The Jallikattu Protests Are a Sign that New Politics is Possible in Tamil Nadu

Public anger in the state against economic dislocation had been building up and needed a trigger to explode.

While the Supreme Court will resume legal arguments over the fate of jallikattu on Monday, the eruption of widespread popular protests across Tamil Nadu against the ban on the traditional bull-taming sport continues to fascinate – and intrigue –  the media across India. The protesters – students, professionals, women and children – who thronged Marina beach in Chennai, Tiruchirappalli, Madurai and Coimbatore drew the support of not only local Tamils but also those living abroad. So what did these protests signify? And what does it entail for Tamil Nadu politics?

The spontaneity of the protests attests to the stirred collective consciousness of the Tamil community. Of course, the call to protest against the Supreme Court’s ban on jallikattu was given in the name of protecting Tamil culture and identity. But the struggle to protect cultural identity is a subtle manifestation of the larger socio-economic and political malaise afflicting Tamil society today. It appears that the protests were an attempt to salvage the situation brought on by the onslaught of foreign capital and rampant globalisation.

Culture isn’t an isolated, narrow entity confined to linguistic and artistic expressions. It is rather a composite construct encompassing the material conditions that produce it. Any damage to that ecosystem would affect material well-being, which in turn endangers identity, inherent values and cultural heritage. In recent years, the increasing unemployment, falling agricultural yield and continuing political stasis have presented a bleak picture to the Tamils about their future prospects. Popular anger and frustration were simmering due to the lack of an appropriate political alternative to address their grievances. It just needed an outlet. The masses found it in the ban against jallikattu, not only to challenge the unresponsive political system but also to vent their anger against an economic process that they believe is exploiting then and jeopardising their culture and identity. Therefore, the struggle to protect Tamil culture and identity is in fact a safety valve to preserve their own livelihoods.

A protest with a difference?

There was no visible vertical leadership that organised these protests. Exchange of views and venues on social media among various stakeholders as equals created a horizontal structure for the gatherings. The protestors occupied symbolic public spaces such as Marina beach and Allanganallur Vadi Vasal (the Mecca of jallikattu). The notable disruptive element is that most of the protesters were without any political affiliation with mainstream parties and consistently voiced their lack of faith in parliamentary parties in resolving problems.

In addition to the usual forming of human chains, holding placards and shouting slogans, the protests and sit-ins showed a great deal of novelty and defiance of authority. Imaginative memes on social media extolling jallikattu and decrying the authorities were aplenty. When state police officials switched off the street lights at Marina beach to disperse the protesters, thousands of mobile torch lights were switched on to light up the night sky. Many demonstrated their prowess in traditional Tamil martial arts like Silambam, performing in front of the gatherings. In a number of places, protesters broke Coke and Pepsi bottles and carried them on a pall singing an oppari (a mournful song sung at a funeral). Echoing this, a section of traders’ associations in Tamil Nadu reportedly asked their members to stop selling multinational fizzy drinks and mineral water from March 1, 2017. The protests snowballed with film stars, traders, transporters and lawyers joining in to show their solidarity. These protests demonstrate a rupture in Tamil politics, an increased political awareness and understanding of the reasons for their plight among the masses and the courage to articulate their grievances directly, instead of relying on their ineffective representatives. But how did this come about?

Jalikattu as a trigger

Tamil Nadu was one of the earliest states to privatise education and attract investments from multinational corporations following liberalisation. The state managed sectoral growth in IT, automobile, textiles and leather, and became the largest urbanised state with 48.5% of the population living in urban localities. Tamil Nadu was paraded as a successful model for globalisation. Nonetheless, misplaced priorities, ad hoc policies and ubiquitous corruption led to the unequal distribution of wealth and income, although welfare sops were often highlighted as a successful case of distributive justice. But the global recession has exposed the downside of the growth-based model.

According to the Labour Bureau Report, 2013-14, the growth rate of industrial Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) swung between the highest of 28.66% in 2009-10 and negative rate of 1.17% during 2012-13. Further, indiscriminate commercialisaton of education bereft of any quality or adequate vocational training rendered a large number of graduates and trainees unemployable, leaving the pie to the best and brightest. Interestingly, the unemployment rate rose in proportion to educational levels at 13.5% for post-graduates. Besides, about 44% of the workforce is employed as casual labour and 29% as self-employed. The downward spiral of the economy hit them both hard.

On the other, during the 11th Five-Year Plan period of 2007-12, the annual average rate of overall agricultural production in Tamil Nadu declined by 2.37%. Growing water scarcity, increasing land degradation, declining farm size and rising costs of labour have not only made farming unviable, but also a burden. The rural unemployment rate reached 9.4%. Consequently, rural distress became more pronounced. In the past two months, 17 farmer suicides were confirmed in the drought-hit areas. On January 10, 2017, just ahead of the jallikattu protests, the chief minister, O. Panneerselvam, declared all districts of the state drought-hit.

Although successive state governments attempted to mitigate the ill-effects of globalisation on the marginalised, women and those at the economically lower rung of society with competitive welfare policies, they could neither provide gainful employment to the urban populace nor alleviate rural suffering. At the same time, the indifference of the mainstream parties to the tribulations of the masses while engaging in unbounded financial aggrandisement through unlawful means hasn’t gone unnoticed. Finally, the demonetisation drive ripped apart small and micro industries, returning a large number of migrant labourers to their rural homes, which were already experiencing the pain. Public anger only needed a trigger to explode. That was jallikattu.

The popular protests symbolise a new beginning in Tamil Nadu politics. Police coercion did manage to break the rhythm and continuity of the protests. Yet, it was a clear departure from past movements as this one emerged from below, rejecting conventional top-down leadership. Although Tamil Nadu has a history of emancipatory politics, be it the Dravidian movement in the 1930s and 1940s against Brahmin domination or the agitation to challenge the hegemony of Hindi in the 1960s, the recent protests broke new ground in terms of their spontaneity, articulation, organisation and participation. As the aspirations of Tamils remain high, the protests against the banning of jallikattu show a new direction and possibility in Tamil politics.

A.D. Gnanangurunathan is a keen observer of Tamil politics and head of the liberal arts programme at Apeejay Stya University, Sohna, Gurgaon, Haryana.