There are two arguments I have heard in defence of Jallikattu: one, that the practice is not cruel to animals, and the second that it is part of Tamil culture and tradition and therefore must not be banned.
Of these two, which often appear together - usually the former as an afterthought to the latter (which you gives you an idea of the priorities of the people) - only one is really an argument. After all, it is possible to say to a high degree of certainty whether a given practice counts as animal cruelty or not, and then make a case for why it should or should not be banned. The other point is not an argument at all - it is just a socially acceptable way of saying, "I can do anything provided my ancestors did it as well." It is the kind of statement that if allowed to stand brings us dangerously close to the edge of the slippery slope of moral relativism that society has tried so hard to scale.
What do I mean by this? If we are to allow tradition and culture a free pass and not apply 21st century morality and ethics, then we might as well erase every hard fought victory civilisation has ever fought against any number of traditions and cultural practices. Slavery, sati, child marriage, the caste system - is there any doubt that at some point the same claim was made in support of any one of these? And if it is not an argument, what is it? A threat of course.
On to the argument of animal cruelty: put an animal in a confined space with thousands of screaming people, some of whom are jumping on the creature, some grabbing at it, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a species that will not be terrified, confused and eventually violent. Even without considering the claims by some animal activists that chilli powder and alcohol are introduced into the mix just to make it a little more fun, this is undoubtedly cruelty because it is undoubtedly causing immense suffering to the animal.
And so altogether what does it tell me? It tells me that the barbarity of Jallikattu is two-fold: it is animal cruelty, and, to people who don’t care much about animals, it is human stupidity.
Which brings me nicely to the protest in Chennai. There is nothing more heart-warming than a peaceful protest, but it demonstrates a most troubling tendency to prioritise ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ over the rights and well-being of people and animals in the present. Can you remember the last time there was a peaceful protest in Chennai? I can’t. Nothing brings out people in force like a perceived slight to their culture. This is the most disturbing thing about this whole issue, that like all other traditions and culture it glorifies the past, and like a few, it does so at the cost of the present.