Jallikattu row: Protests in Tamil Nadu are not to stage bull-fights, but to safeguard cultural autonomy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have saved himself from a difficult situation citing that the issue of jallikattu is sub-judice, but for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam who was forced to visit New Delhi because of swelling crowds in Chennai’s Marina beach and several other places in the state, it would be a terrible loss of face and unending trouble.

For Modi, it’s one of those local issues where the law, or rather a nationwide court ruling, is in conflict with what people want, but for Panneerselvam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), it’s a gross inability to uphold a cultural practice that has a volatile emotional value to people. For an average Tamil, jallikkattu is not a simple rural sport, but a symbol of his/her unique cultural nationalism.

 Jallikattu row: Protests in Tamil Nadu are not to stage bull-fights, but to safeguard cultural autonomy

Youngsters and students during a protest to lift the ban on Jallikattu at Marina Beach in Chennai on Wednesday. PTI

Had it been just the love for a sport played once a year in some rural pockets of the state, tens of thousands of people wouldn’t have poured on to the streets demanding an ordinance to neutralise the Supreme Court Court ban. When they are told that a practice that’s closely identified with their nationalism is illegal, they find it an assault on their identity. And, as it has happened earlier, such a threat often comes with the fear of invasion, compromise of sovereignty and loss of ethnic pride.

The composition of the agitating crowds in Chennai's Marina Beach, Coimbatore and elsewhere in the state has the tell-tale signs of the rationale behind the protest. It’s not farmers or their children that are protesting, but people from diverse walks of life — students, professionals, unemployed youth, Tamil activists, politicians, film actors and so son. Although in terms of scale this is much bigger, such eruptions had happened whenever the people of Tamil Nadu felt that their cultural identity had been slighted.

Issues like the refusal of Karnataka government to release the Cauvery water, Kerala's threat of controlling the Mullapperiyar dam, or the Centre having friendly ties with the Sinhala majority government when ethnic Tamils were being killed in the north and the east of Sri Lanka genuinely affected the Tamils. But what angers them more is the hint that their interest had been overlooked, that their voice had been ignored, and that their cultural sovereignty hadn’t been respected. The groups of people who came to the streets on such occasions in the past were similar to the pro-jallikkattu protesters. They have always been heterogeneous. They never needed a political call or even a social media mobilisation to spontaneously swell. Strange enough, they may not even attend a jallikkattu.

In fact, the anti-Hindi agitations of the 1930s, 1940s and the 1960s were no different from the present protests. More than the hatred towards Hindi, it was the audacity of the decision to impose it, which meant a clear denial of the Tamils’ right to choose their language, that brought people together in the 1930s, when then chief minister of Madras Presidency C Rajagopalachari tried to make Hindi a compulsory subject in 125 schools. It was repeated in the 1940s when another Congress government in the Presidency revived the imposition; and also in the 1960s, when the Centre tried to make Hindi the sole official language.

Although many states protested against the imposition of Hindi in 1964, it was in Tamil Nadu where the agitation was the most violent. In fact, the nature of the agitating crowd was similar to what the state is witnessing now — students, workers, actors etc. Two students even burned themselves to death and the protest was so fierce that the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had to assure people that there would be no imposition of Hindi.

The aetiology of the politics of Tamil cultural nationalism is pretty old and dates back to the years of Justice Party, the Self-Respect Movement, Dravidian ideology and anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindi, anti-North sentiments. It has been an integral part, or rather a summary, of the state’s electoral politics as well. Interestingly, it’s this element of sub-nationalism that’s keeping religious nationalism at bay. This identity and the ongoing protest militates against the nationalism that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) represents. Therefore, Modi’s refusal to pass an ordinance or the BJP’s apathy towards the cause in the state, while other political parties — including the Congress — are competing with each another to join the cause, is not surprising.

Although many states nurture ideas of cultural sovereignty and autonomy, historically it has been strong in Tamil Nadu. As Adam Ziegfeld noted in his essay on Tamil Nadu (Rutledge Handbook of Indian Politics), a 2004 national election study showed that "more than 90 percent of the respondents in Tamil Nadu agreed with the statement that people should be loyal to their region before their country — more than in any other major state in India". The demand for autonomy from the Indian state was part of the Dravidian politics till the 1960s and although it died down subsequently and had been more or less rendered meaningless by globalisation and economic liberalisation, the cultural undercurrents are always active. Every time the age-old idea of autonomy, howsoever notional it is, or the cultural identity gets challenged, these undercurrents surface.

In a culturally diverse country such as India, it’s only natural that common laws and policies that do not acknowledge the cultural or linguistic heterogeneity of its people face resistance. In fact, Dr BR Ambekar had made a very interesting point in his Thoughts on Linguistic States. He said: "The road between independent nationality and independent state is very narrow."

This is where political sagacity has a role. The realm of arbitration should be politics and the legislature, and not courts.

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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2017 08:36:25 IST