POLITICS

Has The Jallikattu Uprising Created A New Political Space In Tamil Nadu?

The protests were driven by a sense of cultural autonomy.

21/01/2017 3:52 PM IST | Updated 21/01/2017 4:32 PM IST
Shailesh Andrade / Reuters

Now that the ordinance removing the roadblock to staging Jallikattu, in which both the Tamil Nadu government and the Centre have zealously collaborated, is on the way, the unprecedented sights of people filling the vastness of Chennai's Marina beach and other public places in the state will fade away.

But not without leaving a question to ponder over: is there a transformative political potential in this January uprising?

Over the last few days, lakhs of people converged on the Marina against the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu and the inability of the Centre to pass an ordinance to neutralise it. What began as a sporadic trickle of a handful of people swelled like a Tsunami and its aftershocks produced similar uprisings in various parts of the state such as Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy, Vellore and even in other states where Tamils live.

What drove people at such a scale that the state has never witnessed was not just a blind love for a rural sport, but their sense of cultural autonomy.

Although the obvious trigger was the Jallikattu-ban, it soon became apparent that what drove people at such a scale that the state has never witnessed was not just a blind love for a rural sport, but their sense of cultural autonomy. As various political events of the past have established, the people of Tamil Nadu have always been proud of their heritage, and protective of their cultural nationalism.

Whenever it came under threat, they reacted. In fact, nothing else had driven the anti-Hindi agitations of the 1930, 1940s and 1960s; the protests against the Centre on the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils; the agitations on Cauvery and Mullapperiyar water and so on. What always united them is this strong sense of sub-national sovereignty which incidentally also kept religious nationalism at bay.

The closest parallel to the present agitation on Marina and at least 100 other locations within the state and elsewhere, was the anti-Hindi agitations of the 1960s. Although violent, destructive and smaller in scale, the agitation was successful with the then Congress government at the Centre rolling back the proposal to make Hindi the primary official language.

Since 1967, political nationalism in Tamil Nadu has been about Tamil nationalism and nothing else.

Although blocking Hindi and protecting Tamil brought the people together, it had a more profound impact on Tamil Nadu's politics and future. The agitation propelled the DMK to power for the first time, and almost wiped out the relevance of the Congress which had very strong roots in the state. Since 1967, political nationalism in Tamil Nadu has been about Tamil nationalism and nothing else. It also meant that only Dravidian parties could rule the state. That a student leader of the anti-Hindi agitation felled a giant Congress leader such as Kamaraj demonstrated the innate power of people's resistance against any threat to their native nationalism.

If the anti-Hindi agitation ignited the unassailable dominance of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu that's still the defining character of the state, can the Jallikattu-agitation throw up new political possibilities?

There's certainly something deeper, something that's not yet palpable in the crowds that poured out on to Marina and other places.

There is certainly a ferment that could have instantly driven people to the streets; can this ferment continue or will it become dormant once the ordinance is passed?

The politicians are certainly wary because the longer it lasts, the higher the chances of it finding a leader and a political purpose. As in the case of any other uprising in the world, the initially headless spontaneous crowds inevitably gravitate to a leader. It's a proven dynamic of such protests and Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are great Indian examples. There's certainly something deeper, something that's not yet palpable in the crowds that poured out on to Marina and other places. Something that needed some more time to show up.

That's precisely why the ruling AIADMK and the BJP have worked against time to find a solution and send the protestors home. The longer they stay there, the higher the chances of lasting trouble in the form of a new political movement.

As the anti-Hindi agitation decimated the Congress and rewrote the political history of the state, or as Kejriwal and AAP crushed all others into ridiculous existence in Delhi, such a movement can upset the fortunes of the present political establishment - the AIADMK, the DMK and even the BJP that's been prospecting the state for some time.

As the anti-Hindi agitation decimated the Congress and rewrote the political history of the state such a movement can upset the fortunes of the present political establishment.

In all likelihood, the agitators will slowly retreat and get back to their routine lives although some do speak of sustaining for other causes. An Indian Express report on Saturday quoted protestors speaking against the "exploitative" political parties, the Centre's apathy towards the interests of Tamils, and vouching that they would now stand up for the rights of farmers and farm-labourers. At the moment, it's impossible to gauge the common thread that unified them other than Jallikattu and Tamil nationalism because the people were heterogenous and came from all walks of life. There were students, professionals, workers, artists, film personalities and most of them were young. The AIADMK and the Centre (BJP) were smart enough to cut short the climax before the real story showed up.

However, what's certain is that even if the crowds go home, they would still retain the collective political potential that could reemerge spontaneously on another occasion because there was a palpable sense of freedom and invincibility among them that has been rarely seen in the state in in recent times. The state hasn't witnessed any major agitation in the last several years because any such tendency got crushed in the beginning itself.

What's certain is that even if the crowds go home, they would still retain the collective political potential.

The merciless crackdown on the government employees' agitation by Jayalalithaa In 2003 is a case in point. When the agitation by tens of thousands government employees and teachers in the state appeared to snowball into a major crisis, Jaya, who was the chief minister for the second term, dismissed 1.7 lakh employees and arrested thousands of people using Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). The impact of the crackdown, which incidentally got a pat from the Supreme Court, was so devastating that the unity showed by about 80 unions and its members evaporated in no time.

Jaya's action had even scorched the earth to prevent such strikes in the future. She was relentless in using all possible instruments - administrative and legal - to crush the strike and even instill a sense of fear. Similar fate also befell the massive agitation by fisherfolk against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant when Jaya was in power during her next term.

Had Jaya been alive, probably the agitation wouldn't have reached such a scale.

Had Jaya been alive, probably the agitation wouldn't have reached such a scale. Probably, the youth and others wouldn't have been this fearless and she would have aborted the swell in its infancy itself. What obviously empowered them this time is the lack of political will in Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and AIADMK chief VK Sasikala. Both are new and uncertain, and hence are risk-averse or clueless.

That the protestors kept the political parties at bay while rising in unison across the stage is a political message. There is space for a new political possibility. If the AIADMK and the DMK find it and harnesses it, good for them. Otherwise, it would lie in wait for another opportunity in which the common enemy is from within the state itself. If it ever happens, that will be the beginning of a new political ideology.

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