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Protests for Jallikattu


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The nation has never witnessed such huge and spontaneous gathering of people from different walks of life peacefully demanding restoration of several centuries-old rural sport of Tamil Nadu – Jallikattu – which has been banned by the Supreme Court. This sport is part of the Pongal festival in villages celebrating the onset of the harvest season. How and why it turned violent on the 6th day is a separate matter for investigation – perhaps unconnected with the previous five days of peaceful protest.

The quick response of the both the Central and State governments in promulgating an Ordinance and passing a State law facilitating the conduct of Jallikattu is surely a reward for a peaceful movement. It displayed the power of public opinion and the driving force of populist feelings to move established authorities.

The success of the event is surely due to the peaceful nature of the protest and extensive participation much larger than expectations. By chance or by design, the protest was an inclusive movement stressing issues beyond the sport that are likely to catch attention and move youngsters. Thus, Jallikattu – a rural sport – is presented as a tradition and cultural value, Tamil identity, and symbol of valour, and so on. Even the economics of bull rearing took a secondary place in participants’ motivation.

Most of the participants in Chennai and other big cities in the peaceful protest may have never watched the sport or even heard about it except through some scenes in films. Yet, if they were in protest venues that remained lively day and night, it deserves a search into the causes of this massive outburst of people’s power.

Protest is an effective form of direct action and essentially a means   communication. In non-violent form, and without disrupting normal life, it is accepted as a democratic instrument. When normal avenues of grievance redressal are closed or unavailable and when appeals get no favourable response, the aggrieved are tempted to resort to protests.

When Anna Hazare launched the Anti-Corruption Movement in 2011, and received wide support and quick response from the Government there was fear that it portended a crisis in Indian democracy.  For, it signified the emergence of individual leaders without electoral mandate to sway people and to dictate to Parliament.

Indeed, the year 2011 was a year of protests in many countries in all continents when people came out on the streets to express their anger against economic inequality and sleaze though the specific reason differed from country to country.  The movements were seeking change.

Makkal Movement (People’s Movement) for Jallikattu went a step ahead in displaying people’s power in the sense that it had no acknowledged leaders or organisational support. It was apolitical, and did not create chaos or raise serious law and order problem for full five days. Is it devotion to the cause, or conviction of the participants in peaceful protest?

In any case, the fight for the revival of a banned sport was conducted as a sport in which the young and the old, and male and female, the affected and the unaffected took part. Student and non-student youth formed the biggest group to earn for the protest recognition as a youth movement.

Jallikattu, like a typical spontaneous protest, seems to be a quest for self-assertion and change. The driving force seems to be a strong feeling of deprivation of the rights of the State which started long back in language agitation. Flagrant violation of the Supreme Court’s order by Karnataka to release Cauvery water and Kerala’s refusal in the matter of Mullaiperiyar Dam, and the never ending sufferings of Tamil fishermen in the hands of Sri Lankan authorities are not matters to be brushed aside by Tamil Nadu as inconsequential. They provide fodder to pent up feelings of the common people and issues for political leaders to play politics.

Under these circumstances, we have to guard against the appearance and escalation of ethnic sentiments and sub-national interests blocking national progress in thoughts, words, and deeds, however peaceful the strategy may be.

Protests are generally carried out by dissident minority groups against the majority or the mainstream mostly to stop a policy decision or practice. This image is falsified in the Jallikattu protest which was openly and secretly supported by rival political parties and people from various social, economic, and professional groups, students, and masses from different strata making up the predominant majority. Even sections of people who believe in humanizing sports in conformity with progressive ideas of animal rights cannot openly take a stand against Jallikattu. United voice of the people on the streets compels them to agree to resume the game that has been classified in a Supreme Court judgement as “inherent cruelty” under humane conditions.

The object of the Jallikattu protest is such that it put some political parties and leaders in embarrassing positions. The ruling AIADMK, supports the conduct of Jallikattu and therefore in sympathy with the cause of the protestors, but has the onerous job of dealing firmly with the protestors to ensure maintenance of normal life.

The position of the DMK making a “360 degree turn” in this issue is a typical case of political opportunism. It was part of the UPA Government at the Centre in 2011 which added “bull” in the 20 years old notification banning training and exhibition of certain animals. The addition ended Jallikattu, but did not evoke protests against the party. The notification was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2014, but the court upheld it. Review petition filed by the Government of Tamil Nadu in the Supreme Court was also dismissed.

The same DMK today is taking active part in protests though separately in calling rail roko and sitting on fast. Many a times, political parties, particularly in coalition governments, without any thought on full implications and long-term consequences mechanically become part of decisions with which they do not agree.

The regulations for conducting the sport prescribed by the DMK under which Jallikattu was going on despite ban were evidently not followed during the regime of the AIADMK that succeeded leading to Supreme Court’s firm stand against the game.

Thus, both parties that matter in Tamil Nadu seem to have erred in gauging the pulse of the people and assess its power. Makkal Movement is an eye-opener to Governments and people to the power of the people – the 5th pillar of democracy which was regarded as the “political sovereign” and an active and responsible medium in democracy by great thinkers.

The unique feature of the Jallikattu people’s movement is the manifestation of a common purpose by political rivals silencing dissenting and disinterested voices perhaps with fear and awe.

It will be unrealistic to expect that this peaceful movement for six days would usher in the dawn of people’s democracy. The movement only shows that the Government has a limited role in effecting social change and that the State alone cannot guarantee people’s welfare, much less animal welfare.

Jallikattu is not a case of animal welfare only. Its association with Indian agriculture and cattle wealth besides traditional rural life has elevated it to the status of a Makkal Movement.— INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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