Thousands of angry young people flocked to the streets on Wednesday in southern India to protest a three-year-old ban on an ancient bull-taming festival that animal rights activists say is cruel.
In a bitter clash that pits cultural traditions against the campaign for animal rights, the annual harvest-related bull-taming sport called Jallikattu has sharply divided Indians in the past week.
The popular ritual traditionally takes places in villages of the southern state of Tamil Nadu in January. But this is the third year that the event has been banned, and many people are now calling for India's Supreme Court to overturn the prohibition.
On the day of the harvest festival, villages across the state typically conduct competitions where the bulls are tied and kept in an excitable state until doors are opened. As the bulls run out, participants chase them and try to tame them by holding on to their humps for as long as they can. This year, the festival was held on Saturday - most villages complied with the bull-taming ban, but a few defied it.
For the last two days, tens of thousands of protesters have lined up along the roads, public squares and beaches across the state to show their support for the bull-taming festival. Some men even buried themselves neck-deep in beach sands to protest. Students skipped classes in schools and colleges to join the crowds. Several Tamil movie actors and directors have also called for Jallikattu to be revived.
"Jallikattu is our tradition, it is our identity. We will not allow anyone to play with our emotions," said Manoj Kumar, a college student and protester, said in a phone interview from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu.
The Times of India newspaper called it a "Tamil Nadu version of the Arab Spring."
"These bulls are like children in our families, we do not torture them. This is how we play with them," said C. R. Lakshmi, the spokeswoman for All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the party that is in power in Tamil Nadu. "This festival goes back thousands of years, and this is an integral part of our harvest festival. Women in the ancient tales would say that they would only marry the men who can tame the bulls. Villagers now say there has been a drought in the state because of the ban on Jallikattu."
The Supreme Court is now considering a number of appeals against the ban by the state officials. Animal welfare groups like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are supporting the ban, saying that the animals are tortured to heighten the excitement of the spectator sport. The court's verdict is expected soon.
"International groups like PETA do not understand Indian culture. Why don't they first try to ban bull racing in Spain?" Lakshmi added. (PETA does advocate against bull fights and bull runs around the world.)
India's law against cruelty to animals lists bull fighting, dog fighting, bull racing and other uses of some animals in performances. In 2011, India's environment ministry banned the use of bulls in performances across India. In 2014, the Supreme Court said that spectacles like Jallikattu violate the law.
Jallikattu advocates say the sport must be regulated instead of being banned completely.
But animal rights activists say that people had violated many of the regulations stipulated by the court before 2014 and argue that the sport is inherently violent. PETA members have submitted films that showed chili powder being inserted into the nostrils of the bulls, their tails twisted and bitten by participants, and bulls being prodded with sticks and fed with suspected alcohol.
Hundreds of people have been injured and some killed during the sport in recent years.
Many protesters called for a ban on PETA. One prominent politician in Chennai said last week that PETA is an "anti-national" group.
Manilal Valliyate, the Indian director of PETA, said that the country's law "makes it the mandate of every Indian citizen to have compassion for animals. To stand for kindness is patriotic, to stand for cruelty is un-Indian." He added that PETA does not make laws, but is "a law-abiding body," and targeting it is "cheap and ineffective."
But Valliyate said, "to prevent cruelty to bulls, which is inherent in Jallikattu, ban is the proper, sensible, commonsensical solution."
Another PETA statement said that the purpose of the annual harvest festival is "to thank the nature and celebrate life, something that can't be achieved by tormenting bulls and causing human and bull injuries and deaths."
PETA members have been getting threatening calls and emails from protesters, Valliyate said.
"The spontaneous uproar against the ban shows that people are upset with the court and the national government in Delhi, which they say is trying to portray them as a bunch of villains," said Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist in Chennai. "There are better ways of addressing such issues without banning them."
Officials in Tamil Nadu have urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring an amendment to animal welfare law in the next session of the national parliament, and introduce an ordinance for "removing the legal impediments" to the sport.
But animal welfare activists wore the mask of bulls this week and protested the move. They held placards in New Delhi this week that said "Please Mr Modi: Stay Strong. Don't Weaken Bull Protection Laws."
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