In January, Tamil Nadu was in what looked like a full blown crisis over the danger to its essential identity because two years had passed since the crown jewel of its communal expression, jallikattu, was banned by an unfeeling Supreme Court. Virtually every street corner in Chennai had large banners, small but vocal crowds and a silent bovine, the symbol of their protest against cultural deprivation.

Jallikattu is a man’s sport, a rustic trial of strength that pits an assorted gaggle of men against a bull, the Bos indicus, which they are supposed to tame by grabbing the hump on its back. It is without doubt an ancient sport, mentioned in Sangam literature. So it could have been a part of the Pongal celebrations as long ago as 400 B.C. To put this into perspective, the Maurya Empire dates back to around 300 BC.

That is a long tradition, but it is worth noting that bull taming in the state did not advance beyond the “Mullai” region, which has Madurai at the centre. Even today, the sport is a rite of passage for young men in just a handful of southern districts, including Madurai, after the Pongal harvest. You don’t hear of jallikattu in Tiruvallur or Vellore districts, for instance. Nor did it cross the boundary from seasonal harvest sport to formalised death ritual, or indispensable cultural icon, like bullfighting in Spain where the nobility and royalty dominated the system until about the 18th century. There is a tableau of a man taking a bull by the horns, apparently commissioned by Serfoji II (1777-1832) of Thanjavur, but little other evidence of patronage either by the rulers of Thanjavur or the princes of Arcot.

Obviously, none of that was on the minds of the protesters in January who marched in unprecedented numbers across the state in a leaderless outbreak that drew comparison with the anti-Hindi protests of the 1960s. The Marina in Chennai was host to tens of thousands of mostly young men from various parts of the state for nearly one week. They were both disciplined and focused and it was only in the end that there was trouble when police asked them to leave. When their demands were conceded the show was over and everyone went home quietly. Jallikattu had been saved for the moment and there was no need to hang around.

The Supreme Court’s intervention was on humanitarian grounds after a petition by animal lovers that the fighting bulls were subjected to severe trauma, the same sentiment against cruelty that banned bull baiting, bear baiting and cock fighting across Europe or fox hunting in Britain. Bull fighting, however, continues in Spain though some regional governments have banned it even there. Here in Tamil Nadu all such empathy for our dumb cousins was swamped by the alarm over cultural assimilation and the extinction of a tradition that dated to the Sangam Age, even in districts that had never seen a jallkattu performance.

There was an economic rationale in the days before technology, for draught and milch animals, as the biggest and strongest bulls would have prevailed in these contests, providing invaluable breeding stock.  But automobiles and artificial insemination have made the bull unnecessary to the dairy industry. Dairy farmers prefer high-yielding milch cows for obvious reasons and artificial insemination has led to a proliferation of mainly European hybrids. That said, it must be added that the real hero of the white revolution is the buffalo but few have sentiment to spare for this most hard working of animals.

In practical terms, therefore, the main appeal of a jallikattu performance is sentimental, a harking back to roots and old certainties. That is a bit like the attachment to the cow dung economy, which made sense in a time when there was no cheap alternative for fuel, fertiliser or disinfectant. Now, of course, we also have cow’s urine for whose allegedly miraculous curative properties a case is being made out in various laboratories across the country. Whether jallikattu or bovine excretions, the attachment seems to be a matter of faith rather than following the evidence.

That partially explains the smaller roadside demonstrations in Chennai manned by local people, men and children mostly. Whenever I passed them on the way to some place I would wonder at the commitment that brought them out so steadfastly and without fail. Especially as most of the animals I saw were cows not bulls, and they were not local breeds but Jersey or Holstein hybrids.

An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still be fully functional. The American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald said that, though why he should single out artists is unclear. A great many of us can lay claim to that same distinction. Perhaps that means the world has more artists than we ever suspected. Some of the higher judiciary certainly qualify for the title.

On February 28, 2014, a two-judge bench of the Kerala High Court delivered a judgment on a petition of habeas corpus by a doctor whose fiancée was being held against her will by her father. The old man disapproved of their relationship and the decision to get married. Both were qualified doctors, which meant they would have been in the late twenties.

The judges accepted that the woman was an adult of sound mind and “the detenue was produced before us and we interacted with the detenue… she confirmed her love affair with the petitioner and also told us that it is her firm decision to get married to the petitioner. She also told us that in order to force her to withdraw from the relationship, for the last three months, she was kept in confinement without allowing her to continue the employment and even refusing to give the mobile phone… She also told us that all these facilities will be restored only if she agrees for a marriage with somebody else, which was not acceptable to her.” In commonsense terms, the court admitted that the woman was confined against her will.

Having conceded all the points of the petitioner’s claim, the court then made a u-turn saying: “We cannot accept as a general principle that the parents are in all circumstances, bound to concede absolute decisional autonomy to their children, even if they have attained majority and remain helpless even in situations where their wards have taken wrong and immature decisions, which will be disastrous not only to the wards themselves but also to the family itself... It may be to the dislike of the ward who may resist it and even turn hostile… But such immature reactions should not be allowed to influence our judgment, since the ultimate aim and purpose is the welfare of the ward.”

In India a person is considered mature enough at 18 to vote in an election. So you are perfectly capable of deciding the future of the nation through your franchise but you can’t decide your own future if your parents say no. No court has ever rejected an 18-year-old’s vote on grounds of immaturity, and if you commit a crime as an adult no court is going to let you go because your parents were irresponsible. But where a woman’s choice of husband is concerned parents have both duties and rights.  Judges are supposed to be a fount of reason, making their case against the backdrop of constitutional rights but there is an air of arbitrariness about this argument.

Even more interesting is the case of the Rajasthan High Court judge whose May 31 order recommended that the cow be declared the national animal and declared that “no crime is more heinous than cow slaughter”. Even the murder of a fellow human, we must presume, is not so unforgivable. But the most startling claim in his ode to the cow is that “Cow is the only animal that exhales oxygen”. The scientific fact is that only plants produce oxygen. Indeed, cows and related species are among the culprits in global warming on account of the methane they release when they fart. Scientists have described some of the claims by the judge as “lies peddled as science inspired by ancient knowledge on modern Internet”.

We have then two pronouncements by high government functionaries who represent the awesome majesty of the law. But the process by which they arrive at their conclusions can only loosely be described as rational, with unsubstantiated claims masquerading as fact.

So the 139-page order contains some claims that are dubious and others that are demonstrably false. To stress the point again, this is supposed to be a judgment, not a document hastily stapled together by the cut-and-paste-from-Internet approach. The latter is precisely what it seems to be, however, dictated by personal belief rather than rational process.

We have then two pronouncements by high government functionaries who represent the awesome majesty of the law. But the process by which they arrive at their conclusions can only loosely be described as rational, with unsubstantiated claims masquerading as fact. By following their prejudices they have reduced the law to Alice’s parody of “sentence first verdict afterwards”.

At the same time, it is entirely possible that these people are capable of discernment and balance in cases where emotion is not involved, as in the right to control the lives of their children or to exalt the cow above all else. Maybe they can resolve the contradiction between patriarchy and individual rights and remain functional. But it is harder to see how a scrupulous person can justify a conclusion based on fantasy. At this point you wonder how many judgments would pass the test of constitutional rationality. As these specific judges were selected by the Collegium it raises some questions about that system as well. But the biggest question that we face is if our most educated, cultured minds operate like this in their professional capacity, why should we expect better from the less endowed?

The fashion these days is to sneer at “left liberal secular radicals” as libtards, sickulars, aaptards, and so on. And this tribe sneers right back at the “Khaki Shorts” (now trousers), the saffron fraternity, the “kamandal carriers”, and so forth. It seems the two cannot ever have anything in common but appearances might be deceptive. For one thing, the last two decades have seen, for various reasons, a steady erosion of the secular as defined at independence. That has affected viewpoints across the board except for the most diehard. The overwhelming consensus is that the centre has moved rightwards and that the right has become even more extreme. It appears many of us have sufficiently adjusted our liberal sympathies to form a closer bond with our religious communities, and for the generation born into this ferment that orientation comes naturally.

Railing at the market economy or flogging the socialist way is one thing but we don’t slang our gods. Most of us have a relation, want one, however ambivalent, with the divine. It could make us reluctant to confront religious agendas head-on and even make us susceptible at some level to their appeal. These hesitations, one part upbringing, one part superstition and one part reluctance to offend believers, are perceived as weaknesses and encourage the acolytes of these agendas to keep plugging away, forcing compromises and pushing the resistance into a corner, using small victories to win bigger ones until they have the stage. Almost invariably, the loudest voice drowns out the others.

It’s become normal for many of us to regard India as a state that is Hindu in all but name. And so we have increasingly stringent bans on cow slaughter and beef eating, state shelters for aged cows, vigilantes operating under police cover to unearth violators of the ban and unleashing their own brand of justice at time, even committing murder. The one thing that is never mentioned is the bull, which seems to be on one’s radar. Cow protection has tacit and sometimes open judicial sanction, and it is popular with the public. But it isn’t the end of the road, as more than one Union and state minister has called for India to become a vegetarian state. At that point we will be a Hindu state as defined by the purists protected by the constitutional fig leaf of secularity.  But there seems to be something else hiding under this excess of cow worship.

The underlying theme, the dog whistle, to put it another way, seems to be to hurt Muslims, the largest minority in the country. They eat beef, which is being banned in an increasing number of states. They trade in cattle and dominate the beef export market (mainly buffalo meat) and have a large share of the tanneries and leather goods industries, all of which have been seriously affected by the cascading bans. These are precisely the things that offend Hindu sensibilities so while it may be just a coincidence that it is happening with the National Democratic Alliance government in power at the Centre and several major states, no one believes it. Indeed Bharatiya Janata Party triumphalism is the single reason for the growing conviction that both cow protection and beef bans are a stick with which to beat Muslims. This is a moment of schadenfreude for those who are suspicious of Muslims. It probably includes the majority of non-Muslims.

Muslims in India are damned by their history. In the last 800 years they have ruled vast swathes of the subcontinent, apart from some brief interruptions. They began to decline in the 18th century and 150 years later had faded away except on the fringes, in Afghanistan, where they retained power at the pleasure of the British. But those eight centuries were a royal procession of prestige, power, glory and the grace of the Almighty, when they were lords of everything from horizon to horizon. But local accounts tell a story of unremitting oppression and misery brought on by the fact of their differences in faith. Many of us see what is happening today as turnabout, a small measure of karmic justice. That it should be visited on people who are essentially innocent is of little consequence. They have become for many of us an abstract symbol of the centuries-long injustice suffered by Hindus everywhere. For that reason a significant minority among us feels that the mere fact they are Muslim is enough. To such people the idea of the secular is an obscenity, much like the opinion of American right-wingers about progressive liberals.

This is not, however, about the persecutions of innocents for the crimes of their forefathers as much as it is about the historical narrative. No one denies the fact of Muslim hegemony but there are unanswered questions about how it worked out. One point that stands out is the relative failure of missionary activity. Muslim rulers dominated the subcontinent for some eight centuries but only a minority of the population converted to Islam. By contrast, the missionaries who reached Java and Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago around the 13th century were more successful. The population at the time was Hindu, Buddhist or animist. Within 300 years the major part of the archipelago professed Islam, spread by the word, not the sword. Bali was the only holdout in the western islands; it remains mostly Hindu today.

Muslim rulers dominated India for a much longer period but failed to move the majority, whether by word or sword. It is possible that they were never too zealous about proselytisation or that they left their Hindu subjects alone for the major part. There was an economic motive as well. Non-Muslims had to pay the jiziya to be allowed to live in peace. Again, it is possible that the thought of a large tax to be collected overrode their religious fervor. So while the oppressions visited upon Hindu populations are true enough, there is more to the picture than is apparent at first glance.

The 1941 colonial census shows two Muslim-majority provinces in British India, Punjab and Bengal. In undivided Punjab, including the princely states the census showed 53 per cent Muslims, 30 per cent Hindus, 14.6 per cent Sikhs and the rest Christians and others. Muslims, therefore, were a bare majority despite the fact that it was the highway for all conquerors entering India, Afghan, Turk or Persian, all Muslims. In Bengal the census shows 53.4 per cent Muslims, 41.5 per cent Hindus and 4.8 per cent other. For whatever reason, the dominance was far from total, though there is no doubt who was the master before the British advent. A more complete history might show a society like Moorish Spain rather than Taliban-led Afghanistan.

At this point, of course, our desire to believe a thing is no longer the only decisive factor. It is the power of repetition, of dominating the speaking space. 

But the master narrative of relentless religious oppression and forcible conversion is the ruling convention and, for the moment, impossible to change as the dominant parties are using it for electoral reengineering to produce a new consolidation. Muslim baiting has proved invaluable in expanding the support base to the lower castes and Dalits. It even won them Uttar Pradesh in the recent Assembly elections. In this respect at least, the factual doesn’t stand a chance against the fictional.

The truth doesn’t matter as much as the ability to make your story the only one. The beef ban is a prime example. It is presented as a religious imperative, as the Rajasthan judge did, and you can add any number of unattested claims to strengthen the main thesis. So the cow exhales oxygen, the dust it raises while returning home from pasture is full of positive energy (whatever that means), its milk promotes sattvic qualities and its urine can cure disease. That is so many good and practical reasons (apart from its sacral status) to take special care of the cow. Any and every sort of claim is lumped together in a privileged discourse because it is essentially religious and you can’t offend such sentiment. If you do and start to enumerate the many ways in which the ban is bad for a certain community in terms of diet, health, jobs and business, that just proves your “libtard and sickular” nature and you deserve all that happens to you. It’s a classic case of inducement and threat, a time-tested version of the good cop bad cop routine. For the converted it’s the endorsements, for the doubters it’s the fear of what may happen.

At this point, of course, our desire to believe a thing is no longer the only decisive factor. It is the power of repetition, of dominating the speaking space. Radio and television are extremely powerful mediums but their architecture is institutional. This is where the Internet has provided the breakthrough. It is a tool of unprecedented power, allowing the user to reach small focus groups or large undifferentiated populations, through audio, video or text. It is the force multiplier without equal, especially for political messaging and allied with radio and TV it is virtually unbeatable.

But the underlying assumption in this exercise is that we’re ready to be persuaded in the first place. Turning half-truth into experienced reality requires a willingness to believe, like the professional wrestling performances that are presented as bouts. There is a small hardcore fan base that prefers not to notice the staging and looks at these ballets as real fights but many devotees watch these affairs even though they are aware of the deception.

It was Joseph Goebbels who said that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” He forgot to add that it needs a willing heart. For many Germans of his time the mythical “stab in the back” and the “November Criminals” were a reality, a convenient fiction to explain the military’s failure to win World War I, as was the fable of Jewish villainy. What his propaganda machine did was to amplify them to a point where they became the only story, aided and abetted by the state.

The second part of this quote is more interesting because he so clearly saw the limits of fabrication. “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

The next time you come across a comment like anti-national or libtard you might want to check out what they are talking about, and try to look for the facts to judge for yourself. It is the one way to ensure that you’re not letting yourself be seduced into a state of lived reality.