In a country where the cow is ubiquitous, either deified and included in the household as part of tradition by many, bred and consumed for subsistence by others, or just left to live off trash and roam the dusty city roads by the ignoramus, the relationship between man and cow is culturally multidimensional. Although the beef ban in many parts of India has raised questions on the existence and functioning of a secular state, the bovine ballad that shall unfold isn’t on consumption.
As the rising sun ignites the first dawn of the Tamil month of Tai on the 14th of January 2017 in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where farmers – landowners and agricultural labourers – celebrate the start of the harvest season through the festival of Pongal, a lacklustre display of colour and joy would result due to the enforcement of (yet another) ban on a sport of taming bulls: Jallikattu, also known as Eruthazhuvuthal or ‘Embracing a Bull’. In fact, it is the corruption of culture over time, written – or worse, rewritten – to the whims and fancies of a majoritarian many that has led to its acknowledgement as a “sport”, as the initial practice of the ritual was in consideration of taming aggressive humped Bos indicus oxen (that animatedly conjure the image of flaring nostrils) as suitable, dominant males for breeding a healthy population of cows. The ritual, much like many others with humble origins in indigenous settings, gained cult status over the course of history, from periodically being mentioned in accounts and inscribed in sculptures, and tactfully survived the 200 years of colonial chastisement in the subcontinent, much to the surprise of contemporary thinkers.
The controversial ban on this “cruel male entertainment” was enforced on ethical grounds by the Supreme Court of India in a landmark verdict, through a lobby of animal welfare activists, the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and spearheaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)-India through an intensive campaign and investigation, citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The revocation of the ban due to colossal resistance by pastoralists and activists of traditional practices in view of the anticipated damages in the agrarian economy, the loss of traditional cattle breeds has produced a conundrum in the dialogue between various actors, and extended to pugnacious debates between non-governmental organisations, local-governance bodies, the State government and New Delhi.
It is unfair, as a rational student of conservation science, to display a bias to gain resolution. What first holds the mind aghast is the perceived danger of activists pitted against the other, in a classic case of one-upmanship, where activists are somehow “superior people”, as noted by Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna, a renowned musician and musicologist from Tamil Nadu in a 2015 news article. Secondly, the arguments made in favour or against the ban are equally legitimate, giving both parties their fair share of voice and free thought, but share striking commonalities – they are rooted in the conscience of thinkers, in the support of people, in the cultural fabric of society, and most importantly, in the interest of the animal itself. Herein comes to the fore, the need for regulation – not prevention – and thence mutual cooperation for shared “benefits” in this dialogue, necessitating the horizontal division of conservation governance in India, for the inclusion of well-supported reason. The ideologues of animal ethics essay their role well in arguing against the “torture” of bulls for the sake of tradition, in support of the greater good, accommodating, and involuntarily adding this topic into the kettle of ethics-related (vegan) soup. The other school of support in favour of this form of traditional ecological knowledge seemingly argues for pastoralists who have tamed (or embraced, as the transliteration dictates) and hence bred cows through the practice, preventing the loss of native breeds like the Kangeyam, Pulikulam, Umbalachery and Malai Maadu in Tamil Nadu – the traditional keepers of livestock have evidently engaged in this form of conservation and allegedly resisting depredation of Indian cattle by the western dairy industry. The earlier utterance of corruption is certainly the point that weakens the case – the practice at large has lost its rubric as an intimate affair, shifting from craft to consumerism, with sole purpose of taming giving way to a messy affair of (reported) torture and cruelty, thus paving way for PETA & Co. Also in question is that artificial insemination and breeding technologies – which are in use amongst well-heeled agriculturalists – could be further popularised to kindle the sake of attachment to breed. However, India (and recently, the UK and USA) knows the ramifications of emotional attachment to what is perceived as “culture” and “belonging”: the dangers of the currently trending rhetoric, ‘give my country(side) back’.
Throughout the history of indigenous people and local communities, the enforcement or mere presence of Western thought is regarded as neo-colonialism – in most cases, according to Thomas Thornton in Being and Place Among the Tlingit, it is blamed for deeming tradition with “mechanistic or estranged” views, disparaging the “intimate, enchanted union with the landscape”. Whilst the animal rights activists sympathise with cows and advocate ethics, in sync with the tone of ahimsa or non-violence that gripped the nation during its struggle for freedom, hasn’t folklore from the native Sangam literature indicated the presence of the system percolating from the Mullai tribes that embraced man-animal interaction for the “management” and “survival” of these species – terms that are commonplace in modern conservation policy? Sustainability should be tested through healthy skepticism, as many yesteryear practices were regressive. As for Pongal in 2017, there is bound to be ‘a countenance more in sorrow than anger’.
Dhruv Gangadharan Arvind is from Chennai, India and aspires to be a columnist. He occasionally writes on the interface between nature, culture and society in his blog, Veritable Verses, and is the co-author of Airflow, Comfort and Habitability of Game Reserves.