The political play around Jallikattu, instead of pointing towards conflicting cultural values as assumed, points more towards a society which is increasingly becoming politically conservative aided and abetted by a political class which shows no commitment towards progressive law making. The political class, which should be responsible for progressive legislations, has become hostage to a conservative social component which neither respects reasoned judgements of the courts nor is supportive of progressive agenda pursued by minority interest groups.
The reasons are many but the political class cannot abdicate its responsibility when it comes to cases like Jallikattu. Be it the Cauvery issue or Jallikattu, regional parties at state level have started to come together to challenge the order of the highest court of the land. The politicians, fearing the wrath of popular sentiment in both cases, allowed the public to take the law in its own hands to prove the point that courts have failed to gauge public sentiment.
I wonder what would have happened if our founding fathers would have welted under popular sentiment when they decided to work on the Hindu Remarriage Act. It never happened and because of the commitment towards building an equal and progressive India, a lot of changes could be introduced in the Hindu code bills. Unfortunately, similar steps were not initiated for Muslims in India but it does point to the fact that taking unpopular decisions and persuading people to adopt them is also part of a politician’s portfolio.
Both Jallikattu and Cauvery also became an issue of identity instead of cruelty towards animals in the former and sharing of water in the latter case. The former also waded into the choppy waters of North vs South divide and cultural relativism.
Both positions are misplaced. No tradition or cultural practice is eternal when it comes to human evolution and what is defined as core to a culture continues to shift and change through time. Jallikattu is neither a language (which too is not monolithic) nor central to the Tamil identity. It is a cultural practice confined to rural communities which through centuries have treated the bull sport as a cultural-business exercise around which several interest groups survived. To say that to ban Jallikattu is to impinge on Tamil identity is to argue that bursting of fire crackers is essential to the tradition of Diwali. In modern societies, the concept of cruelty and violence extends towards animals and does not restrict itself to humans. Even if one is to argue that violence is in-built into certain cultural practices, it does not make them divine or correct. The beauty of man lies in correction and compassion and not in continuation of a practice.
Many would also argue that such practices are like initiation rituals proving primacy of culture over nature like in the case of bull fights in Spain. The former has been debated in the court and latter remains a political and social controversy where judicial verdict has not been pronounced.
Even in the case of triple talaq, the government in its affidavit says that it is not an essential part or practice of religion. The reform is being resisted tooth and nail by vested groups. Similar is the case of BCCI where political parties cutting across political parties refused to reform the sporting body and the Supreme Court had to intervene in the matter. The BCCI President himself continued to stall the reforms till the end till the court read the riot act.
All the above examples point to one thing, that despite being an old democracy with liberal laws (barring some like 377) the conservative political mood is on the rise whereby liberal opinion is treated as being disrespecting towards the idea of faith and identity. This was earlier reserved for certain sections of the political class which now is being extended towards judiciary at the peril of our federal structure. In Jallikattu, both DMK and ADMK not only pushed the central government to bring an ordinance but also defied the order of the court. Rather than taking a progressive position on society and culture, both the parties have chosen to fan identity-based ethnic sentiments. What is dangerous in this process is that progressive legislative agenda is slipping out of the hand of the politicians and falling into the domain of the courts.
A classic example in this case is when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi went against the court order when it came to the Shah Bano judgement. A decision which should have come from the Parliament came as a judicial pronouncement but got annulled by the Parliament in end. It is imperative that the political brass should not use judgements to mobilise people on streets. It is not to say that the majesty of the courts will be compromised by challenging a judgement but once it has been pronounced then it has to be tackled judicially or else the very disregard of it would threaten the federal structure of the country which depends on balance of power between the executive, legislature and courts.
India as an old and mature democracy must work on strengthening the federal structure within the rubric of the Constitution rather than fueling a sense of persecution between states or centre and state. If this is to continue then every decision would become open to a political contest. There are decisions which need to be contested and there are some which need to be rested and Jallikattu falls in latter case.