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The Jallikattu Fight Should Not Become A Face-Off Between Tamil Culture And Indian Identity

The political repercussions of culture.

23/01/2017 2:03 PM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 2:23 PM IST
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One of the most stunning aspects of the entire movement against the jallikattu ban is how a predominantly rural issue garnered the sympathy and active support of urban sections of the state. The ban was widely perceived as an assault on Tamil culture—an interference in and imposition on millennia old bio-cultural traditions by those who did not understand the socio-economic tapestry of rural life in Tamil Nadu. This spontaneous outburst across different parts of the state was coordinated loosely over social media by volunteer groups. The protests snowballed as colleges declared holidays, employees struck work and IT professionals began forming human chains in support of jallikattu. It's estimated that over seven lakh people participated state-wide.

These protests... may bring about a new political discourse in Tamil Nadu which sharpens the contours of a Tamil identity distinct from and opposed to the Indian one.

The protests were a display of civil behaviour as the protestors in Marina organised among themselves, cleaned the garbage and even regulated traffic. The local populace pitched in by organising and serving food and water. Autos volunteered to ply for free. The police presence was minimal, with cops playing the role of observers. The protestors organised daylong speeches on Tamil culture, heritage and the need for conserving indigenous traditions. For a spontaneous, decentralised protest, the demands were remarkably clear. They went beyond requesting an ordinance and asked for an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty Act so that jallikattu would stand on a solid legal foundation. There was a call for a ban on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). There were colourful plays, folk art performances and the shouting of innovate slogans condemning the inactivity of the state and the central government, particularly against Chief Minister O Panneerselvam and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There was a conscious decision to keep the protest apolitical, with parties being politely asked to host their own protests.

Many things have been seething in Tamil Nadu over the past year. The Cauvery water-sharing judgement and its implementation were seen as unfair to the farmers of Tamil Nadu. This was followed by the worst monsoon in 140 years, leading to a spate of farmer suicides. All these issues found expression in the jallikattu protest, with people speaking up for the cause of farmers, against Genetically Modified Foods and for the protection of indigenous livestock. There was a strong element of swadeshi in the protests and the ban was seen as an assault on the independence and self-reliance of people and a backchannel means to open the market for commercial dairy farming and artificial impregnation. As a protestor said, "It's not even about the culture that we've held sacred for thousands of years. Fundamentally, it's about our very lives and our food security."

There have been prominent voices... saying that this is not a fight against the Indian State but a fight for preserving culture. But [there's a] possibility of a sense of alienation being created ...

The death of Jayalalithaa and the hospitalisation of DMK patriarch Karunanidhi have left a huge political vacuum in the state. Sasikala, rapidly elevated to the post of general secretary of AIADMK and now due/set to take over as Chief Minister, does not enjoy the same widespread popularity that Jayalalithaa did. In the DMK, Stalin, now elevated to working party president, enjoys respect, but does not yet have the mass appeal of his father. With jallikattu being seen as an assault on Tamil identity, fireworks erupted between the parties, with Stalin calling it a failure of the AIADMK government and Sasikala retorting that it was the previous UPA government, of which DMK was an ally that put bulls under non-performing animals and paved the way for the ban.

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With public anger rising, a new political culture has emerged, with the entire spectrum of political parties in the state lining up to support jallikattu. But, for the protestors, their stand does not carry much weight. They are seen as people who did not defend the cause of culture when they could have acted. The anger is acutely focused on the state and the Centre. The state government is seen as having failed to stand up for Tamil culture. The centre is seen, at best, as being indifferent to the cause. In some quarters there are angry voices that feel that this is an interference and an imposition by the central government to trample on the culture of the state.

There are also attempts by fringe Tamil separatist groups to hijack volatile emotions and position the Tamil identity as separate from and opposed to the Indian identity. They see the Indian State as trying to homogenise the nation, thrusting its culture on Tamil Nadu. To them, it's a choice between their Tamil and Indian identities and they are clear where their loyalties lie. Slogans speak of being Tamil for 5000 years as opposed to being Indian for 70 years. So far, this has been strongly resisted by the protestors who have kept the movement apolitical. There have also been prominent voices that have spoken against this separatism saying that this is not a fight against India (the Indian State) but a fight for preserving culture. But the possibility of a sense of alienation being created cannot be ruled out.

A possibility that cannot be ruled out is the rise of new parties or the mainstreaming of fringe parties that espouse a chauvinistic Tamil identity and Tamil pride.

About 60 years ago, another urban student-led movement rocked the state. People took to the streets in protest against Hindi becoming a compulsory subject in schools. Like the ban on jallikattu, this too was seen as an assault on Tamil culture and as an attempt by the Centre to impose the culture and language of the Hindi heartland on Tamil Nadu. One of the finest moments in Indian politics came when the Centre agreed to continue the official use of English with Hindi, reaffirming Indian pluralism. The anti-Hindi movement upset the conventional political order of the day and served to propel a young DMK to power. With this emerged the Dravidian political consensus which continued for decades. Every party across the political spectrum constructed a Tamil Dravidian identity as opposed to the alleged Aryan identity of North India. There were also calls for separate statehood for Tamil Nadu. It has taken decades for this feeling of separateness to wear off and for a generation to emerge that does not see its Tamil identity in conflict with the Indian identity.

So far, the common protestor has shown remarkable clarity in focusing on culture and not letting the agenda be hijacked.

These protests are warning signs that this is not merely a cultural issue or a brief political one—it may bring about a new political discourse in Tamil Nadu which sharpens the contours of a Tamil identity distinct from and seen as opposed to the Indian one. This can happen in multiple ways. The most plausible outcome is for existing political parties to take a stronger, more strident stance based on a Dravidian identity and the othering of the Centre. A possibility that cannot be ruled out is the rise of new parties or the mainstreaming of fringe parties that espouse a chauvinistic Tamil identity and Tamil pride. Our recent history has shown the perils of a regional identity that sees itself in conflict to the national one.

So far, the common protestor has shown remarkable clarity in focusing on culture and not letting the agenda be hijacked. The solidarity shown by people across India, with many posting on social media and participating in protests would have warmed hearts across the state. The support of the Centre for the ordinance passed by Tamil Nadu should hopefully reassure people that India is built on consensus and plurality, the guiding principles of our civilisation and our nation. Hopefully steps like these should foreclose the possibilities of a rise in chauvinism.

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