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

25 January 2017
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
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

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.

Shawn Sebastian is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker.

Keywords: Tamil Nadu AIADMK Jayalalithaa DMK BJP Narendra Modi protest Chennai Supreme Court jallikattu O Panneerselvam Marina Beach ordinance
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