An unseemly controversy has erupted during the ongoing Magh Bihu festivities over a Supreme Court ban. In its landmark judgment on May 7 last year, the apex court had banned the use of animals in fights, races or any other type of performance. After the Animal Welfare Board of India wrote to the Assam government to enforce the ban, the state Home department issued ban orders to all districts. When the Morigaon district administration cancelled the traditiol buffalo fight of Aahatguri, disgruntled revellers blocked the tiol highway and rail line nearby. Similar outpouring of public discontent greeted the cancellation of the traditiol buffalo fight at Rangghar in Sivasagar, the bulbul fight at Hayagriva Madhava temple in Hajo and the ox fight at Balikuri in Barpeta. However in defiance of the ban, informal buffalo fights were reportedly organised at several places in gaon, Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and other districts. Cock fights were openly organised in many places, drawing large crowds. The general argument against the Supreme Court ban is that such animal fights are an inseparable part of the cultural tradition of Magh Bihu. After all, it was Ahom king Rudra Singha who first instituted the buffalo fight at Rangghar during Magh Bihu as a public spectacle. Other such buffalo fights too have centuries old tradition, enjoying much public support during the Bhogali festivities.
The Supreme Court ban once again highlights the fact that the State cannot always allow the people to lead or set the agenda. If a new age calls for enlightened values to go with it, then the State should assert its authority to introduce and establish such values. Bowing constantly to the demands of the lowest common denomitor is not an option when wholesome change is called for. It is noteworthy that instead of the Legislature or the Executive, it is mostly the Judiciary that is taking on the role of such a change agent in India. The Supreme Court has ruled that cruelty to animals is ucceptable because “being dumb and helpless, they suffer in silence”. The torture hapless animals are subjected to make them ferocious and battle–ready, the horrific injuries inflicted upon them during fights, the fatalities suffered by both animals and human participants — were all factors that the Supreme Court considered while delivering its far–reaching verdict. The apex court’s ban order has hit ‘jallikattu’, the popular buffalo taming sport in Tamil du, as well as ‘kambala’, the slush track buffalo racing in Kartaka and bullock cart racing in Maharashtra. In all these states, there have been public protests against the ban but the Supreme Court has made it clear that the law on prevention of cruelty to animals “overshadows or overrides the so–called tradition and culture.”
This brings us back to the question of banning buffalo, bulbul and cock fights in Assam during Magh Bihu. Will the apex court’s ban be a death blow to the uniqueness of the Bhogali tradition? In this context, it is relevant to mention the controversy over the sacrifice of hundreds of buffalo, goats, pigeons and other animals during Durga puja. Even though there is much dismay as the altar to the Mother Goddess is bloodied by the lives She brings forth, the counter argument is that such practices are legitimate on religious grounds as is Qurbani during Eid–ul–Zuha. It is therefore a moot question whether the courts will intervene in future to prevent cruelty to animals on religious grounds. But the Supreme Court has made a welcome beginning by banning such repugnt practices on the grounds of tradition or culture. Another point needs to be raised here. In the Assam of yore, elephant and falcon fights were also organised as popular sport during festivals, apart from buffalo fights. But even though these were part of our cultural tradition, they have fallen by the wayside in the march of Time. Even buffalo fights had become a disappearing tradition in Assam due to the prohibitive cost of raising and training buffaloes as fighting animals. It was revived only due to the rising prosperity in the last fifteen years in the state. The need of the hour is therefore a wide–ranging public discourse about enlightened values to adopt in our religious and cultural life, if we are to progress as a race.