Jallikattu row: Tamil Nadu's anger over long gestating grievances is coming out

Faced with the recent large-scale protests across Tamil Nadu over the ban on jallikattu, the Narendra Modi government has finally endorsed an Ordinance sponsored by the state government. Making an exception for bulls in the Prevention of Animal Cruelty Act, the Ordinance sanctions holding the sport, which is traditional in the culture of Tamil Nadu.

The immediate crisis may have been partially resolved but the cultural fault lines remain as challenging and strong as before. The massive protests have shown the remarkable extent to which local culture still continues to shape the imagination of people at large. Popular outrage at the potential banning of the sport shows that the perception of an outside agency tampering with, or slighting local identities is not something people are willing to accept with equanimity. The continuing tussle between tradition and modernity remains deeply fraught.

Many may consider the anger over the jallikattu ban to be an oddity, a sentiment out of sync with the culture and modernity of the globalised 21st century world we inhabit. However, the depth and extent of popular rage — with thousands spilling out on the streets of Chennai — flies in the face of such a simplistic interpretation of events.

 Jallikattu row: Tamil Nadus anger over long gestating grievances is coming out

Students protesting to lift the ban on Jallikattu. PTI

The immediate reason behind this surge of public discontent is the belief that the government is infringing on local culture and that authorities are taking away people’s right to celebrate a sport traditionally held during the harvest season of pongal. But that’s not the only reason stoking the anger.

There seem to be several other layers woven into the fabric of these protests, layers that suggest a reservoir of discontent. The preservation of local and cultural identity is just one provocation that has served as an outlet to more long term accumulated popular anger. The grievances, as listed by protesters themselves are varied, ranging from neglect of farmers, government high-handedness and arrogance, to corruption.

Consider in this context, The Indian Express report: “Others (protesters) agreed that the ban on Jallikattu was just the trigger behind the spontaneous protests.” It also quoted Chandra Mohan, a filmmaker-turned-anti-corruption activist, as saying that the “frustration among the people was building for some time.” The protesters, the filmmaker claimed, wanted to send a message to the top that they cannot snatch away the “rights that are a part and parcel of farmers.”

Clearly, the jallikattu ban has brought to the fore a whole set of other long gestating grievances, which go beyond the immediate event. On the protesters’ list of grievances are the protracted struggle against the civil nuclear plant at Kudankulam, the recent push towards demonetisation, the central government’s deliberate slighting of regional sentiments, and the like.

The feeling that big brother is riding roughshod over Tamilian pride and regional sentiment appears to be widespread. The discourse around tensions between the Centre vs states, and regional vs federal structures — so often fanned by regional political parties — have had a significant role to play in accentuating local/parochial sentiments.

Despite claims to the contrary, the furore around the jallikattu ban is testimony to the reality that regional pride and identity continue to be issues that are as emotive today as they were a decade ago. In fact, it may even be suggested that over the last decade or so instead of receding, sentiments of regional pride – local asmita – have acquired new dimensions.

The present day celebration of jallikutta, according to an editorial in The Hindu, is vastly different in form from the traditional form the sport took in the past: “… whatever the views of the youth taking part in the demonstration, jallikattu in its present form is of relatively recent origin, intended to make bulls run amok for the sake of spectacle. Instead of the traditional form of one man against one animal, latter-day jallikattu is a mass-participant ritual of hundreds of men chasing a bull and trying to hold on to its hump or stop it by pulling at or twisting its tail.”

As the desire and demand for spectacle has gained ground, so has a sense of popular disaffection with authorities. In the direct line of fire is the government, often both at the Centre and in the state. It’s by now established that people’s distrust of political parties is at an all-time high. This is the reason why voters are turning more and more towards ‘outsiders’ who challenge business as usual.

Large scale cynicism with the conventional political system has paved the ground for spontaneous popular upsurge. What is noteworthy in all such cases is the cross-section of people who participate in these movements. Such incidents of resistance, whether over a court order, land acquisition, or the installation of unwanted industries, are increasing every day.

In this context, the diverse people participating in the Tamil Nadu protests bring to mind the spontaneous and equally diverse character of the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in 2011. Even then, Hazare’s call to end corruption had opened up the floodgates of pent-up popular anger.

Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 10:33:31 IST