To understand the issues surrounding Jallikattu, it helps to look at a changing India and the fault lines that arise from it.
The first thing we need to understand is that Urban India is made up of immigrants. Immigrants from rural to urban areas and one region to the other, where primarily the reasons to move are both, economic and social. While we follow the customs that our ancestors did, they are more in the nature of rituals than in the spirit of these customs. For example, Holi in the city is fun and about colours and water; however, in the rural scenario, it is far more than just a festival of colours. It is also a very important harvest festival where people thank the land for the bounty and celebrate a better tomorrow.
In Tamil Nadu, Pongal is the harvest festival which, in the cities, is often reduced to the food we cook – Pongal, a type of khichdi. And while we may carry forward traditions like tying sugarcane outside our homes and decorating pots and pans with haldi and kumkum, it really is not the same as in the villages. There, it is about genuine and heartfelt worship of the tools of the trade, the animals who help with the crop, and the land that gives the bounty. Mattu Pongal, during the Pongal festivities, is done to honour all farm animals, of which Jallikattu is also a part. Most of the festivities are built around thanksgiving and community congregation. Every region in India has its own set of harvest festivals. Most of these cut across community, caste, gender, and economic status – which means, everyone involved in the rural economy participates enthusiastically as equals. Is religion a part of it? Yes, but not in the way most city people understand religion. Rural India is far more fluid in the matters of religion and far stricter in terms of caste. Urban India is the other way around. Harvest festivals are when most of the differences are set aside and you celebrate as one. For long, the concept of village art, music, culture, sports, and dance were looked down upon with the underlying message that villages had to adopt the ways of the more ‘cultured’ urban dwellers. Less than 20 years ago, the joke, in rather poor taste, would be ‘the only culture in villages was agriculture’. However, with increasing education, prosperity, political participation and rural transformation, Rural India and rural culture is making its voice heard. It is partly in this context that we need to understand Jallikattu.For most commentators and activists (city-based), the choice is binary – between animal rights and cultural practice. For the rural economy though, it is far more multi-layered – economy, culture, tradition, achievement, aspiration, self-image, and a sense of community are all tied to the festivities.
(image from here)
The second equally important thing to understand is the concept of the Tamil identity which subsumes all other identities that one may have. It cuts across your birth area, religion, caste and education to make everyone in the state a Tamil first. To feel the sense of Tamil identity does not need you to be born a Tamilian, so it’s less about birth and about the emotion. There are enough and more non-Tamil borns who consider themselves (and are considered to be) Tamilians. Rajnikanth, MGR, Jayalalitha, Khushbhoo – just to name a few.It also cuts across religious lines and caste lines. I cannot quite recall any other group where the sense of identity is so strong and so pervasive.The last time the Tamil identity came into play in a big way was during the anti-Hindi protests in the 1960s. The consideration of the imposition of Hindi as a national language was enough for the Tamilians to believe there was a threat to their identity and culture. The Central Government of the day, capitulated. Needless to say, Hindi is one of the official languages not the national language.
The third thing to understand is that regional parties in India are going through a flux. Most of the issues are to do with succession. Be it Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu or the Nationalist Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. The ruling party of Tamil Nadu, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is no different. After the death of Jayalalithaa, the power seems to be split between Chief Minister Panneerselvam and Sasikala who was Amma’s companion and is now the General Secretary of AIADMK.The Jallikattu protests were vital in both, asserting the claims to protect the Dravidian identity (The D in both DMK and AIADMK stands for Dravidian) and the Tamil way of life. No political party in Tamil Nadu can stand against the assertion of the Tamil pride. And for parties like the DMK and AIADMK that are looking to revive their game and become relevant to a new Tamil Nadu, this was a Supreme Court-sent opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of the protest, while claiming them as their own and the victory as its result.
The final thing to understand is that there will be organisations – NGOs or even the State – that will challenge local customs because they are no longer in sync with the law. Be it child marriage or animal cruelty, polygamy or devdasi cult, many practices were culturally acceptable once but legally challenged later. This will continue and it will step on the toes of the ‘customs’ – and the local custom will fight back. It is all a part of being a thriving Democratic Republic. If everyone agreed on everything, it would be a terribly boring place to live in. And whatever else you may say about India, we are not boring.
The recent capitulation by the Central Government by pushing through a hastily drafted ordinance and its request to the apex court not to rule on the validity of this ordinance, is the culmination of these four seemingly non-connected aspects.
The protests to hold Jallikattu have been going on for a few years. This year’s demonstrations have been as much about Jallikattu as they have been about the other things. There has been an underlying sense of resentment in the state towards the way the ‘North’ has been treating them.The North is a combination of the Centre, the Supreme Court, the media, and anything else that is not from Tamil Nadu. Be it the Kaveri water dispute, the treatment of the refugees from Sri Lanka, or the reaction to the Chennai floods, or the Hindi used in government advertising — it has all been building up for a while. It has been seen as a gradual whittling away of federalism and the Tamil identity and culture. The last rebuff from the Supreme Court on Jallikattu was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Centre and the State reacted and peaceful protests by Tamilians across the state have led to an ordinance that overturns a Supreme Court ruling on the game.
The question is what happens the next time a community decides it is going to use state/ cultural/ regional/ tribal/ caste pride to protest a law which it believes is against their culture. And protests to carry on their way of life? The best Jallikattu analogy here would be that individual sub-cultures can be like raging bulls, the one who wins would steer the bull his way, not one who gets steered by the bull. Because if you get steered by a raging bull, it is going to gore you sooner or later. It is a lesson India learned after Rajiv Gandhi yielded on Shah Bano. One can only hope that we don’t have to learn the same lesson all over again.