Nandini, an 18-year-old Dalit girl, was gangraped and brutally murdered by her estranged lover belonging to the dominant Vanniyar (MBC) caste in Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu. Her decomposed body was found after 16 days on January 14, 2017. The incident did not receive much media attention or give rise to public protest, as is common when an issue is associated with a dominant caste in the state. This brutal violence against women, showcasing the patriarchal masculinity of the dominant caste, happened at the same time when lakhs of young men were protesting for the ban on jallikattu to be lifted.
The jallikattu protest was a very significant movement in contemporary Tamil society; it brought together men and women from diverse background who organised themselves against the political establishment at the Centre and state level. Even though the agenda of the protest was linked to ‘Tamil culture’, the underpinning of this “monoculture”, as projected by the protestors, needs to be questioned critically to democratise the agenda including diverse issues related to such culture. Such glorification of “monoculture” seems to be the forte of right-wing forces, which has resulted in various forms of violence and oppression everywhere in the world. The jallikattu debate is also divided over Tamil culture and animal rights, ignoring or overriding the contradictions of such cultural practices.
Culture, patriarchy and casteism
Patriarchy is a functional component in Indian culture, including Tamil culture, due to its emergence from a mode of production which has gendered and casteist divisions of labour. The family as a social institution has been nurtured with the basic values of the gendered division of labour, where women’s value and respect is confined in their procreational capability. Men, in turn, are meant to protect and control women’s sexuality with physical valour and masculinity.
Jallikattu, which was earlier played to showcase masculinity and win over the female ‘prize’, has changed over time. Patriarchal values were not up for question, with little opportunity for women to challenge them. The masculine display during the sport continued into everyday life as well, as a show of authority over women and ‘lower’ caste people.
While the nature of jallikattu has changed, the patriarchal value system which forms its foundation still remains. Tamil cultural values continue to revolve around the sexuality of women and how to control this within caste boundaries. Swearwords in Tamil, as in every other language, reflect how a woman’s sexuality is a man’s pride; to insult a man, the sexuality of the women seen to be under his control is abused or violated, rather than the man himself.
The pride that jallikattu evokes is clearly associated with people from a particular dominant caste, who are often at the forefront of violence against Dalit men and women. Dalit women face even more of the burden, as the Brahminical caste system does not accord them with the ‘purity’ it gives ‘upper’ caste women. According to V. Geeta, a feminist critical thinker, the sexual purity of ‘upper’ caste women is associated with idea of caste purity. ‘Lower’ caste women are then not expected to be submissive wives, as their caste status is seen to deny them their sexual ‘purity’. This gives ‘upper’ caste men more masculine power to rape, even kill, ‘lower’ caste women, which is quite prevalent in Tamil Nadu. At the same time, when Dalit men try to negotiate or violate traditional kinship rules, the consequences are often lethal, as is witnessed in Tamil Nadu regularly.
Take for instance the “honour” killing of Vimala Devi, belonging to the Thevar (BC) community, who was in love with a Dalit man, an incident that occurred in 2014 in Usilampatti (near Madurai). The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front took up the issue. The case showed how casteist patriarchy consumes the life of man or woman whenever ‘lower’ caste men violate caste rules. The brutal murder of 22-year-old Dalit engineer Shankar after his marriage with Kausalya (belonging to the Thevar community) in Udumalaipettai in 2016 further reaffirms the punishment for violation of caste rules by Dalits of Tamil Nadu. Since June 2013, there have been more than 80 “honour” killings in the state based on caste. An uncritical acceptance of jallikattu, which showcases casteist masculinity in southern districts, will further empower patriarchal, casteist attitudes.
As B.R. Ambedkar said, endogamy is the basic foundation for sustaining the caste system. Endogamy not only signifies same-caste marriages, but also shows how the sexuality of women is controlled by men for an uninterrupted caste-based patriliny to continue. Revolutionary leaders like Periyar propagated inter-caste marriages to confront casteism in Tamil Nadu, but once Periyar’s movement fell into electoral politics, caste divisions were consolidated in the process of accessing political power. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS III, 2005-2006), same-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu account for 97.04% of all marriages, which is much higher than the national average of 89.04%. Inter-caste marriages were only 2.96% of the total sample. This sample study may not reflect the real situation, but it does indicate a trend in inter-caste marriages in Tamil Nadu. The percentage of same-caste marriages is highest for Tamil Nadu in India. Such deeply entrenched endogamy and continued “honour” killings show the patriarchal cultural values and practices prevalent, to which jallikattu directly or indirectly adds flavour.
The jallikattu protest, devoid of all cultural context and projecting an oxymoronic monoculture, does not carry any political potentiality for major social transformation in Tamil society. Mere glorification of a sport as culturally iconic, conveniently ignoring the multiple contradictions which form the foundation of it, will only aggravate social divisions and the violence associated with them. The protest, which included all sections of the population, ought to have brought out the issues of all rather than toe the line of casteist masculinities. “Honour” killing, caste discrimination, violence against women, farmers’ suicides, inequality, exploitation and other issues, which have a direct or indirect cultural impact, should be a part of the jallikattu struggle to create an egalitarian Tamil society.
S.V. Narayanan is an independent policy analyst.