Jallikattu protests are the outpouring of Tamil Nadu's anguish at being repeatedly slighted

"Chinnamma, Chinnamma, OPS yengamma? (Sasikala, Sasikala, where is O Panneerselvam?)" chanted the crowd at Marina beach in Chennai, mocking the top two of the ruling AIADMK party. The duo can feel thankful that politicians were asked to stay away from the protest by civil society members, because if they did, listening to some of the slogans would have been a rude reality check for Sasikala and Panneerselvam.

"The two conveniently ensured that Panneerselvam is sworn in as chief minister in the dead of night. But they will not do anything for us who are camping throughout the night at the beach," says Uma Maheshwari, a hawker who sells nuts at the beach.

 Jallikattu protests are the outpouring of Tamil Nadus anguish at being repeatedly slighted

Millions throng Chennai's Marina beach to protest the ban on jallikattu. PTI

While on the surface, the uprising is indeed about jallikattu and the demand to revoke a ban on the 2500-year-old bull-taming sport, it would be a mistake to ignore the larger message. Jallikattu is merely the face of this fight, which is actually about Tamil pride and identity. On the ground, the pent-up emotions are mixed up with a larger set of issues. The expression of Tamil anger and anguish, all coming out in public amid strangers, is what is visible on the sands of the Marina.

There is not a single politician at the beach. Some of those who owe allegiance to one political party or the other have set foot minus their flag and political ideology. They are there as Chennaites, as Tamilians, as Indians. "Naan Tamizhan da (I am a Tamilian)," is the dominant cry, a shout-out to the rest of India, that they can ignore the voices by the sea at their own peril.

For the many voices of support, there were also many on social media who dismissed the crowd as a bunch of misguided youth, indulging in pointless mob hysteria. This is the living room view of the Marina and is totally erroneous. Step on to the beach to realise how you've never seen such a large, organised apolitical gathering in recent history. Where everybody is a volunteer, and also a leader.

Which is why, when popular radio jockey Balaji tells people that the jallikattu ordinance was not achieved by the 39 MPs elected from Tamil Nadu but by the lakhs of Tamilians congregating in Chennai and other towns and cities of the state, he finds resonance. The Chennai Spring has rendered the politicians scurrying for cover, unable to fathom how to buy peace with this restless Tamil Nadu.

However, it's true that this was just waiting to happen. It finally boiled over when locals in Alanganallur village in Madurai were arrested for demanding jallikattu. The spontaneous move to make Chennai give expression to Madurai's angst, ignited the spark.

Most agree that the Cauvery river issue was a turning point. The failure of Tamil Nadu to get Karnataka to follow the Supreme Court orders to release water to the lower riparian state reduced its delta to water paupers. Farmers in districts like Karur and Trichy spoke of how humiliating it was to stand before Karnataka and the apex court with a begging bowl in their hands, though the water they demanded was legitimately theirs.

Which is why "we want Cauvery water" is also a slogan that resonates at the Marina today. The most severe drought in Tamil Nadu, resulting in the death of over 100 farmers, many of them committing suicide, is a pain the crowd wants India to see and recognise. Linked to it among the rural folk is a superstition that the monsoon plays truant everytime jallikattu is not organised on Pongal. The Marina today is a cocktail of thoughts and emotions — some rational, some not so.

Tamil Eelam is another emotive issue, with some protesters holding up posters of late LTTE chief V Prabhakaran. One of them is Madhumita, who clarifies she is an Indian Tamil, and explains it by saying Prabhakaran was the last Tamil hero. "We are proud of him. He was the only Tamil who everyone feared. With Narendra Modi trying to impose all non-Tamil things on Tamilians, we will have no option but to go our own way, with a separate Tamil Nadu. This slogan of unity in diversity, fed to us for so many years, means nothing," she says.

Former IAS officer MG Devasahayam says this talk of secession as a dangerous trend. "They feel their Dravidian identity is under onslaught. This is a warning that if it is suppressed, demands for secession will start. It is obvious that people are feeling the hurt," says Devasahayam.

Some of the arguments leave you stumped. One says there is State Bank of Hyderabad, Travancore, Mysore, Patiala, but no State Bank of Chennai or Tamil Nadu. Chennai has decided to exhibit its fault-lines, for all of India to see and hear.

Fishermen have come from Rameshwaram to talk about a brush with possible death every time they venture into the high seas. This flea market of emotional outpouring has given them a platform to articulate risks they face of getting shot by the Sri Lankan Navy. They rub shoulders with people holding placards condemning Pepsi and Coke, as their water consumption is affecting the livelihood of farmers.

Volunteers say that politicians are wrong if they think that this was a one-off protest. "If schools demand hefty donations in April, we will come out on the road again. Do not label this as a protest for jallikattu. This is a struggle for our future. This is the spirit of India," says Balaji.

That has found resonance among many women who are part of the protest. Jayalakshmi, who is at the Marina with her software professional daughter and a toddler granddaughter, says, "We would usually dissuade our sons from being part of such protests. But seeing them today, I am so proud as a mother. I came to support them."

What is admirable about the protest is that it cuts across familiar barriers of religion and gender. The presence of a number of Muslims and Christians is an answer to Right-wingers who want to position the demand for jallikattu as a Hindutva uprising. Joel, a teacher who has been volunteering says, "This is the beginning of change, we will redefine politics."

Actor Kamal Haasan refers to the youth not as students but as teachers. He is right in a way, because this week has seen the grammar of protest being redefined in India. It has shown that Mahatma Gandhi is still relevant and that non-violence is a powerful tool even in 21st century India.

But there is a flipside to such a public protest, armed with support on social media, tasting success and so soon. This will become a precedent to put pressure on the executive and judiciary. If the organised administrative structure does not want to be bent by street activism, it will have to wake up and smell the Madras filter coffee. This week, it has been served strong, bitter, and sans milk and sugar.

Updated Date: Jan 21, 2017 15:37:57 IST