CHENNAI, India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused Thursday to overturn a Supreme Court ban on a festival featuring young men wrestling with bulls that has brought thousands onto the streets of southern India in protest.
Residents of the southern state of Tamil Nadu said the Jallikattu festival is a crucial part of their culture and are demanding the ban be lifted.
Critics say the festival is cruel and that organizers lace the bulls’ feed with liquor to make them less steady on their feet and throw chilli powder into their faces to send them into a sudden frenzy as they are released from a holding pen.
India’s Supreme Court outlawed Jallikattu last year after a plea by animal rights groups, which have long argued that the event—held every year in different parts of Tamil Nadu—abuses the animals.
Tensions have been escalating for the last week after hundreds of people were detained by police for allegedly organizing local Jallikattu contests in defiance of the court ban.
Thousands of protesters have gathered in state capital Chennai and other cities, prompting Tamil Nadu’s chief minister to travel to Delhi to ask Modi to overturn the ban.
“The ban imposed on Jallikattu by the Supreme Court came up for discussion,” Modi’s office said on Twitter after the two men met.
“While appreciating the cultural significance of Jallikattu, the prime minister observed that the matter is presently sub judice” or prohibited from public discussion because it is still under judicial consideration.
Scores of students from Tamil Nadu held protests in New Delhi in support of Jallikattu.
“This is an attack on our culture,” said Manikanda Venkatesh, a student from Tamil Nadu.
“People who have never been to Tamil Nadu are telling us about about culture and calling it barbaric. The farmers treat these bulls like their children and no parent can be cruel to their child.
“This is not a festival for Tamils but also for the bulls, which show their prowess. Through Jallikattu, the farmers are able to find the best bulls, which helps in breeding of native species.”
Pangaj Easwaa, a student from Tamil Nadu, said that while he respected the Supreme Court, he would not tolerate attempts “to amend our cultural practices.”
“What is the harm [in]Jallikattu? No bulls are killed in the festival.”
Unlike in traditional Spanish bullfighting, the animals are let loose into open fields and young men then compete to subdue them bare-handed.
Organizers insist the animals suffer no harm and Jallikattu is an established part of Tamil culture.
A legal expert said the prime minister could in theory issue an ordinance overturning the Supreme Court ruling, although such a move would be rare.
Police say the protests have remained peaceful so far but have spread to large parts of Tamil Nadu.
India’s leading spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin and several popular Tamil film stars have voiced their support for the demonstrators.