More than Reclaiming a Rural Sport, the Jallikattu Protest is Symbol of Tamil Self-Assertion

The mass protests at Marina beach were about fulfilling the aspirations of the people and restoring the self-esteem of the Tamils.

Jallikattu became a cultural symbol that triggered the protests on Marina beach. Credit: AP/Files

Jallikattu became a cultural symbol that triggered the protests on Marina beach. Credit: AP/Files

Padmavathy is a 21-year-old working with the IT industry. She hails from a small town near Madurai and migrated to the city for employment. On the morning of January 19, she begged off from work, and with a group of her colleagues, headed off to Marina beach, the iconic seashore of Chennai.

She had heard that the motley protest seeking to reclaim Tamil Nadu’s most popular rural sport, Jallikattu, had now escalated into a larger, heavily-charged movement and she wanted to be a part of it.

Why do you support Jallikattu? I asked her. With extraordinary clarity, she said that Pongal is the one festival, and Jallikattu, the one sport played during the festival, that took her back to her roots once a year. For the rest of the year, she was away from home, working as a migrant, in a culturally disconnected industry – IT.

“But don’t misunderstand, I enjoy my job,” she hastily added. “Isn’t it a sport about machismo that hurts the bull?” I asked. Throwing political correctness to the wind, she said, “I don’t have a problem with females in short skirts and I don’t have a problem with this guy-sport once a year.” Moreover, she said, the rules of the game do not intend for the bull to be hurt. She didn’t stop there. She went on to comment about the status of farmers, the insidiousness of multinationals and the destructive agendas of politicians. Even as she was entertaining my persistent line of inquiry, she nudged a man not to litter the beach and handed out bottles of water to fellow protestors. It was hard to comprehend this energy, but also hard to believe that this young lady would want to hurt any creature at all.

Perhaps this is the essence of the epic Marina mega-mobilisation of January 2017 that mainstream discourse has not been able to wrap its head around. The mainstream national media, which rarely features even the farmer and the agricultural sector in its prime time, struggled to get a fix on the pronunciation of this common sport that it was alien to, calling it jelly-cut, Jolly-cut, Jaalikaatoo and their variations.

“History tells us that cultural symbols have been the most powerful catalysts of mass mobilisations,” says professor M. D. Muthukumaraswamy, the director of National Folklore Support Centre. “But an inflexion point such as this cannot happen because of one sport. It is the accumulated frustration and suppressed aspirations of the people that have come home to roost”.

The professor, who has spent decades researching folklore in the interiors of Tamil Nadu, added that “You cannot do socio-cultural engineering through centralised lawmaking. Systemic change can only be effected through sustained engagement with grassroots communities.”

In order to make sense of this phenomenon now christened as the Tamil makkal movement (Tamil people’s movement), let’s rewind to December 2015. Chennai witnessed the worst floods in nearly a hundred years. As the water rose, Chennai began to panic at the state’s inaction to salvage the city. As the city looked like it was about to sink, communication channels broke down between the government and its people.

The rest of the country, including the national media, pretended that Tamil Nadu did not exist. Overnight, Chennaiites walked, waded and swam into their streets to be there for each other and it turned into one of the most historic events of self-propelled human resource mobilisation, and it didn’t stop there.

For the first time in the era of the two mass leaders – Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa – the people openly criticised their government without fear. So much so that out of fear of becoming irrelevant to her people, the then chief minister issued a public apology pleading for forgiveness. More importantly, murmurs about the state’s inaction on several other issues ailing Tamil Nadu also began to resonate. The people of Tamil Nadu unanimously agreed that the floods were largely caused by the anti-environmental model of ‘development’. Since this awakening, a time bomb has been waiting to be triggered.

Sure enough, a year later, the bomb exploded. In the state’s biggest harvest festival Pongal, when Jallikattu is the primary festival sport, a sullen rural Tamil Nadu went sport-less for the most part. But a few who defied its judicial ban set off a state-people confrontation, and the rest became history on Marina beach.

A few tens of students who congregated on the beach on January 16 became a few hundreds the next day and a few thousands the next. By January 18, the Jallikattu protest had seized the imagination of every child, adult and the elderly. Farmers, corporate professionals, students educationists, all were at the Marina.

The immediate cry of the Tamil makkal movement was to reclaim its rural sport, Jallikattu. The new national divide was the pro-Jallikattu groups who were pretty much a majority of the Tamils across the world and the anti-animal cruelty constituency, which was the rest of India.

Some Tamils try to reconcile these two positions by pledging that “Pro-Jallikattu is not anti-animal and anti-Jallikattu are not anti-Tamil”. The complexity of the discourse will be unpacked in the future. Jallikattu as the symbol of the protest will continue to be problematised and contested and will have to be reinvented to flourish as a compassionate rural sport. But it may be difficult to do away with it in a context where disenfranchisement is already having a ripple effect on the collective psyche of rural India.

More importantly, other issues have also begun to receive attention. The Tamil Nadu drought crisis, the Cauvery water issue, the fisherman’s issues and corporate invasion were among those flagged at the four-day uprising. Videos of protesters breaking and throwing cola bottles and asking people to boycott these multinationals went viral on social media. Banners condemning the neglect of farmers were held high. The cathartic energy also saw some unsavoury sloganeering, but that was overwhelmed by the creativity and poetry of the Tamizh imagination.

But what will also be debated for a long time to come is the uprising itself and its road to victory. The context of the protest for ‘Tamizh pride’ is compelling. Under the current dispensation at the centre, a very specific idea of ‘nationalism’ has taken centre-stage. The new normal has become the ‘nationalist’ versus the ‘anti-nationalist’ and the soldier has been the most used symbol to raise the pitch of this nationalism.

Much of this government-driven atmospheric has alienated the states and communities that are remote from it. Perhaps the Marina protest was a manifestation of a sub-nationalism that feels more connected to its own ethos and identification with a cultural symbol that is among the last of its surviving rural recreational activities. And with the increasing resentment towards top-down governance and corporate and multinational occupations, the international NGO, PETA, one of the petitioners of the judicial ban of Jallikattu, became the target of this collective frustration because it was perceived as a ‘foreign-hand’, top-down agency, that did much of its PR through celebrity co-option.

Undoubtedly, the ‘Tamil makkal movement’ at least in its four-day agitation, completely changed the terms of engagement and broke all forms of stereotypes. The stars of the protest were not the film celebrities, who conducted a silent protest away from the media glare. Nor the politicians who were actually turned away when they attempted to extract political mileage. But it was charismatic grassroots intellectuals who began to emerge from the shadows and take the floor. Siva Senapathy of theSenaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, who made an impassioned speech about the state of farmers and issues of agriculture.

The very articulate Tamil writer and intellectual, Balakumar Somu, held forth with the national media, educating them on the Marina phenomenon. Committed environmental activist, Nityanand Jayaraman, discussed the complexities of Jallikattu itself and scores of other young and well-informed intellectuals took the spirit of the protest to the rest of the world with dignity and eloquence. The orderliness of the over-twenty-thousand strong protestors was so surreal that even the Chennai police ended up enabling, rather than controlling, the protest gathering. Volunteers supplied water, food and refreshments, folk artists sang, danced, rolled their drums and the protest spontaneously and organically turned into an evocative carnival. For the first time in post-independent India, a self-propelled mass protest happened quite literally, for, by and of the people. It was about fulfilling the aspirations of the people, not about opposing the ‘other’. It was about restoring self-esteem of the Tamils, not about degrading the ‘other’.

The Marina protest was, in fact, a reflection of the people’s assertion to eliminate the agencies of their own voices, to speak for themselves, and to reclaim the commons from all forms of vested interests.

Will the Marina mobilisation lead to a more sustainable initiative for a greater social change? Will it proceed to address the very issues that resonated at the protest, beyond the reclamation of Jallikattu, to the reclamation of their environment, water, soil and livelihoods? Thai Pirandal Vazhi Pirakkum (opportunities are born with the Tamil Calendar month of Thai ) goes the famous Tamil adage. The month of Thai started on January 15. Will the vazhi, opportunity, be seized? Will the collective consciousness of the Tamil makkal movement be a game-changer in the long run?

Time, that tantaliser, will hopefully surprise us again.

Sharada Ramanathan is a film director.