Questioning tradition

January 20, 2016

People try to hold on to a bull during Jallikattu, an annual bull taming ritual on the outskirts of Madurai, in India’s southern Tamil Nadu state, on Saturday (AP)

The recent spate of court observations and rulings have called into question practices that are violative of individual rights.

Some of these practices were being continued in the name of tradition despite being on the wrong side of law.

It is one of those phases in India when the battle for change is strikingly becoming an everyday affair. Not as if Indian society has been static at any point of time. But today, the traditionalists seem to be up against the might of the law in a fight that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

Tradition is setting up itself against the rights of individuals, or for that matter even animals, and, thereby, getting into conflict with the laws of the land. Take the stand of the Supreme Court against the conduct of a traditional harvest season festival in which the animal is physically provoked to run in the midst of a crowd of young men for dear life. It is called Jallikattu in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Similar races of bulls in slush and the most difficult of terrains are held in different parts of the country as part of the celebration of the harvest season. For long, it has been the submission of animal lovers that the game violates the animal and its rights. Many find it appalling that a bull should fear for its life when it is released from an enclosure into a large crowd, mind you it is not a group, of jeering, shouting and screaming young men.

The entire effort of the young men is to get a hold over the hunch of the bull so that the coveted price tied to the horn, a gold coin in the olden days but a cheaper gold coin now-a-days, can be safely secured. The advantage in the good old days, when online matrimonial websites did not churn out the future partners for men and women alike, was that there could be a woman who might fall for the young man who would take away the coveted price.

It represented manhood in the crassest form for the women of an era gone by. Over the years, however, as consciousness grew about the violation of the rights of an animal, the spotlight has fallen on ‘embracing the bull’ which is what Jallikattu means when translated into English and its variants in other parts of the country.

There was no objection to the colourful festoons on the horns of the bull and the quiet walk that they are taken out for in a procession a day after the harvest festival is celebrated. But, the way the bull is tortured to make it run in desperation - it is fed with alcohol or, sometimes, even chilli powder is rubbed into its eyes - appeared like a red rag to animal rights activists who took the matter to court.

The Supreme Court, however, held that it was a practice that deserved to be banned because many young lives were getting lost when a particularly angry bull swiped its horn viciously on the stomach or other parts of the human body. None realised that it was not a question of only animal rights which were being violated. If the man suffered grievous injures or died, as it happened most often, it was the woman in the house who had to bear the brunt of running the family.

But, traditional games become more than religion itself, sometimes. So, when the BJP-led federal government issued a fresh notification to subvert the earlier ban by the Supreme Court in a bid to gain traction with voters in an election year, the apex court promptly stayed it.

To the surprise of everybody, the Supreme Court had another petition before it to listen to seeking lifting of the ban. But, the court was crystal clear in its stand - no tradition could continue because law was supreme. In fact, the approach of the court has been the most interesting development in recent times so far as traditional practices are concerned. The laws always existed but, in terms of implementation, it sort of fell short of expectations possibly because society had also not developed the requisite consciousness. The court is hearing a petition seeking admission of women into the 1,500-year old Sabrimala Sri Ayyappa temple in the southern state of Kerala. Menstruating women are not allowed in, lest they distract a celibate male god.

They also say that the route to the temple atop a hill is too arduous for women to trek up. The question that has been posed by the court has been interesting because the constitution guarantees that there will be no discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth of its citizens. In other words, it is the constitutional right to equality that the court is posing to the temple board. A few decades ago, there was the practice of socially and economically backward sections of society to dedicate their daughters, even when in their teens, to a goddess in south Maharashtra, north Karnataka and some parts of Andhra Pradesh.

It meant that the girl was to spend the rest of her life as a prostitute. It took a tough government to stop the practice and the courts to uphold the government’s decision. A similar obnoxious practice of a dance by a nude woman at a temple in the southern state of Karnataka was also banned, three decades ago, with strict enforcement of law.

All it means is that enforcement of law with an active judiciary could prevent some repugnant practices in the name of tradition. But, it appears the courts would have to take the final call on what practices can continue or not continue when they are violating individual freedom as opposed to religious freedom.

Life lost to discrimination

The latest episode of a research scholar student committing suicide on the campus of the central university in Hyderabad seems to be becoming a political battle between, on one side, the right wing and, on the other, the centrist and left forces.

The student hailed from the socially and economically backward section of society called the Dalits or officially the scheduled castes. His suicide note expressed his pain at being discriminated against because of the caste in which he was born into. Even the bad English translation of it from his mother tongue, Telugu, expresses the emotion that, perhaps, may not have touched the hearts of those who, inadvertently, led him on this path.

The note stands out for the way he has expressed his desire to become a science writer. But, the most amazing aspect of the entire episode has been the letter that a union minister from the state from Telangana wrote to his Cabinet colleague in charge of education.

The minister writes that the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) was ‘casteist, extremist and anti-national’. Normally, when ministers write letters based on a memorandum written by a student organisation affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there is some effort to communicate the message without using strong language. It appears that the minister has not learnt the art of politics.


Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi, has the unique distinction of being one politician who has been the most frequent recipient of eggs, ink and even slaps on his face. The latest episode shows ink being thrown on the Chief Minister by a young woman at an event to mark the ‘successful’ completion of the plan to reduce pollution in the national capital.

The success or failure of this plan to run odd number vehicles on one day and even number vehicles the next day is still a matter of debate among the people as well as the scientific community.

Nevertheless, the young woman’s point of anguish was that thousands of stickers claiming that the fuel being used was CNG were fraudulently stuck on cars. This is not the first time that Kejriwal has been the recipient of ink on his face or clothes.

Earlier, he has been slapped by an autorickshaw driver and even punched in the face some months ago. Nobody knows why it happens so frequently to him but Kejriwal goes on relentlessly.

He had once tweeted that he would readily hand himself over to anyone who wanted to beat him up if that would help solve a problem. You can find a hundred or a thousand faults in the man but he needs to be given full marks for his spirit in taking it all, criticism accompanied by eggs, ink and slaps!