Bullfighting revival in India

by AFP/Lita Barretto, Jul 7, 2009 | Destinations: India

PANAJI, June 23, 2009 - Bullfighting was once a way of life in the Indian resort state of Goa, with thousands of people gathering on Sundays and public holidays to cheer on the animals as they locked horns.

The controversial tradition was banned in the former Portuguese colony in 1998 but it could now be set for a comeback after a politician who vowed to campaign against the ban won a seat in recent parliamentary elections.

"Bullfights are not my priority," said Francisco Sardinha, a Congress party lawmaker and former Goa chief minister.

"But sensing people's aspirations, I have promised them that I will work towards making them legal," he said.

Sardinha's pledge, which included building a designated bullring, paid off as he won the South Goa constituency in India's national parliament.

Bull owners have welcomed his proposal, sensing a revival of what they view as an important social activity, but it has outraged animal rights activists.

"There's a lot of opposition to this," the head of the India branch of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Anuradha Sawhney, told AFP.

"Bullfighting was banned a few years back and there's no reason to revive it. These people are only doing it to get votes."

As news of Sardinha's promise emerged earlier this year, Sawhney wrote to Congress party president Sonia Gandhi to say that PETA had been flooded with calls and emails from Indians "worried and angered" at the proposal.

"Not only are these incidents illegal but also completely unforgiving and inhumane. These fights cause damage to the animals' health and can result in accidents to human spectators as well," she wrote.

Unlike in Spain or Portugal, where bullfighting is widely regarded as an integral part of cultural heritage, the Goan version does not involve injuring or killing bulls.

Instead, the only human involvement is to hit, push and cajole the two bulls as they charge and butt each other in open fields during bloody fights that can last for hours until one of the beasts limps away in defeat.

"Dhirio," as Goan bullfighting is called, was banned after a spectator was killed by an angry bull but fights are still held clandestinely, with times and venues passed on via word of mouth, text message or furtive mobile phone calls.

Whereas bulls were once paraded proudly through villages to the chosen venue, accompanied by music and crowds, now they are transported secretly to the fight in vans.

Big money can change hands, with tens of thousands of rupees illegally staked on the outcome, often via foreign-based betting syndicates.

North Goa police superintendent Tony Fernandes said they take robust action against offenders if they hear of any fights, conducting raids on tip-offs.

But illegal bullfights are still held, with enthusiasm for the spectacle particularly high in South Goa. Footage of fights has even been posted on the Internet video sharing website YouTube.

For activists like Sawhney, who view bullfighting as a bloodsport, "dhirio" -- like the dangerous bull-wrestling "Jallikattu" now banned in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu -- is a tradition that should not be protected.

There have been reports of bulls having their horns sharpened with broken glass, while the fights themselves can lead to serious injury and a painful death.

"The owners and those running the bulls actually make them consume alcohol or drugs so that they run fast or get in a daze. They have sticks with nails on the end to make them run," she said.

Bull owners reject claims of cruelty, saying they treat the bulls like their own children and at 5,000-10,000 rupees (100-200 dollars) each, fighting them is a way of recouping the cost of keeping the animals.

"I had four bulls but when the bullfights were banned I could not look after them so I sold them off," said Seby Fernandes, a bar and restaurant owner who lives in the South Goa coastal village of Sernabhatim.

"We have an emotional attachment towards the animal not because it is crucial for a win, but because we have been in the bullfighting business for ages."

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