A decree on animal sacrifice

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

The Tamil Nadu government's ban on animal sacrifice in temples, imposed in an effort apparently to please Hindutva forces, attracts widespread protests.

in Chennai

THE All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu seems to have converted the State into a testing ground by experimenting with legislative and administrative measures that would please the champions of neo-liberal reforms and the hard-core Hindutva elements in the ruling dispensation at the Centre. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa won the approbation of reforms pundits for getting tough with government employees and teachers who struck work seeking restoration of certain rights they were deprived of in the name of pruning expenditure.

At the social level, a couple of initiatives taken by the government brought much joy to Hindu fundamentalists. The first was the passing of the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act, 2002 (Frontline, November 8, 2002). The latest is the order to District Collectors and police officials to put an end to animal sacrifice in temples by enforcing strictly a 1950 State law against such sacrifice. Hindutva forces would like to believe that the AIADMK government had succeeded in areas where even the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments at the Centre and in some States could not make much headway. While the first measure is seen as yet another step towards realising their long-term objective of Hinduising the multi-religious Indian society, the second, they believe, will go a long way in achieving another of their cherished goals - homogenising the pluralistic Hindu fold.

If the threat by a section of Dalits to leave Hinduism in protest against casteist oppression apparently provoked the State government to bring in the anti-conversion law, the order on ending animal sacrifice in temples came in the wake of the reported `sacrifice' of 500 buffaloes at a village temple in Tiruchi district. Jayalalithaa, in her communication to officials in the last week of August, advised stringent action against violators of the Tamil Nadu Animals and Birds Sacrifices Prevention Act, 1950. She asked them to advise people against following the practice and prevent them from performing "such cruel acts". Only two days earlier the Chief Minister had ordered a compulsory `one-month rest' for all temple elephants every year. Expectedly, animal lover and former Union Environment Minister Maneka Gandhi congratulated Jayalalithaa on her initiatives. Among the others who supported the move were K. Veeramani, general secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam, founded by rationalist leader E.V. Ramasami and leaders of the BJP and most other constituents of the Sangh Parivar.

The reactions of political parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) were mixed. Although animal sacrifice was not acceptable to them, they questioned the wisdom of seeking to end an age-old practice by the mere enforcement of a law. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), felt that the move was unwarranted. Puthiya Tamizhagam, a Dalit party, demanded a ban also on yagnas conducted by caste Hindus at the mainstream temples constructed and run under agama rules. During yagnas, gold coins, diamonds, expensive silk sarees, ghee and foodgrain are offered to Agni (fire) as `sacrifice', the party said. The Dalit Panthers of India (Viduthalai Siruthaigal in Tamil) saw the ban as an interference in the religious rights of the oppressed people and called for an agitation to protest against it.

Dalits and people belonging to backward and most backward communities, for whom animal sacrifice is an integral part of worship, expressed their resentment in no uncertain terms. Within days of the order, devotees in several parts of the southern districts went ahead with the customary practice at the local temples in defiance of the ban. August-September is the time of the annual or biennial `Kodai' festivals at these temples, and the mood among these people was one of anger, despair and defiance. In Madurai, devotees of the Pandi Muneeswarar temple performed animal sacrifice "in fulfilment of their vow" and shared the meat with relatives in com<147,1,7>munity feasts. Scores of goats and fowls were reportedly sacrificed. In Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts, which have a large number of temples of village deities, goats and cocks were offered in sacrifice, though a few metres away from the temples. Thousands of people throng these temples, particularly on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

A devotee of the Sudalai Madasami temple at Sirumalanji in Tirunelveli district challenged the ban in the Madras High Court on the grounds that the Act was violative of Articles 19 and 25 of the Constitution. The government's action was arbitrary and an unwarranted interference with the religious faith of various Hindu sects, the petitioner, S. Senthivel Nadar, said in his public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed on September 5. He stated that the ban sought to end a widely prevalent practice among a particular community in many parts of the State. The petitioner feared that the "sudden enforcement" of the Act would hurt the sentiments of lakhs of people, particularly devotees who had reared goats and hens for sacrifice at the biennial festival in fulfilment of their vows. He pleaded for an interim injunction restraining the police and other authorities from taking action against devotees participating in the temple festival, pending disposal of the petition. A Division Bench comprising Chief Justice B. Subhashan Reddy and Justice A. Kulasekaran ordered notice to the government and an `understanding' was reached that no arrests would be made.

The next day, the police frustrated efforts to conduct a mass sacrifice at the Sirumalanji temple, but devotees did offer sacrifice at some distance from the temple. The `Samiaadi' (trance-dancer) of the temple, M. Muthuraj, was kept in his house "under the control" of the police and prevented from visiting the cremation ground at midnight for the ritual that precedes the sacrifice as practised for centuries. A number of devotees were reportedly arrested for offering animal sacrifice.

When these developments were brought to the notice of the Chief Justice at the High Court on September 8, he reminded Advocate-General N.R. Chandran of the earlier `understanding'. Chandran clarified, relying on information from the Superintendent of Police, that no arrest had been made.

Meanwhile, another PIL petition challenging the Act was also admitted. During the hearing, the Chief Justice sought to know the motive behind the "urgency" in enforcing the Act now. He asked the Advocate-General whether it was correct to ban, all on a sudden, an activity practised for generations. The Advocate-General said animal sacrifice was a social menace like sati and untouchability and had to be brought to an end at some stage. Both the petitions are pending disposal.

THE motive behind the sudden move to refurbish an Act kept in cold storage for five decades is a mystery. If the desire to ban animal sacrifice is based on the love for animals, the question arises why the killing of animals at homes, abattoirs and restaurants for food should be left untouched. In fact, given the extent of rural poverty and the skyrocketing meat prices, for lakhs of deprived people the community feast, which follows the ritual sacrifices at temples, is the only occasion to eat meat. If the idea is to liberate people from superstitions, how could one explain the fact that the yagnas held in mainstream temples, where "upper caste" Hindus offer jewels and other valuables to be consumed by a fire and numerous other forms of irrational beliefs have been spared?

Whatever the answers to these questions, according to researchers and social activists, the beneficiaries of the move are the Hindutva forces, which are only too willing to "cleanse" temples of village deities which are "polluted" by "undesirable" practices that are not acceptable to the temples based on the agamas. Some researchers have pointed out for years that organisations such as the Hindu Munnani and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been working among the rural communities with a view to "homogenising" Hindu society (Frontline, April 9, 1999).

Professor A. Sivasubramanian, who has done intensive studies on folk deities, the forms of worship and the practices followed in the temples of the "people's gods" in the southern districts, told Frontline that these deities have some special characteristics. For instance, most of them are "slain heroes" among the devotees' ancestors. These deities, he said, were kept in the open, unlike in the mainstream temples, only to provide easy access to the poor and the socially deprived sections, which were generally denied entry into caste Hindus' temples in many areas. The poojaris (priests) of the village deities normally belong to the caste group that controls the temples. The rules were kept flexible in order to suit the local people's needs. For instance, unlike in the mainstream temples, there is no rigidity about the timing of worship, keeping in mind the village poor, who are mostly wage-earning agricultural workers.

Sivasubramanian said that in many villages the `kodai' festivals played a unifying role among caste-ridden rural communities of varied backgrounds and conflicting interests. Animal sacrifice was practised not only in Hindu folk temples, but also in darghas and church<147,2,7>es, although without the approval of the clergy. He cited the Anthoniyar "temple" at Puliyampatti, 35 km from Tuticorin, where Hindus join Christians in offering worship and animal sacrifice "in fulfilment of vows". Referring to the prevalence of animal sacrifice among Muslims, the professor said the practice among them was to donate the hide to the dargha and partake the meat with others in community feasts.

Any attempt to homogenise the temples of folk deities would only lead to the end of the plurality of Hindu society, Sivasubramanian said. The Sangh Parivar had already brought under its control several temples. In these temples they have fixed the worship timings, appointed Brahmin poojaris, made the rules rigid and installed idols of mainstream gods such as Siva (in the form of Linga), Vinayagar and Murugan. A few years ago, when a Brahmin poojari objected to animal sacrifice in one such temple for a village deity in Coimbatore on the grounds that it could not be done in a temple that had a Linga, the people removed the Linga and went ahead with the sacrifice. At the temple of a folk deity in Tuticorin, when the newly appointed Brahmin poojari objected to animal sacrifice because the temple now also had an idol of Murugan, devotees performed the sacrifice after hiding the idol behind a curtain. Such developments would only create further divisions in village communities in the southern districts, which are known for caste-related violence.

A study by the Tirunelveli-based Human Rights Organisation on the practices in 564 temples in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts revealed that the "kodai" festivals had some positive elements. Although Dalits were normally denied entry into 240 of these temples, they were allowed to participate in the festivals. Dalits shared the meat of the sacrificed animals with the people of the Thevar community, with which they are at loggerheads most of the time. Any attempt to disturb the balance may aggravate the caste-related problems in these sensitive areas, the study felt.

The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association has said that the State government's action against animal sacrifice would affect the right to worship of Dalits and other backward sections of the people and would only unwittingly help the Sangh Parivar bring thousands of village temples under its control.

After sensing the all-round protest against the move, the Federation of Village Temple Priests, believed to be a Parivar organisation, has urged the State government not to enforce the ban on animal sacrifice in temples, since the move is "impractical". "Animal sacrifice can be banned only if the majority of people stopped eating non-vegetarian food," said federation president S. Vedantam. CPI(M) State secretary N. Varadarajan said in a statement that there could be no two opinions about the irrational nature of the belief in animal sacrifice. "All the same, it is an age-old belief with cultural overtones, involving the right to worship of Dalits and people from other backward communities and also the religious sentiments of these people," he said. "Attempts at educating these people and improving their social and economic status should necessarily precede efforts to put an end to such superstitious beliefs," observed Varadarajan.

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