Almost half a century ago, student protests rocked the city of Madras (as it was known then) over a proposed national law to make Hindi the sole official language. The "anti-Hindi-imposition agitations", which erupted in the weeks leading up to 26 January 1965, were a textbook example of how a burning emotional issue was mishandled by state government authorities. Bewildered at the growing support to the protests and helpless to effect an amicable solution, the Bhaktavatsalam government was caught in a bind. Ultimately, it was Prime Minister Shastri's assurance that doused the protestors' demands and restored normalcy. With the present Chief Minister Panneerselvam seeking the Prime Minister's help, it is déjà vu in Tamil Nadu.
The similarities between 1965 and 2017's pro-Jallikattu protests are many—spontaneous participation of students, an unresponsive government and a pervasive feeling of Tamil sub-nationalism. Undoubtedly, the common thread is that of Tamil ethnic pride. In the 1960s, students came together to resist the imposition of Hindi. Today, they have come together in order to protect an indispensable part of Tamil cultural heritage.
The pro-Jallikattu protests began in Alanganallur town, located around 15 km from the city of Madurai. After two years of not being able to partake in Jallikattu, the people of this town decided to stage a protest near the vaadivasal (entrance). If the authorities believed that the protest would disperse soon after nightfall on Pongal day, they were wrong. The protestors of Alanganallur refused to give in. Instead, they began inspiring people from other parts of the state to join in. On 16 January, Coimbatore and Chennai joined. By the 18th, there was no place in the state untouched by pro-Jallikattu protests.
It was this groundswell of spontaneous and sustained support for the issue that forced the state government to send representatives to Marina Beach, and the Chief Minister to rush to New Delhi. There is no doubt that the nature and extent of the protests have caught the state government totally unaware and unprepared. The only way out seems to be coax the Union Government into passing an Ordinance amending the parent legislation—the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 (PCA Act). The Ordinance must have the effect of protecting Jallikattu from the PCA Act by placing it on the pedestal of traditional or cultural significance.
Simultaneously, the legal battle must resume. The Supreme Court, in its judgement in the 2014 Animal Welfare Board of India vs. A Nagaraja case, has adopted a liberal view of animal rights to justify the ban on Jallikattu. The reasons cited by the Supreme Court include instances of alleged cruelty to the bulls during this event. There needs to be a review of the occurrence of such cruelty and re-education of the cultural importance of this traditional sport to the Tamil people. It must be impressed that animal welfare and traditional cultural events involving animals can co-exist in society, as they have for hundreds of years. It is possible when Jallikattu is held with regulations and monitoring.
There needs to be a coherent and calibrated strategy towards changing the legislation and revising the existing policy, if jallikattu is to be permitted once again.
The gathering of young people across Tamil Nadu in support of Jallikattu in January 2017 will rank as one of the most impressive youth-led protests in the country. Even today, there are no signs of reduction in the participation or intensity of the protest. But, such great numbers of people also bring their own challenges in terms of organising into a synchronised and focused unit. With emotions running high, the movement cannot become impulsive or reactionary. There needs to be a coherent and calibrated strategy towards changing the legislation and revising the existing policy, if jallikattu is to be permitted once again. The protestors have brought this well within the realm of possibility. Over the next few days, if they are ever in doubt, they only need to look back to their forefathers who organised and agitated effectively against the government in 1965 to ensure that Hindi was not imposed on the non-Hindi speakers of the country.
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