WHILE WATCHING the Jallikattu event from an elevated podium at an arena in Avaniyapuram near Madurai on Thursday, Rahul Gandhi stood up at one point to see the bull taming more closely, prompting one of the commentators to say: “Look Rahul Gandhi has stood up to see… He didn’t know otherwise Jallikattu would not have been banned… He has promised not to ban it again. Congratulations, the bull has won.”
The stray comment, not in jest but in enthusiasm, perhaps summarised the Congress’s new-found politics in Tamil Nadu. It was a course correction and an emphatic one at that. The timing is a no-brainer since Assembly elections are just months away and the party in alliance with the DMK is trying hard to upset the AIADMK-BJP combine.
The commentator then said had Rahul been invited to Tamil Nadu, the ban on Jallikattu would not have happened in 2006. He was referring to the ban imposed by the Madras High Court in 2006 on the bull-taming sport after a spectator’s death.
The court ruling aside, it was the Congress-led UPA government which had in July 2011 included bulls in a list of animals that “shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animal”, effectively banning the local sport, which the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh felt was a “barbaric practice”.
The decision came in for huge criticism in Tamil Nadu. The Congress’s state leadership was not amused. And much to their chagrin, the Supreme Court upheld the Environment Ministry’s order in May 2014.
So when Rahul went to Tamil Nadu to watch the Jallikattu event on Thursday, it marked the emphatic conclusion of a course correction by the Congress which began in 2014 itself.
The first flip-flop by the Congress came in April 2014. In the middle of the Lok Sabha elections, the central government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court reversing its earlier decision. It told the court it had removed the bull from the list of animals not to be exhibited or trained as performing animals.
From 2011 to 2014, the UPA government had three Environment Ministers – Jairam Ramesh, Jayanti Natarajan and M Veerappa Moily. The first notification came in 2011 when Ramesh was the minister. Natarajan did not do anything as the matter had reached the Supreme Court by then. In 2014, the Centre – which was under immense pressure – reversed the stance. Moily was then the minister.
“In order to strike a balance and to safeguard the interest of all stakeholders, including the animals, while keeping in mind the historic, cultural and religious significance of the event and with a view to ensure that no unnecessary pain or suffering is caused to the animals, participants and spectators, the government of India proposes to exempt ‘bulls’ participating in ‘Jallikattu’ in the state of Tamil Nadu from the purview of the 2011 notification,” the Centre said in an affidavit. But the stand did not find favour with the apex court, which banned the sport in May.
In 2017, when the issue flared up again with thousands of protesters assembling at Chennai’s Marina beach to oppose the ban, the Congress extended support. “The Congress respects the rights of people of Tamil Nadu to preserve the culture and protect the rich tradition of Jallikattu,” Congress spokesperson leader Randeep Singh Surjewala had said then.
But Rahul’s latest visit has not amused everyone. “It is too little too late. The issue started in 2011. This (his visit) is clearly election-related,” Natarajan, who is no longer with the Congress, told The Indian Express.
Her successor, Moily, said, “It is a cultural sport, a cultural event. If you go on banning such things… there are thousands of such things which happen… it is a traditional sport. People know how to safeguard themselves. Even the animals enjoy such a sport. Every village in the country… we have such cultural events. People take pleasure in it… it is not that every countryman should take to cricket or football… it is a village sport.”