When Virat Kohli hits the ball into the stands, India stands up and cheers. Gita Phogat’s story, told by Aamir Khan on celluloid, turned her into a national legend. When the national team holding the tricolor marches on the Olympic grounds, we feel a lump rise in our throats, despite knowing we are not stellar performers in the Games. Except for war, nothing galvanizes people more than the sporting spirit. The Tamil people feel today that the Supreme Court’s order banning the ancient bull wrestling contest ‘Jallikattu’ violates cultural identity.
In 2010, animal activists, horrified by the blood and gore in bullfighting persuaded the regional government of Catalonia in Spain to outlaw bullfighting, known as toreo or corrida de toros. Three months ago, the Spanish top court overturned the ban, calling toreo “one more expression of a cultural nature that forms part of the common cultural heritage”. The court also gave a concession; Catalonia was allowed to “regulate the development of bullfights” or “establish requirements for the special care and attention of fighting bulls”.
In laying down a code tempered with justice, the judges showed that toreo, which is vital to Spain’s historical identity, also has to adhere to contemporary sensibilities. In the ring, the matador places his life at risk; death or injury is the reward for a risk badly taken. However, in Jallikattu, unlike in toreo, men are more at risk than bulls. And casualties are few.
Corrida de toros goes back thousands of years to Celtic, Greek and Roman times. Jallikattu is not just a symbol of Tamil heritage, but is part of India’s cultural ethos; it dates back to the Indus Valley Civilsation. Like corrida de toros, it tests man’s survival and strategic skills, which once enabled him to outwit creatures physically more powerful and bigger in size and evolve into the dominant species on earth. However abhorrent Jallikattu is to animal lovers, it is also an emblem of human strength and intelligence in the age of machines and binary brilliance. It’s a tough call to choose between ethics and tradition. Without tradition, social identity cannot exist.
These are times when tradition is under siege. While ancient migrations led to the formation of tribes and nations, modern migrations have blurred borders and redesigned cultures. Culturally purist movements are springing up all over the world; conservative and aggressive in nature. Popular anger in Jallikattu’s favour is a sign of this conflict between purism and plurality.
Society differentiates between pain suffered by animals and men. Abattoirs are legal, but courts can send a man to the gallows for murder. The bleating of a lamb doesn’t draw as much attention as a crying child. However, today animal rights movements are socially and politically powerful. Laws have been passed in many countries against hunting, poaching and smuggling of animals and birds. Ethical fashion is trendy. Animal testing for cosmetics is outlawed by many governments across the globe.
Balance between conscience and culture is essential for social justice. Cruel as it may seem, by banning Jallikattu, a blow has not been struck for morality. As technology shrinks the world, tradition maintains the cultural identities of peoples. Without the rudder of tradition, we are just driftwood in the tides of time.