Nandy. “Too often culture is cornered, especially the cultural practices of the weaker sections, by those with vested interests. I am against a monolithic idea of culture. It should be open to interpretations,” he adds.
The debate is often dictated by the agenda of those in power. Jayasimha gives the example of the ban on cow slaughter and ban on beef consumption that has been put in place in some states. “There is no consistency in the rhetoric and policy practice. If they are so concerned about protecting cattle, why does India continue to be a leading exporter of beef?” he questions.
Jallikattu is more than a sport. I have been to many Jallikattu events in the past. It’s a blatant show of masculinity. Women rarely come to even watch. Till recently Dalits were not allowed to participate in Jallikattu events,” says animal rights activist NG Jayasimha
What stands at risk in this war between culture and change – apart from the animals or the those fighting for their rights, of course – is the rule of law in the country, which as Guha says, “is already in a fragile state”. “The state needs to be guided by the Constitution rather than public sentiment. But what has been happening in recent years is that justice and equality have been equated with whatever has been the most vocal, the most vociferous argument,” says Soman.
The way out, feels Ramachandran, is for the legislature to intervene. “When there is a legislative guideline, it is easier for the court to interpret it in its judgment. But courts cannot and should not cater to public sentiments. It has to uphold the constitutional principles” he says, adding, “If one stretches respect for popular sentiment, then in the past there was even support for the dowry system and child marriage.”
To give in to public sentiment once, sets a dangerous precedent, by giving everyone a chance to uphold any unjust practice in the name of culture.
Where then does one stop the slide back in time?