Jallikattu protests: Tamil identity has been a deep fault-line for at least half a century

Kashmiri separatism is generally seen as the fault line with the most potential to split India. In fact, the Khalistan-related Punjab militancy was probably more fierce than the Kashmiri militancy of the 1990s.

One factor that gave those movements great salience in the public consciousness is that both are based on religion - the identity paradigm that has already split the country once - accompanied by horrific genocides.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

Most of us tend to take language-based fault lines less seriously. We forget rather too easily that a third identity fault line has threatened the integrity of India with great intensity — the Tamil identity consciousness.

Anti-Hindi agitations between 1965 and 1968 had caused terrible destruction and deaths. It was a nail-biting time for the country’s rulers and strategists. Tamil politics came to a boil again in the late 1980s, although the epicentre was in Sri Lanka this time.

The extent to which that movement and that period threatened India’s national integrity is a largely unreported story. It took the life of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi even more awfully than the Sikh movement took the life of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In this light, there is every reason to tread with caution as an ostensibly non-political issue has galvanised Tamil identity consciousness with the rapidity and intensity of a whirlwind. The extent to which the jallikattu issue has united Tamils across caste, religion and political divides should give us pause.

As in other such movements, several layers of resentment and anger might lurk beneath the surface. For instance, not only the Cauvery waters issue, the sense that the political establishment may have been hijacked over the past few months could possibly be at play. All the more reason to tread carefully.

Whatever the underlying currents, one would be foolish to ignore the significance of a Vishwanathan Anand, world-renowned chess champion, defending Jallikattu as a 'cultural tradition':

It would be equally foolish to ignore the significance of that other international celebrity, AR Rahman, getting ready to undertake a fast for 'the spirit of Tamil Nadu.' No one in their right mind could doubt the commitment to Indian national integrity of either of those very talented and insightful celebrities.

The last thing one would want is for self-immolation protests to begin. It has been known to get out of hand quite quickly during agitations in Tamil Nadu.

Cultural context

There is no doubt that animal rights must be protected. It is the sign of a civilised society. The converse must be borne in mind, however. Through history, blood sport — and other sorts of power — play, including gender domination — have been the norm in various societies in various ways.

Bull fights, for example, were considered high entertainment in certain communities even within Jammu and Kashmir a couple of generations ago. They still are in Spain. Cock fights too are a popular, sometimes clandestine, sport in some parts of the world — including parts of India.

I have recorded narratives of how Nehru asked for a bull fight that had been organised in his honour in 1953 at Sonamarg to be stopped, but did it with polite finesse without hurting culturally shaped sentiments.

He had the sagacity to see that cultural norms that are now considered 'civilised' have evolved within a certain economic framework. Not only does that framework have more salience in certain regions than others, the success of Brexit and Donald Trump over the past few months indicates that it is under siege in those very places.

Only the naive and foolish would be oblivious to the extent to which alternative cultural frames have gained mind-space over the past quarter century, and the rapidity with which those fames are gaining political ground across the world.

This is a time for Nehruvian civility, tolerance and gentle persuasion rather than a bull-headed confrontation.

Published Date: Jan 20, 2017 11:14 AM | Updated Date: Jan 20, 2017 11:14 AM

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