Were the Jallikattu protests really about Tamil pride?

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 24, 2017 12:16 hrs
Tamil Nadu fights back on Jallikattu

Over the last six days, hundreds of thousands of protesters, screaming from the tops of vans, leaning out of SUVs, and waving from bikes, have washed up on the Marina Beach, occupying the entire stretch – which is usually so hard to book for even a peaceful protest – and shouting slogans, holding up placards in derision of People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Supreme Court, and actress Trisha.

It struck me that it is only in this country that contempt of court – of the highest court in the land – for the right to torture animals will be seen as a triumph of cultural pride, while senior citizens and people in wheelchairs are assaulted at the cinema for not standing up for the national anthem.

The first few days, at the end of which they managed to arm-twist the authorities into working out an ordinance that would temporarily permit the sport, were considered “peaceful”.

Instead of condemning the protesters for the enormous burden they placed on the police, the drain on the state’s human resources, the attention they garnered over what they claim is a farmers’ sport even as hundreds of farmers in their state have committed suicide over a poor harvest from the drought in the last month alone, the newspapers and observers alike were congratulating them on a “peaceful protest”.

No one spoke about the police having to spend long hours and block off several roads.

No one spoke about the ambulances that were stuck, trying to work their ways through the traffic diversions.

Instead, people were lauding themselves and each other for not breaking the law as badly as they could have – for refraining from molesting women, for picking up some of the litter their comrades had thrown on the beach, for regulating the traffic and easing out the jams they had caused.

Even the police put out a notice on Facebook, saying the protesters had been peaceful. A few hours later, they had been “forced to resort to lathi charge”. But the pathos of the police praising protesters makes one wonder whether we have actually reached such a nadir that we must be commended for not flouting the law, even while flouting a judgment.

As it happened, protesters elsewhere had already flouted the law. Jallikattu was held in various arenas, in contempt of the judgment.

In an even uglier incident that is entirely in keeping with the boorishness and brashness of the protesters, a fox was caught in Salem and subjected to jallikattu even as forest officials stood by tamely. The little fox had its mouth tied so it couldn’t bite, and its leg tied so that hooligans could chase it. Of what great culture is this a part?

The protest turned violent on January 23, Monday. As I write this, on the afternoon of the day, several of the roads have been blocked; the trains and buses have been stopped; a police station has been set on fire, as have several vehicles. Policemen are being attacked with stones. 

The day before, two people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a celebration of this bloodsport.

So much for a peaceful protest. So much for a city coming together. So much for culture.

I am a Tamilian, and I am disgusted by what I see. But before I identify as Tamilian, I identify as Indian; and before that, I identify as human. I am disgusted by what my species, what all humanity, is capable of doing. I have always been disgusted by jallikattu, as I am by all cruelty to animals. And here is my appeal to everyone on the other side of the “argument” (if such unreasonable violence can indeed be termed an “argument”): before you contend that this is not cruelty to animals, read to the end.

In an earlier column, I had written about the casteist origins of jallikattu.

The arguments against the ban are ridiculous.

One is the idea that jallikattu is part of Tamil culture, and should therefore be protected. It surprises me that people would want to lay claim to something as brutal and inhuman as jallikattu under the umbrella of their culture. If it is indeed enshrined in Tamil culture, it is a far more feudal and savage culture than its literature suggests. All evidence points to the bloodsport having been held in small parts in and around Madurai, not across the state. In its early days, it was a gladiator sport, with one man taking on one bull, trying to snatch a chain of coins tied around its horns, risking serious injury to himself as a crowd watched. Now, it is a free-for-all, where tens of people lunge at a single bull.

Most importantly, “culture” has sanctioned various brutal and regressive practices, including sati, dowry, child marriage, caste discrimination, and purdah. Must we continue to follow these because they date back to a time before we were born and are therefore sacrosanct? Must we not be ashamed of these? And aren’t those who are proud of them not proud of their “culture”, but of their ignorance?

Another absurd argument is that bullfighting is more brutal than jallikattu and has not been banned in Spain; or that leather is not banned; or that slaughter and consumption of animals is not banned. In an ideal world, in the world any animal lover would hope to see, all of the above ought to be banned. Cruelty in one country should not sanction cruelty in another. And what the protesters are seeking is not a complete ban on cruelty – it is, in fact, the reversal of a ban on one form of cruelty, the one triumph animal rights activists have seen in this area.

And then, there is the argument that the jallikattu ban is affecting the preservation of the species. So uninformed is this lot that it does not even realise that there is a difference between a species and a breed. The bovine species is in no danger of dying out. The man-made breeds have been manufactured entirely for the benefit of man. And the argument that without the prize money offered at jallikattu, the economics of maintaining them doesn’t work out is a fallacious one.

How fallacious it is, is exposed by the related argument that these bulls are treated like family. I am not sure about the family dynamics of the Tamils who support jallikattu, but mine is not in the habit of decking its members with flowers, tying ropes through their noses, sprinkling chilli powder on their testicles and jumping on each other’s backs in numbers, while pulling at their extremities; the sperm of the fittest men in the family is not stored to impregnate swooning masses of prospective baby-mummies. Unless the family members they love are deprived of agency and used for financial gain, the argument that their animals are treated like family does not hold.

And so, Tamil culture as of 2017 is of violence, bullying and ignorance, evidenced by the events of January 23; evidenced by the crudeness of the signboards the protesters held. Celebrities who have been involved with PETA have been derided, and the brunt of it was borne by Trisha, who quickly spoke out against the jallikattu ban after the harassment began. She even got on the pro-jallikattu bandwagon – shamefully, in my personal opinion – and sat in with other silverscreen stars at a protest against the ban. Yet, a placard read, “Eru thazhuvudhu kaallaikku nalladhu. Yaaru thazhuvuna unakku nalladhu (Trisha)?”, which literally translates into “It is good for a bull to be caressed; by whom would you like to be caressed (Trisha)?” Its vulgar connotations cannot be translated easily.

The film industry’s support for the protest is not surprising, since they cannot afford to antagonise such large numbers of viewers; but it is certainly disappointing. It has been a shock, though, to see chess champion Vishwanathan Anand – who is usually silent about such controversies – write against the ban on Twitter and go on about Tamil pride.

The mass protest which has bullied the state into passing an ordinance points at a pathetic show by a spineless government; but a more sinister possibility is that the protest was instigated by wily politicians. Every party in Tamil Nadu has made its presence felt. On Friday evening, I heard a group of protesters screaming out for “Chinnamma” – not the Chief Minister, O Panneerselvam, but his one-time rival and current AIADMK General Secretary Sasikala – to intervene and “restore Tamil pride”. 

Several people did not even know what they were protesting. They were pulled out in numbers from the shantytowns. The two-and-three-year-old children were happy to go to the beach. The adults were happy to be given new clothes.

If this is a political game, the people have been played and the animals betrayed. 

The notion of “Tamil pride” is misguided. If it is anything, it is a shame: a shame on the protesters, on the state, on a country that couldn’t hold up the judgment of its apex court.

I feel shame on behalf of my city for its current claim to fame – the people coming together during the tsunami and the floods to help each other are as nothing compared to the lakhs who showed up to shout down a Supreme Court-sanctioned ban; lakhs who would claim to be peaceful and then attack the police.

I feel shame on behalf of my own species – of its mindlessness, of the cruelty it inflicts, of its boorishness.

This is not a victory; it is a stamp of shame.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and not of sify.com

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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