Against Jallikattu

India Geocracy 6 min read
In case you want to know my opinion, you don’t need to read any further since the title says it all. In case you want to know why I think so, the following words might have some value.

Jallikattu is one of thousands of practices worldwide in which animals are used for entertainment and ritual: bull and cock fighting, dog and horse-racing and recreational hunting are prominent examples. With the tumult in Tamil Nadu, it looks like Jallikattu has been admitted to that club.

If you think — as I do — that the use of animals for our pleasure is unacceptable, then Jallikattu should be retired whether it causes harm to the bulls or not. Of course, there’s no doubt that Jallikattu harms the bulls that are subjected to it — any animal surrounded by a throng of screaming men will be subjected to immense stress even if they don’t set a finger upon it. It doesn’t matter how well the bull is treated before and after the event, just as it wouldn’t matter if a human child is kidnapped and trained to be a gladiator, even if the child is well fed and luxuriously clothed during his training and in-between his bouts.

That, in a nutshell, is the harm argument i.e., the case against Jallikattu because it harms a key (and unwilling) participant in the event. However, the people protesting the ban aren’t approaching the practice from the perspective of the harm it may cause to the bull but from the value it brings to the human participants in the event, i.e., both the men who joust with the bull and the spectators who watch the event.

To its supporters, Jallikattu is at the heart of communal life, a celebration of the vitality of nature and our (i.e., human) ability to derive sustenance from it. Not that different from Pongal. By banning the practice, the Supreme Court is putting stress on a rural system that’s already overburdened with financial stress and environmental degradation. Plus, the harm — if any — caused by a traditional practice such as Jallikattu is miniscule in comparison with the harm we cause to animals through factory farming and other modern practices. So why single Jallikattu out for punishment?

That brings me to a subtle point: it’s possible to be against Jallikattu and to be against the ban against Jallikattu.

It’s not clear whether the ban is prompted by concern about harm to animals or by other considerations. We know that the liberal state doesn’t like public displays of violence by private parties. The state, big business and their upper caste/middle class backers like state monopoly over violence, disciplined order in public spaces and destruction in the name of development. That’s why animal sacrifice and riots are frowned upon while war is celebrated. In this mindset, it’s perfectly fine to raze a forest in order to build a factory or take the entire family out to McDonald’s for burgers because those acts meet our expectations while Jallikattu is suspect because it doesn’t meet the norms of legitimate violence.

In summary: the violence of Jallikattu pales before the violence of developmentalism and the correlated violence of factory farming. Is the state is going after a minor offender while the major criminals are unaffected?

With that in mind, let me count three distinct defenses of Jallikattu and my reasons for rejecting all three:

The conservation defense

We know that rural India is in deep crisis. Farming is increasingly unsustainable and we haven’t created enough livelihoods in other sectors to absorb those who might want an alternative. Further, traditional lifestyles that’re light on the earth are being replaced by market driven consumption patterns. Why ban a practice that helps communities hold on to these non-destructive lifestyles? Why ban a practice that helps us maintain bovine diversity? Isn’t cultural and biological conservation a good thing? The answer is simple: forget about the ban for a moment and tell me why we aren’t protesting demonetization or farmer suicides with the intensity with which we are protesting the Jallikattu ban? In other words, of all the ways we might want to preserve tradition, why are we choosing the one practice that oppresses beings even further down the power hierarchy than the lowest human? We should be kicking up and kissing down rather than the other way around.

The inherent goodness defense

We want to conserve something because we believe it’s worth conserving. A common argument in defense of Jallikattu is that traditional communities are inherently superior to their modern counterparts. So why take away a key ritual that helps those communities thrive? I think that argument is based on a logical fallacy: just because a thriving agricultural community celebrates a ritual doesn’t mean celebrating that ritual will help the community thrive. No ritual can help keep a world together once material conditions have changed. The goodness of tradition can’t be kept alive by sacrificing a few bulls.

The neti-neti defense

If Jallikattu opponents focus on what it is, some of its proponents focus on what it is not. The neti-neti defense, strangely, is the strongest defense of Jallikattu: that it’s minor damage in the infinitely long list of harms that humans impose on their fellow beings. It is not factory farming. It is not deforestation. Others have compared it favourably to Bakrid — inevitable, since every politicized topic in India is connected to religion sooner or later.

Of course, the harm we cause is the harm we cause independent of what others do. I have a right to complain if I am being slapped at home even if my neighbour is being beaten with a stick. Plus, the petitioner questioned Jallikattu in court, not one of those other practices. Nevertheless, the question remains: should an activist state aggressively regulate human-animal relations? I think there’s no answer to that question that stops short of constitutional guarantees for nonhuman species. While that’s an excellent idea, it’s taking us away from the matter at hand, namely, is it appropriate to compare Jallikattu with other harmful-to-animal practices?

I think that it’s a bad idea to club Jallikattu with other harmful-to-animal practices because in doing so, we are distracted from the substantial reason behind the supporters’ anger. Why? Because Jallikattu is defended as a way of life, of keeping communities alive, a way of life that’s good to the earth and only incidentally a harmful-to-animal way of living. If so, Jallikattu can’t be compared with factory farming because it’s being ascribed a role in the community’s affairs that’s different from factory farming’s role in a community or nation’s affairs. Let me repeat: supporters of Jallikattu attract our sympathies by pointing out how the developmental economy is destroying traditional ways of life. So let’s accept their positive claim and work out the consequences: we can agree with the intent of protecting traditional communities while disagreeing on the means of doing so or our assessment of how successful Jallikattu will be in its self appointed task.


I am amazed that the opposition to the Jallikattu ban is more emotionally charged than the opposition to demonetization. Farmer or not, every single one of us is affected by the transition to a cashless economy on a daily basis.

Jallikattu has nowhere near that impact on anyone’s life. Which makes me think that the young men protesting on Marina beach are being hoodwinked: it’s an easy means to harness underlying anger and resentment and make a scapegoat of someone who has no power to resist your anger. Trump did that successfully with Mexicans.

To conclude: the material conditions in rural India have been transformed beyond recognition. A new regime is being put into place that will make farming even more expendable. Instead of addressing the real issues and the true balance of power, we are being led to believe that all will be well if we get to torture some animals who had no part in creating the crisis.

No thanks.