How the Jallikattu Protests Became An Expression of Tamil Anger Against Modi and the Centre

A protestor holding a poster of Modi during the Jallikattu agitation in Tamil Nadu. For many people in the state, the Jallikattu ban triggered a flashback to many incidents in which they felt the centre had ignored the will of the Tamil people. ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
25 January, 2017

The uprising in support of Jallikattu—the traditional bull-taming sport of Tamil Nadu—that has being ongoing in the state for the past several days, reached a temporary climax on 23 January 2017. Late in the afternoon, the state assembly passed the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Act, a state-specific amendment to the central Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960. The act replaced an ordinance the state government had passed two days earlier, allowing Jallikattu to be conducted. It exempted Tamil Nadu from the central PCA act, on the grounds that the sporting event held a crucial place in the culture and history of Tamils. Following the passage of the bill, the protest at Marina Beach in Chennai—which had become the epicentre of the agitation—was called off.

Sporadic protests broke out across Tamil Nadu in mid-January, a few days after Pongal, the traditional harvest festival of which Jallikattu is a crucial part. The sport had not been conducted in the state since 2014, when the Supreme Court of India passed an order banning it. Until the protests were called off, nearly 2 lakh protestors were present at Marina Beach every day, and on 21 January, an estimated 20 lakh people protested across the state. The agitation was largely peaceful, but violence broke out in several parts of Tamil Nadu when the police attempted to disperse the protestors. The crowds in many places responded by pelting stones—in the Triplicane area, a group of protestors torched two-wheelers outside a police station and threw a petrol bomb at another. The police in turn, launched a lathi charge and fired teargas shells at some places. The protestors largely comprised young men and women—students, IT professionals, and activists—many of whom, as residents of urban areas, did not regularly witness or participate in Jallikattu. The agitation also included several people belonging to Tamil Nadu’s working class—bank employees, auto and taxi drivers, among others. According to several news reports, the protest at Marina Beach saw active participation from a large number of women.

What began as an apolitical, youth-centeric movement demanding that Jallikattu be allowed to take place, soon gave way to a protest that centred around the question of Tamil pride and identity—perhaps the largest such movement that the state has witnessed since the anti-Hindi agitation in the 1960s. The protestors across the state began to represent a reaction to the failure of India's legal and political establishments in understanding the ground realities in Tamil Nadu. Most criticised and abused were Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, as symbols of an India that did not understand or respect Tamil concerns. Despite being a party that claims to uphold cultural nationalism, the BJP fell on the losing side of the Jallikattu debate, as it failed to convince the common man in Tamil Nadu of its support.

A cultural sport with a history of thousands of years, Jallikattu was traditionally held in the rural pockets of Tamil Nadu’s southern and western districts. Over the years, it expanded beyond these regions to become immensely popular across the state. The addition of elaborate new rules contributed to the sport developing a modern form. In villages such as Alaganallur, Palmedu and Avaniyapuram in Madurai district, the annual event is a grand affair. Thousands of spectators wait for the bulls to emerge from the vadi vasal, the narrow space through which bulls enter the arena. The awaiting bull tamers must then hold onto the hump of the bull for a predetermined distance, or concede victory to the bull and its owner.

Trouble began brewing in 2004, when animal-rights activists, including prominent organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), alleged that bulls are tortured during the event. In 2009, in response to steady objection from such groups, the state government enacted the Tamil Nadu Jallikattu Regulation (TNJR) Act. In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests included bulls in a list of animals that are banned from inclusion in performances. The last Jallikattu was held in 2014—in May that year, the Supreme Court delivered a judgement upholding the central notification, saying that Jallikattu, along with several other animal-related sports, was in violation of the PCA act of 1960.

Although the 2014 order too had led to protests in the state, the Jallikattu protests were a trigger. Many who joined the movement did so because they felt the central government had failed to regard Tamil Nadu’s emotions in the matter of Jallikattu. For numerous Tamils, this triggered a flashback to a number of incidents in which they felt that the state and its people were marginalised, and their voices left unheard.

They remembered the grassroots campaign against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in 2011-12, and the demonstrations against the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) pipeline projects—in all of these, the centre had acted against the will of the people of the state. They recalled the centre’s lack of action in alleviating the plight of fishermen on Tamil Nadu’s coast, who are at loggerheads with Sri Lankan fishermen over the rights to fishing in the Palk Strait. Demonetisation, which many in the state felt furthered the hardships faced by its farmers, contributed to increasing the anger towards the centre.

Most of all, the protesting Tamils recalled another Supreme Court order following which it appeared that the Indian state had done little to help Tamil Nadu: the Cauvery judgment in 2016, in which the court had instructed the neighbouring Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu. Though the former had failed to follow the court’s order, the centre had not held it accountable. This sense of alienation among the residents of Tamil Nadu intensified when reports emerged in early January of farmer suicides, owing to drought in the delta region—an area through which the Cauvery flows. While the individual movements for each of these issues had failed to invoke a united Tamil conscience, the Jallikattu protests became the point at which they converged.

Balakumar Somu, a Jallikattu activist and blogger based in Coimbatore, said, “Tamil society felt that had they risen back then, the centre would have listened and the farmers could have been saved,” He added: “Every Tamil felt guilty that they did not do enough to save their farmers.” Somu told me that the Tamils were deeply hurt when, during the clash over the Cauvery, politicians from Karnataka issued derogatory statements against Tamil Nadu. Even as protests broke out in the state, the centre remained silent. “Tamils have been feeling betrayed and backstabbed for decades by the centre and the Supreme Court,” Somu said. His assertion is borne out by the nature of the court’s comments on Jallikattu. In November 2016, Justice Dipak Misra, while striking down a January 2016 central-government notification that granted permission to Jallikattu, commented that those asking for the continuance of the sport “better play computer games for entertainment” instead. N Ram, the former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, seemed to echo the court’s sentiment, which appeared to consider Jallikattu only a form of entertainment. “Tamil Nadu is a progressive state. Its rural youth play volleyball, cricket, football, kabaddi... . They are fine without jallikattu,” Ram told The Telegraph in a report published on 20 January 2017.

Somu conceded that most people in Chennai had probably never seen Jallikattu, he believed that the movement was an outburst of people whose concern for the farming community and the preservation of native cattle—which, according to many experts, would be adversely affected by the ban on the sport—was genuine.

Tamil Nadu is one of many states that, since the BJP came to power at the centre in 2014, has complained that the government has failed to sense the regional pulse. Since the state routed the Congress from power in the state in 1967, its affiliation has been with the Dravidian and local Tamil parties. It was natural for the people in Tamil Nadu—and especially convenient for local parties—to blame the centre for being unable to solve the issues plaguing them. “The Jallikattu movement was a cumulative reaction of anger directed primarily towards the BJP government at the centre,” said P Ramajayam, a political analyst with the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy in Trichy.

According to Ramajayam, when the BJP came to power in 2014, many had hoped that the new government would solve Tamil Nadu’s pressing issues, such as the decade-long disagreements over the sharing of river water and the predicament of the local fishermen. Several BJP leaders, including Pon Radhakrishnan, a minister of state in the Modi cabinet—the sole MP from the party in the Lok Sabha who hails from Tamil Nadu—repeatedly assured the people of the state that the government would ensure that Jallikattu took place. When the BJP’s promises bore no fruit, the people of Tamil Nadu felt cheated. Ramajayam added that had the Congress been in power, the anger would have been directed towards it as well.

The anger of the protestors towards the BJP was evident during several demonstrations. At Marina Beach, many young men and women used derogatory language against Modi while sloganeering. Some even conducted a ceremonial burial for the prime minister, with an effigy in his likeness. A Bakkiam, the south Chennai district secretary of the CPI (M), told the news website The Wire that he saw at least 15 effigies of Modi being carried out on a padaai—a bamboo bed on which dead bodies are traditionally carried to the burial ground. I saw youngsters slapping posters with an image of Modi on them with their footwear, and tearing posters of his from the sides of roads. Bakkiam also told The Wire that the media reporting on the issue had purposely downplayed the anti-Modi sentiment, choosing instead to focus on the protestors’ anger towards PETA.

Ramajayam noted that even within the BJP, there did not seem to be any consensus on the issue. Prominent leaders from the party, such as Maneka Gandhi, the union minister for women and child development—a vocal animal-rights activist—strongly oppose Jallikattu. But the prime minister reportedly assured Tamil Nadu’s chief minister O Panneerselvam that the centre would support any steps taken by the state government to revive the sport. Ramajayam said that BJP leaders also justified their inaction by saying that the matter was sub judice, and that it would not be right for the central government to intervene. Ramajayam added that, since the central government had intervened and taken “the ordinance route”—promulgated ordinances to appease protestors until further action could be taken—in several other instances, such as the Jat protests in Haryana, the people of Tamil Nadu felt that their issues are not a priority for the party.

The local Dravidian parties—the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK)—have, on their part, regularly shirked responsibility for any progress on the issue. Whenever the people of the state blamed the parties for doing little to conduct Jallikattu, the state government put forth the explanation that the ball is in the centre’s court.

In the preceding years, J Jayalalithaa, the former chief minister and president of the AIADMK, had met Modi to discuss the problems surrounding Jallikattu . She also addressed several letters to him, seeking clearance to conduct the sport.Through such actions, every time the issue cropped up in the state, Jayalalithaa and her government effectively put the onus on Modi. But the law passed by the Tamil Nadu assembly on 23 January raised the question of why the state government did not do so in the past two years, instead of waiting for the centre to act.

Several people I spoke to suggested that the state government had initially under-estimated the protests, but were forced to act when the protestors refused to relent. Many believed that the reason behind the AIADMK’s failure to contain the movement was that the party had been weakened since Jayalalithaa’s demise in December 2016. Known for her heavy-handed approach, the former chief minister had previously quelled several such protests at nascent stages, such as the 2003 agitation by government employees, which the state government had tackled by conducting mass arrests and dismissals.

But the mass mobilisation of protestors across the state was primarily due to the protestors’ refusal to become affiliated with any local party. Several political parties attempted to join the protests, but were thwarted. The DMK attempted to offer solidarity to the movement by conducting a rail blockade and criticising the AIADMK government, but to little avail—the protests did not take on a political character, much less leadership from one party.

The largely leaderless protest also witnessed some rifts. On 19 January, a leader of the May 17 Movement, a civil rights group fighting for the rights of Tamils, especially Sri Lankan Tamils, addressed a section of the crowd at Marina Beach. A BJP leader told the media that the protest group was infiltrated with Maoists, separatists and Muslim fundamentalists. After news reports of anti-Modi slogans began to emerge, Hip Hop Tamizha, a popular singer and music director who had been backing the movement, withdrew his support. Tamizha alleged that “anti national” groups had become involved with the protests, and that he disapproved of the “abusive” language used by the protestors against the prime minister.

According to Ramajayam, the agitation has redefined Tamil nationalism. Earlier, he explained, Tamil identity was centred on the protection of the Tamil language, cultural pride, self-determination, and upholding the Dravidian principles, all the while opposing Brahminical power. “The Tamil nationalism emerging now is mostly about preserving traditional culture and heritage,” he said.

The emerging strain of Tamil nationalism should be a cause for worry for the BJP, as it hopes to gain popularity in the southern region of the state, especially following Jayalalithaa’s demise. In Madurai, I overheard a tea-shop owner say, “The state will see the political impacts of the recent Jallikattu movement when the next election comes around.”