The upsurge against the ban on the ancient bull-taming sport, Jallikattu, in Tamil Nadu reflects the triumph of cultural passion over judicial reason. The extraordinary outpouring of support from across the social and political spectrum to the Pongal-eve ritual has forced the government to race against time in issuing an ordinance overturning the Supreme Court’s ban. After packaging a largely peaceful agitation as a fight for preservation of Tamil pride and cultural ethos of the region, the Jallikattu supporters may now feel vindicated with the issuance of an ordinance that seeks to exempt bulls from the list of animals which cannot be used as performing animals. However, it also raises a pertinent question: Should the street protests, reflecting the will of the majority, be allowed to undermine the rule of law? There are also fears that it could become a precedent for street activism to bend the executive and judiciary. Already, an unrelenting section of protesters has vowed to continue the stir for a permanent solution.
Surely, popular sentiments influencing the nature of legislation can be seen as a sign of a mature democracy. The Nirbhaya Act was one such initiative borne out of spontaneous mass uprising. However, utmost care must be taken to avoid judicial reproach in the process. The court pronouncements should not be viewed as an affront on the cultural identity of any community. In some quarters, there is a temptation to compare Jallikattu issue with the Shah Bano case of 1986 when the Congress government overturned the Supreme Court judgement on alimony to a divorced Muslim woman. However, the comparison is grossly misplaced. Though both cases involved intervention by the Central government to nullify the court’s verdict on grounds of respecting public sentiment, the context and implications vastly differ in the two cases. When a conflict arises between the collective sense of a cultural ethos and modern norms of justice and ethics, the solution lies in deft balancing and ensuring that the provisions of law prevail.
In a way, the Jallikattu agitation is seen as a manifestation of the pent-up emotions of Tamils who perceived a threat to their pride and identity. A sense of injustice over the Cauvery water row and the political vacuum, created by the demise of Jayalalithaa, have further added to the angst. Parties across the spectrum displayed a competitive zeal in seeking revival of Jallikattu banned by the Supreme Court in 2014 based on the concerns of animal welfare activists who argued that the practice amounted to cruelty to animals. It is now time for the Centre and the State government to convince the apex court that Jallikattu would henceforth be conducted in a way that is free from cruelty to animals and injuries to participating youth and spectators. Stringent regulation must be put in place to ensure compliance.