Clash of cultures and rights in Goa’s underground bullfighting pits

Updated on Aug 02, 2022 10:29 AM IST
Weighing upwards of three-fourths of a tonne, Surya is not the regular water buffalo seen in Goa, calmly munching on the vegetation.
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ByGerard de Souza, Panaji

Before the first rays of the sun can tint the pale blue sky, the man coaxes Surya into the back of a waiting pickup truck. With an embrace and an encouraging pat on the rump, he and three others set off. The vehicle gingerly navigates the 30km distance from the man’s village of St André to Curtorim, looking closely for police barricades. Forty-five minutes later, the truck reaches a grass field beside what was once a leprosy hospital — the arena for what will be a gargantuan battle.

Weighing upwards of three-fourths of a tonne, Surya is not the regular water buffalo seen in Goa, calmly munching on the vegetation. His coat is jet black; bulging muscles are close to bursting out of his skin; his grunt is deep and sonorous. Two-year-old Surya is a prizefighter; an alpha male in his prime. As crowds start to trickle in, the man begins to fuss, confident and nervous at the same time. Under the first streaks of daylight, his prized possession will lock horns with Chotu, of a similar weight and carrying a large reputation. There is much riding on this — Surya’s standing on a constantly evolving leaderboard, and the man’s investment in him.

Welcome to bullfighting in Goa, locally called “dhirio” — driven underground by court edict, but a thriving industry itching to come out of the shadows again. In July, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Venzy Viegas brought a bill in the Goa assembly, arguing that the ban on bullfighting be removed. The bill that has brought back to the fore an old, familiar debate on the shores of India’s coastal state — of a tradition that refuses to die, versus cruelty to animals; of whether law can act against sentiment; and of locals that want a middle path.

The law

Far away from the raucous morning crowd at Curtorim, the legal battle for bullfighting is age-old. In 1960, the government of India enacted the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act which said inciting “any animal to fight… solely with a view to providing entertainment” would amount to “treating animals cruelly”. A year later, Goa became part of the Indian union, the law came into force in the region.

Yet, with monitoring low, bullfighting continued unabated in Goa, fully in the public gaze. In 1996, an NGO, People for Animals, filed a petition against the government’s failure to act against bullfights. The Bombay high court reiterated, “...inciting any animal to fight any other animal with a view to providing entertainment or organising, using or acting in the management of any place for animal fighting… is clearly prohibited by Section 11 of the said Act.”

In 2021, People for Animals approached the court with a contempt petition, alleging that fights were taking place despite judicial orders. On April 13 this year, the high court ordered the Goa Police to bring on board a group of “bull catchers”. “It was found that the police need support by way of a team of bull catchers, consensus on the application of relevant provisions of IPC, mapping of all bulls for their identification on their rescue including by use of RFID Tags/ Microchips,” the high court observed.

A spokesperson of the Goa Police said, “A plan is being finalised with inputs of activists and the animal husbandry department and will be submitted before the court over the next few weeks.”

However, legislators in Goa, cutting across party lines, have backed bullfighting. In 2015, the legislative assembly set up a house committee to examine the issue but a report has never been submitted. In 2018, Churchill Alemão, a former Congress chief minister, said, “In fact, bullfighting is like boxing… there is no cruelty.”

In July, newly elected MLA Viegas moved a bill in the assembly seeking a Goa specific amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act that would exclude “dhirio” from being declared a violation. The bill is currently being vetted by the law department. Viegas has been backed vocally by Jit Arolkar of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Viresh Borkar of the Revolutionary Goans, and Vijai Sardesai of the Goa Forward Party.

The “old days”

Simon Caiado, 70, is president of the All Goa Bull Owners Association, and wistful about the “old days”. Every year, as he grew up in St Andre, he remembers travelling to Taleigao for an event called the “harvest feast”. “On August 21, the biggest bullfight in Goa would be held. The governor was a special invitee, and the who’s who of Goa would turn up,” Caiado said.

In Caiado’s description, the event was akin to the UK’s Grand National, where the finest thoroughbreds would go up against each other for a winning purse. “The organisers would pay hefty amounts to bull owners just to showcase their animals which even in the 1990s could go up to 1 lakh.”

The Taleigao bullfight was considered the highlight of the calendar, but other events, usually held to coincide with village feasts, were big too, with makeshift pavilions, politicians invited as chief guests, and large crowds.

In 1995 though, the dangerous side of bullfighting came to the fore when a young boy who had climbed a tree to watch the show a fight was knocked over and gored to death, sparking national outrage.

Today, owing to Taleigao’s proximity to Panaji, bringing both police scrutiny and real estate development on once open fields, bullfighting has all but vanished from the village. However, in other clandestine corners of Goa, the cheering crowds, the angry bulls, and the exchange of wads of cash still goes on.

The bullfight

It’s 5am and Surya is now off the pickup truck, standing next to the man in a corner; Chotu with his owner is in the other. As is usual these days, the fight was coordinated on a WhatsApp group where entry is via reference only. When one bull owner responds to a challenge thrown by another, they coordinate and a location is decided.

The turf where the bulls will fight is an open village field; generally one that is not too dry to ensure they do not kick up dust and their hooves can get a grip on the soft earth. Once fixed, word goes around and bookies receive bets from punters based on odds that are determined by the recent reputation of each bull.

“There are two kinds of betting. The first is owner to owner where both stake an amount against each other. Smaller or new animals see 50,000 put up, but major players are known to stake up to 10 lakh per fight. The other form of betting is when spectators place bets based on reputation, form and odds. The owners are given a share of this money after the winnings are distributed,” one bookie said on condition of anonymity.

Fights are often held in quick succession, and should police get wind of the event, the crowd quickly disperses, although the bulls continue unmindful of the new attendees. Senior police officials said that they act as and when they receive complaints. But there are unforeseen challenges. Out of 117 calls received in the last three months alleging bullfights were taking place, 106 were “false alarms” — calls likely made by organisers and their associates to send the cops to locations other than where the fights were actually taking place.

At first light, a little past 6am, Surya and Chotu are released into a makeshift “ring”, formed haphazardly by excited spectators. There is no safety protocol, and very little medical aid available if something were to go wrong. Every one of the 600-odd people here count only on their experience and reflexes to avoid a mishap.

Surya and Chotu clash with an almighty thud in the middle of the field, jockeying for position. They grunt loudly; the shrieks come from the audience egging the bulls on; and organisers risk bodily harm to throw buckets of water on the writhing animals to cool their heated bodies. Unlike bullfighting in Spain, this is no man versus beast contest and does not end with the death of an animal. The bull that runs away loses.

At the end of 20 frenetic minutes, Surya comes through, panting, but standing proudly in the centre of the field. By the end of the day, the man has earned around 8 lakh.

It is a good return on his investment. Back home at St André, Surya has a special shed equipped with a ceiling fan, is regularly groomed to rid his thick leather skin of ticks and mites, and is fed on a constant supply of protein-rich gram, bulgur, and pulses. He has two attendants, a regular regimen of exercise that involves running on the beach or swimming in the sea that help develop muscles of the upper body and neck. “The cost of the feed alone comes to around 500 per day,” the man said.

Cruelty debate

Bullfighting has come under heavy fire from animal rights activists who have said any attempt to legalise it would amount to cruelty. “The animals are goaded into fighting against their will, are often tortured and are almost always injured after the fight. But more importantly, it is being done in the name of fun and funded by betting. You cannot use tradition to justify everything. Tomorrow someone will argue that slavery is a tradition. We have to move on,” animal rescue activist Agnelo Nobbay said.

“Humans sometimes fight too, but it would be illegal to force anyone into a ring to be pummelled until he was lacerated and bloody, against his will. The bulls used for dhirio are not choosing to fight — they are being forced to by mobs of screaming men that yank them by their noses, twist their tailbones, and whip them with sticks,” said director of Peta India, Poorva Joshipura.

Caiado, of course, disagrees. “Cattle are left on the roads to be hit by vehicles and die, is that not cruelty? We take good care of the animals and house them in sheds that are even better than what we live in. The bulls are very well behaved. Even a young boy can take a large bull for a walk and he will obey every single command,” he said.

AAP MLA Viegas points to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act passed in 2017 that amended provisions of the central law to exclude the traditional sport of Jallikattu from its ambit. “If they can do it in Tamil Nadu, why can’t we pass a similar bill? If there was cruelty in the past, let us mitigate that with horn caps and shields. There is a lot that can be done — if we notify some rules of the game,” Viegas said.

Jallikattu, a bull taming sport in which participants attempt to bring an agitated bull under their control, held in Tamil Nadu as part of Pongal celebrations, was banned by the Supreme Court in May 2014 leading to large protests in the state. In 2017, the Tamil Nadu government, initially through an ordinance authorised the continuation of Jallikattu events by excluding the event from the ambit of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

Caiado says bull owners are willing to accept conditions, no matter how stringent. “This can be an alternate source of income for many of the unemployed youth of the village who are rearing bulls in any case. If the fighting is legalised, we will be able to earn money above board to supplement our incomes. If you say the horns should be capped, we are willing to do that. If you want us to fence the fighting ring so that no spectators are injured, we are willing to do that as well,” he said.

Back in St André, Surya disembarks victoriously from the pickup, and walks to his stable. The man checks for injuries and finds none. He pats Surya lovingly again and turns to his phone. Buoyed by this most recent victory, the search for Surya’s next prizefight has already begun.

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