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I have refrained from commenting on jallikattu for a long time, mainly because I don't have any real experience or concrete insight on the subject (yes, that does prevent me from making opinions known). However, after several debates, reading up, arguments and a lot of thinking, I can definitely say that a middle way needs to be found. A ban is not an answer and animal rights must be upheld to the best of our capacity (which can be considerable if we make an effort).

I think it is quite harmful to import PETA arguments against bullfighting and slap them onto Jallikattu for a handy halo of standards for animals. While I still am not expert enough to provide a "solution" that I can robustly defend without doubt, here is my thinking on several aspects of the issue.

What is jallikattu?

A youth hanging onto a bull during jallikattu.
A youth hanging onto a bull during jallikattu performed in Alanganallur, Madurai. Photo: Iamkarna

Jallikattu is a part of the celebrations of Pongal in Tamil Nadu, where youth of a village engage in a bull taming match, where a bull trained to buck them off is sent into the arena and the objective is to hang on to the bull by the rump, while the bull tries to buck them off. There are no weapons or rope involved and only bare hands may be used to hold on to the bull. Injuries to contestants are more likely (and prevalent in reality) than to bulls. If the bull succeeds in bucking them off, it wins, or the youth to hang on to the end wins.Like many other rites of passage seen in tribal societies worldwide, it is a test of the man's strength and skill in going barehanded against a bull. It is also a process of selecting the best bull for breeding. The event has been criticized due objections about cruelty to the bulls.

What is bullfighting?

A matador before the final strike at Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid, Spain 2005
A matador before the final strike at Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, Madrid, Spain 2005. Photo: Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

For the purposes of this discussion, bullfighting would be what is practiced in Spain. Another cultural tradition. However, in this, the bull is repeatedly "hooked" at the hump with lances and finally when weakened with loss of blood and pain and defeated, it is killed with a sword. The bullfight invariably ends with the death of the bull. In rare instances, a bull that fights exceptionally well may be spared the final strike (but not the injuries). There is no competition involved. It is a traditional "art form" slaughter. The bull's struggle to evade a certain death is entertainment. There is no option for the bull to escape the injuries or death, usually.

How is jallikattu different from bullfighting?

In case the difference is still not evident, jallikattu pits the strength of a 60 kilo man against a 400+ kilo bull and the bull has far more power and horns. It is by no means a fight that endangers the animals - though of course accidents are possible in everything involving reflexes. The worst a bull will usually come to is exhaustion and injuries. I don't think even PETA will dispute this. In contrast, in bullfighting, the animal is pitted against people with weapons, some of them mounted on horses. When bulls disemboweled more horses than bulls getting killed, they started protecting the horses. There is no question of allowing a bull to win, merely making a spectacle of its death. Whatever our stands on what constitutes animal rights, the factual dissimilarities are glaring enough that arguments for or against cannot be copy-pasted between the two as currently appears to be happening.

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Beyond this, I am looking specifically at jallikattu rather than bringing bullfighting into it. What considerations are there? What lives and livelihoods are involved?

The jallikattu bull

The bulls used in jallikattu are primarily from the kangayam breed of cattle. They are aggressive by nature and prone to attack. They are further trained for the sport, it is true, but these bulls are not preferred for work with far more docile breeds being easily available. They are, however good for breeding because of generations of stock selected for strength and reflexes. It is very common in rural societies for the males of herd animals to be castrated (horses, bulls, bullocks... even goats if there are more than one male!). The reason for this is that herd behavior dictates that males fight among themselves for dominance. This is natural behavior. Leaving the best of each generation with the temple as "public property" of sorts for all breeding needs of the village solves issues related to access or individuals maintaining their own breeding males (who will fight and do damage if they encounter each other). The jallikattu serves to identify the strongest stock for this purpose.

The ecology and economy of jallikattu

P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu
P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu. Photo: Aparna Karthikeyan, PARI Network

Where there is a feat of strength, you have a crowd of men to watch. It is easy for testosterone to dominate the narrative where the only thing visible about jallikattu is the fight or perhaps, due to hot debates on the subject, the question of breeding stock. But there is more to that. There are lives, livelihoods and the survival of an entire indigenous species tied in closely with the sport. Small farmers like P. Muthukarupan of Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu breed bulls for jallikattu. Their cattle will lose value. Jallikattu is an important area where indigenous cattle of India continue to be supported and preferred.

In a country where successive government policies have endangered indigenous cattle breeds, the sport not only provides robust and preferred survival to a few, it generates public awareness and interest in their well being and qualities. Two decades ago, P. Sainath's tragicomic epic "Everybody Loves a Good Drought" already described vanishing indigenous breeds as an established problem. The first section of the book "Still crazy after all these years - A brief introduction to the Indian absurd" sets the tone for a book that is relentless in portrayal of the gloriously hilarious and tragic mismatch between government policies and people's realities. The first story "Very few specimens - but a lot of bull" described the haphazard processes of introduction of "superior breeds of cattle" in Odisha that wiped out the famed Khairar bull in the Komna region.

This is a situation that has repeated all over the country in the name of increased milk production. In 2015, he reported the efforts to reverse such damage in Kerala with the dawning awareness that many Indian indigenous breeds are at threat of extinction. But many other pressures are in play. The holy cow is a big deal in India. There is increasing resistance to cow slaughter rendering non-milk-producing cattle a liability. This further reduces the demand for indigenous species, as their milk production is lower than the imported and hybrid breeds. Ironically, the indigenous cattle actually give much better returns in comparison witht he expense and effort that goes into maintaining them, vis-a-vis the more exotic breeds.

So far, jallikattu has protected the native breeds that are engaged in the activities from going the same way as the rest of the indigenous breeds. The jallikattu ban threatens to change that. But it isn't that simple either. The bulls bred for jallikattu are naturally aggressive, and most cow shelters don't want them - they wren't exactly bred to meekly accept marginal care and be no trouble! They can be aggressive and hostile and a lot of trouble to care for. With the restrictions on cattle slaughter, there won't be much help from those quarters either. There will be no real reason left for the survival of some prize breeds from India.

Of course, the question of survival of indigenous breeds of cattle is larger than jallikattu. I am merely noting that this will add another breed to the mix.

What constitutes animal abuse and where is the line?

Man and animals have coexisted for a long time. Man has harnessed and often exploted animals for daily needs. From eating chicken that are grown more like a vegetable than a bird to using police dogs for risky work like bomb detection or protection. Animals are leading less than optimal lives and facing danger, injury or death to enable our lives all the time. Horses have often been injured beyond recovery at the very young ages they participate in horse races. Bullock carts, ploughs, saddles have caused sores on livestock since time immemorial. Reluctant animals have been flogged to work, patient horses have stood amid exploding firecrackers in marriage processions. Not to mention the national assault on the hearing of dogs every Diwali. Sheepdogs work alongside their masters come snow or sunshine. Cows, buffaloes, goats get their teats pulled with varying degrees of gentleness and efficiency twice a day. The garbage of our lives overflows to kill countless animals, while our "progress" destroys their ecosystems. I am not trying to justify anything here. I am trying to create a larger picture of an interconnected system, where many species of animals often live in harmony with man. Often not even found in nature at all. Witness the silkworm.

Witness the story of "Shaktiman", the police horse who turned out to be a mare who broke her leg while at work on an aggressive protest. I knew that horse was dead, only a matter of time the minute I saw the hind leg broken. It is unlikely that the veternarians caring for Shaktiman didn't know it. A horse bears most of the weight of its body on its hind legs. The horse's hoof also has a spongy pad inside (not getting into medical technicalities) that help pumps blood back up to the heart when it walks, so it is also important for blood circulation in the body. A horse does not burp. Walking helps speed digestion, so trapped gasses escape as farts (yep, stinky). A horse with three legs can perhaps hobble briefly if the injured leg is a foreleg, because the hindlegs easily take up most of the weight. A horse with a missing hindleg cannot walk. And a horse that doesn't walk is a matter of waiting for the compromised digestion and circulation to fail, because there is no way the forelegs can compensate for the missing power of a hindleg. There will be terrible back pain from that enormous weight now being supported only on one side of the spine. The kindest "treatment" for her was a mercy killing. Yet she was subjected to a long drawn and painful death going through a political circus of journalists and prosthetics and what not till the inevitable happened. In the line of duty. Not just the injury, but the manner of death.

The need to bring in this kind of perspective is because a lot of people doing these debates have actually never come close to livestock. They have no idea of the realities of their needs, the threats they face or even their power. While the idea of an adult man hanging on to a bull feels remarkably threatening, the only power of a body most people know is human. How powerful is a bull?

Bull taming at jallikattu, Allangur, India
Bull taming at jallikattu, Allangur, India. Photo: எஸ்ஸார்

That is two people trying to wrestle down a bull at once. Very alarming. Two aggressive men? We are practically conditioned to think of this as unfair. But wait a minute. The bull has all four feet in the air and the two men, in fact, appear to be pulled up. What would the weight of the people have to be if two of them hung on you and you had to jump off the ground? That is what the weight of people is like to a bull. And you don't have to believe me. Please do a google image search for jallikattu to see if you spot pics that even remotely look like an overpowered bull. There are several of boys about to be gored, though.

Does wrestling with a 60 kilo unarmed man cause a 400 kilo bull any significant harm? I don't know personally. From my experience with horses, I can say even a 200 kilo filly cannot be overpowered without at least a couple of people, rope and serious technique. That is why the Spanish bullfights use weapons and that is why without weapons, the goal in jallikattu cannot exceed "hanging on". And trust me, hanging on is going to do little more than irritate a bull that can pull a few hundred kilos easy. That is my thinking.

But there are other serious issues. For example, injuries to tails, stories of bulls being fed liquor or sedatives to make them more aggressive. Man is a pretty cruel animal and a man in a crowd eager for a spectacle... Here is a good documentary about the cruelty to bulls to get them agitated. Please note, that this is a collection of recorded cruelty as opposed to a documentary on the standard practice. Many of these practices need to go. (The link to this film was kindly provided by Sachin Bangera, who works with PETA India. Thank you, Sachin.)

Frankly, I don't think the liquor is going to harm a bull any more than it would harm a person. People who do attend the fights say that it is glucose water for a burst of engergy and not alcohol at all. Rubbing irritants, injuring them and more will harm. Consulting with veterinarians on safety is important. Establishing an arena and disallowing unofficial street chasing is important. I think a lot of good could come out of creating a set of rules that must be followed, failing which the animal or youth could be banned from the proceedings. We already have laws against cruelty to animals for that. We do not need a ban on jallikattu to prevent cruelty. This would be more useful than putting everyone out of work. Competition and peer pressure would ensure better practices or loss of face and overall improve safety standards, like in any other dangerous sport. Substances that cannot be fed, blood tests in the event of doubt (or as a matter of course), protective clothing for participants, disqualification on holding tail, etc. Whatever. Seniors of the field must be consulted.

Which brings us to the bigger risk.

Convention on Biological Diversity

India is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global miltilateral treaty that obliges us to "develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity". While I have no legal understanding and no doubt it could be debated up and down the street, it does seem to my limited understanding that a ban on jallikattu that jeopardizes the future of the indigenous species used in it, violates the spirit of the agreement. And how serious is the risk? Very. From over a hundred indigenous cattle breeds in India, we have less than 40 left and those too are under threatas resistance to cattle slaughter increases and in turn increases the liability that cattle threaten to be. This makes people reluctant to own cattle altogether as well as prefer higher yielding cattle for their investment. Any move that reduces the utility of male cattle will add to the threat of extinction faced by our indigenous breeds.

Injuries and deaths of youths who participate in jallikattu.

These are actually more common than injuries to bulls. My views on this are twofold. The first is that best practices and preventative measures must be established where possible. The second is that like all sports with threat of life, the choice eventually must rest on the participant. If countless adventure sports are not banned, then jallikattu must not be either, on account of safety of participants.

This last, I am quite certain of. The rest needs debate. But more importantly, it needs debate that includes people who participate in the sport, instead of the same five talking heads representing "people like us" having an opinion on everything. People like us are conditioned to fear whatever looks darkskinned and sweaty and dirty and male and loud. However, our fears cannot dictate the practices of other people in another place in a shared country.

This article keeps getting updated as I add any important information brough to my notice. If you are interested in the subject, do keep checking back.

In an attempt to bring reason to the debate on cow slaughter bans, I have tried to present data from Maharashtra where the broadening of an existing ban on the slaughter of cows to include calves, bulls and bullocks has the poor cattle owners of the drought stricken state devastated as their livestock has overnight become a liability.

The sentiment about the holy cow is beyond doubt. Upper caste Hindus revere the cow, even though there are many Hindus who do eat it. Whether Savarkar agreed with it or whether the vedas sanctioned it is irrelevant. The idea of cow slaughter is revolting to many Hindus.

However, as sentimentalism and hyperbole builds up, there is a need to take a long, hard look at realities, and for the government that claims to be interested in development to decide whether development lies in the past or in building a new future.

Here is the data from the various livestock census reports from Maharashtra and what it tells me.

Firstly, the numbers.

Livestock census data from Maharashtra for cows and buffaloes
Livestock census data from Maharashtra for cows and buffaloes

A quick glance at the numbers is enough to tell us that in the five decades since the first census data available in 1961 and till the 2012 19th livestock census, the population of cattle has grown by 1,56,632 or slihtly more than a lakh and a half. The population of buffaloes has grown by 25,07,378 or over 25 lakh - about five lakhs short of being doubled. While this, in itself is an astonishing difference, it becomes even more astonishing when we see that the population of cattle was almost five (4.9) times that of buffaloes in 1961 and in 2012, cattle are slightly more than two and a half (2.7) times that of buffaloes. So this dramatic increase has happened in a much smaller population.

The buffalo population saw an increase of 25 lakh in five decades
The buffalo population saw an increase of 25 lakh in five decades while the five times larger cow population only saw a lakh and a half rise in population.

AND, the buffaloes were also getting slaughtered all through, for food.

If you look at the break ups of the population, you will see this more clearly.

Details of Cattle and buffalo population in Maharashtra
Details of Cattle and buffalo population in MaharashtraCattle and buffalo population in Maharashtra

The line lying almost flat against the bottom is the population of male buffaloes, which has barely ever risen other than around 2007 and 2012 - recent years saw distinct radicalization of society against slaughter. This fluctuation, 2007 in particular, could also be explained if the census happened before the festival season when a lot of the slaughter happens. And in five decades, out of the 25 lakh rise in buffaloes, not even a tenth or two and a half lakhs has happened in the male population. And of course India is the world's largest exporter of carabeef (buffalo beef).

Not only do buffalo owners profit from the high yields of the buffalo, and then an income from the sale of the unproductive animals for slaughter, they also do not feed much surplus livestock unnecessarily.

If you take the total population of buffaloes to be 100%, the sex ratio for cows and buffaloes would be thus over the years.

Sex ratio of cows in Maharashtra
Sex ratio of cows in Maharashtra

The only time in the history of the livestock census in Maharashtra that cows have been more than bulls and bullocks is in the year 2012, though the trend starts at 1997 (also relevant later). If you look at the data, you will see that the numbers dropped more drastically than for cows. This basically means that for the first time in Maharashtra, bulls and bullocks were being butchered in any noticeable numbers. But why now, if not for five decades? We will look at the 2012 data in detail in a bit.

Sex ratio of buffaloes in Maharashtra
Sex ratio of buffaloes in Maharashtra

The ratio of male buffaloes to female buffaloes consistently hovers between 8% and 18% - we aren't even pretending gender equality here. 50% is far away in the stratosphere, let alone male buffaloes being the majority of the population. At no point does the male buffalo population even touch 20%.

But the buffalo population did slow in 2007 and fall in 2012 in particular. So did the overall population of cows, which has been falling steadily since the late 90s.

Explanations for changes in trends in livestock data can be found in events that impacted livestock farming practices.

Cow population started dropping after 1997

What else was happening in the agricultural world around that time? Maharashtra's post-economic liberalization agrarian crisis had established. By 1995, P. Sainath's reports of farmer suicides in rural India had triggered enough alarm that they had started being recorded in NCRB data. While livestock, as an economic asset provides a buffer against poverty, to me it seems like it lost its potency by 1997 with the agrarian crisis creating a similar situation for most cattle owners.

At this point, the farmers were committing suicide, but still there is no noticeable slaughter of bulls and bullocks. However, the overall populations started dropping steadily as cows started becoming economically unviable.

Understand this, when less than 50% of the cattle population is cows, milk producing cows are even fewer, so cattle owners probably had two unproductive animals for every milch cow. With the rise of motorized transport, while bullock carts could be used for own needs and ploughing the fields could be done, income earning opportunities from bulls and bullocks started dwindling (and are near non-existent today).

What happened in 2012?

The worst drought to hit Maharashtra happened in 2012. People were desperate for water for themselves. Buffaloes actually have higher water requirements than cows ("water buffalo" d'uh). Buffalo owners seem to have sold off their livestock in greater than usual numbers. This is probably also a factor in India becoming the world's largest exporter of beef at that time.

What was happening with the cows in 2012?

The cattle population continued to drop, except for two major departures from the norm till then.

The population of exotic and crossbred cows rose

While all the other cattle and buffalo population was busy going down, the one notable exception was the population of exotic and crossbred cows - this would be your fancy imported dairy breeds with very high production. Their requirements of water would be less than buffaloes, and milk production would be comparable. Indigenous cows, on the other hand, barely produce enough to justify a business if it also means caring for an unproductive cow later. Those continued to reduce.

Exotic and indigenous cattle population between 2007 and 2012
Exotic and indigenous cattle population between 2007 and 2012

Actually, the crossbred and exotic cattle population has been showing a steady rise all through, it only became visible here, when everything else went down. The rise in the number of exotic and crossbred cows (usually reared for dairy business because of high yields and correspondingly high dietary requirements), combined with the highest drop in male cattle also belonging to the same category shows that the more progressive dairy businesses were moving toward a pragmatism in their business model.

Dramatic drop in male cattle numbers

Male exotic and cross bred cattle saw the highest drops (they are less suitable/sturdy for local climates and work AND they require more feed and water). Male indigenous cattle too saw a drop. For the first time in the history of the livestock census in India, Maharashtra has more cows than male cattle. To put it bluntly, when food and water got scarce, male cattle were the ones sacrificed in greater numbers - either to butchers or starvation and dehydration in abandonment.

My views on what the government should have done, as opposed to what it did

In the absence of slaughter bans, cattle farming is actually more profitable than buffaloes

This is because buffaloes require more care, water and suffer more in drought - which seems to be a permanent feature of Maharashtra now. In the absence of slaughter bans, cow beef is more palatable and thus priced higher than carabeef, which would add to the income of the cattle farmers and make it a viable choice.

Given the lack of any real increase in the cattle population in Maharashtra (similar is seen nationwide), the government should have taken the initiative to free people from traditional taboos against cattle slaughter and encouraged them to sell cattle to middlemen, even as they themselves remained reluctant to engage in slaughter or consumption.

This would not only make cattle farming viable and result in similar increases in population and quality of cattle as with buffaloes, and reduce non-productive investments for the already stressed agrarian economy, it would allow better treatment of cattle, instead of abandonment, injury and worse. It is a matter of debate which is the greater cruelty - a quick death or a week in pain with a stomach full of plastc or legs broken by an irate farmer whose crops stray cattle destroyed. Having fewer non-productive cattle would mean a better diet and care to cows and calves. It would mean optimal use of scarce grazing, fodder and water, which would indeed go to the revered milk producing cow.

It was a matter of educating the people and leading them to economic viability - is that not the government's pet grudge? That the poor are given handouts when what they need is sustainability?

Instead, the government chose to take Maharashtra back to a rigid cow worship as a part of their ideological agenda, but funded by the already stressed cattle owners, turning their investments to liabilities overnight for the sentiments of those who don't raise (and thus serve) the cows themselves at all. It chose to smother the budding realization of the need to reduce male cattle - even if triggered by desperate circumstances and protect the cattle instead of the people. It put the welfare of an animal over that of its voters. That is the bottom line. An open declaration that the state that leads the nation in farmer suicide still expects farmers to spend on unproductive cattle, even as government actions have brought an unending drought.

Basically, the government has turned the cow into its murder weapon. And no, I am not talking of its murderous affiliates slaughtering humans by leveraging rumors here. Is it not murder for a state that sees educated girls give up on non-existent jobs and dreams of marriages and turn to prostitution to feed starving families to force them to fund the government's cattle fetish as well? Is it not murder to force an expense on farmers, remove an alternative to loans and debt in the state that leads the country in farmer suicides? Because that is how it is, you know? Sell a bull instead of taking a loan. Buy another after harvest. Instead, the bull is now unsaleable, and the loan the farmer takes must feed it as well.

What lies in the future?

In my view, unless the oh-so-posh idealistic middle classes are willing to live without milk, the reversal of the ban is inevitable. The dwindling population of cattle if not arrested, will lead to milk shortages sooner or later and recovering from them after they are established will be far more difficult.

Unless the government has bright ideas for increasing grazing available to livestock, reducing the number of unproductive livestock is the only way forward.

There is no alternative. The government has a choice to do it on their own, or have the people kick them out in future elections. If not the immediate next, the one after that is guaranteed. Look at how the curve is going down, and this is before the government's enhanced ban.

The government has a choice here. To rein in their affiliates, to educate people and do enough social reform to allow culling of unproductive cattle, or watch their Frankenstein's monster devour the state.

Note: while this blog is licenced under a creative commons licence, publishers who usually pay authors for content or readers for access are encouraged to offer me a compensation for republishing this piece.

Note2: There are some inconsistencies in the manner in which the data has been recorded over the years. In particular for young stock, which, in earlier years had not been segregated by sex. There is a small jump in numbers where it integrates. It is similar for both cattle and buffaloes. I have deliberately chosen comparisons and examples where the impact of this would be minimal. Alas, there seems to be no other way of looking at the data long term with the criteria changing midway.