After Jallikattu – the traditional bull-sport of Tamil Nadu – was banned on grounds of cruelty to animals by the Delhi-based Supreme Court of India through the appeal of the Animal Welfare Board of India (a Union government entity) anger had been simmering at this great legal assault on Tamil culture. All over Tamil Nadu, tens of thousands of people, largely not under any political party banner, have assembled in protest. The most widely broadcasted protests are from Marina beach. That massive protest at Marina beach is actually very small compared to ones happening in other parts of Tamil Nadu including Madurai, Erode, Salem and Coimbatore. And it is not only big cities but small towns and villages where such protests are taking place – thus uniting the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu in its demand “We want Jallikattu”, which is both a cultural demand and a political demand. Thousands of people had assembled in protests, but ‘national media’ didn’t live-telecast this, since this was not Delhi and hence didn’t matter to the ‘nation’. As the day progressed on the 18th of January, young people from all walks of life spilled on to the streets, from students to IT professionals to farmers, including many women. As we speak, this has become too big for ‘national media’ to ignore, and since this is not Kashmir from where independent media and telecom connectivity can be blacked out at will, ‘national media’ wants to explain matters to the ‘rest of India’. Why are Tamils angry and why are they protesting? While they ask that, they are quick to add that the protests are apolitical. Nothing could be farther from truth. The protests are not partisan but are intensely political – uniting the Tamil national polity in a united voice. More things unite Kashmir and Kanyakumari than the Delhi establishment would like to admit.
In the protests, a recurring theme is that the Tamil interests have been marginalised in the Indian Union
In its limited imagination, the non-Tamil media is likening this to Tahrir Square of Cairo. If they had more local grounding and less of an imaginary that is inspired by Anglo-American talking points, they would have reached back into the not-so-distant Tamil past. They could have looked closely at the site that the protesters chose. The Marina beach is not an ordinary spot. It houses the memorial to C.N.Annadurai, the giant of Tamil politics, the biggest votary of Tamil pride, a staunch oppose of Hindi imposition and one of the fathers of federalism in the Indian Union. If they had tried to understand Tamil Nadu from the Tamil standpoint and not from the Delhi standpoint, they would have found that the present protests, in their spontaneity, intensity and popularity, come close to the anti-Hindi imposition protests of 1965 when the Union government tried to forcibly shove Hindi down the throats of non-Hindi citizens of the Indian Union. While protests happened in various states, Tamils took the lead. The response from New Delhi was swift and central forces killed nearly 400 Tamil protesters that year. In 1967, the Congress was voted out and never again has any Delhi headquartered party ever held power in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu branches of Delhi-headquartered parties failed miserably in 1965 and are failing miserably now in representing the Tamil sentiment, for their priorities are ideologies are decided elsewhere, without an eye to the Tamil interest. Since 1967, Tamils have politically opted for their own representatives and not Tamil agents of Delhi interests. It is because Tamil Nadu stood up against Hindi imposition that all non-Hindi states have been able to protect their cultural and linguistic turf against homogenisation ordered from Delhi, which is designed to benefit a certain ethno-linguistic group that holds huge sway on power in Delhi. Even today, with the Jallikattu protests, Tamils have opened the space for the rest of us to assert cultural rights against the whims and fancies of Union government agencies about animals and humans, which imagine the Indian Union as a bloated form of the NCR. The way the Union government has been criticised by the Tamil protesters on the ground shows that they understand this political dynamic very well.
The huge presence of women for a ‘male sport’ shows that this issue goes beyond the particulars of Jallikattu and stems from something bigger and wider. This has been joined by non-resident Tamils around the world (in USA, Ireland, Mexico, Thailand, South Korea, Ukraine, Russia, Malaysia and elsewhere) as well as the Tamil social media space where Whatsapp messages about bovine animals are being used to unite people and not dividing them. The Jallikattu protests show that against the cosmo-liberal stereotype of ‘Indian young people’, there are young people – millions of them – to whom roots matter, identity matters, culture matters and they do not aspire to lose their Tamil-ness to conform to the Delhi-Mumbai idea of Indianness. These are the people who know English very well but have chosen to respond in Tamil to Delhi media questions posed to them in English. If this appears odd, remember the number of times Delhi-based English media carries responses in Hindi without any translation. Try to think why that is not considered odd, when a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not understand Hindi.
In the protests, a recurring theme is that the Tamil interests have been marginalised in the Indian Union. Tamil culture is older than the Indian Union and all its institutions and self-respect is a very important part of that culture. The situation that Tamil Nadu now doesn’t have control over its own maritime trade, foreign relations or for that matter most aspects of Tamil internal affairs is hardly two centuries old. The Tamil political memory and historical consciousness goes far beyond that and is a living thing that influences politics of here and now. Thus, whenever the Union government has attacked state rights, the Tamils have been at the forefront of protesting it – a strain of politics that has recently widened to include Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, who has been regularly voicing concerns about the destruction of the federal structure. Tamils gave up their autonomous rights over their land, resources and people when they signed up for the Indian Union. Any giving-up of rights has to come with concomitant compensatory benefits. That has not happened. While Tamil Nadu produces a huge amount of revenue, much of that is siphoned off by the Union government through its constitutional powers and through the discriminatory schemes of Delhi, it gets much less money (so-called “central funds” which originate from resources based in states) than the amount that Delhi makes from resources in Tamil Nadu. In short, Tamil Nadu’s resources are used to subsidise Union government schemes outside Tamil Nadu. During the Eelam Tamil genocide, the Union government explicitly sided with the Sri Lankan government, thus making clear that Tamil Nadu’s sentiments matter little to Delhi even when it comes to the genocide of Tamils elsewhere. Thus it is only natural that many Tamils that many Tamils have a feeling that they are getting cheated in this deal called the Indian Union.
It doesn’t help when ‘national opinion’ makes fun of Tamils as irrational or barbarous people who love to be cruel to animals
At this juncture, it doesn’t help when the so-called ‘national opinion’ makes fun of Tamils as irrational or barbarous people who love to be cruel to their animals. If at all, it is quite duplicitous, since Delhi doesn’t mind the revenue that is extracted from Tamil Nadu while using its institutions like the Animal Welfare Board of India to undercut Tamil cultural practices. That is the tragedy of a centralised administration where bureaucrats from states with high female foeticide get to decide the women’s rights policies of socially progressive states like Tamil Nadu. Whether Jallikattu is right or wrong and whether it should be discontinued or continued – or continued with modifications – is an out and out Tamil affair. That the Animal Welfare Board of India, which doesn’t exactly reflect Tamil opinion, gets to decide on this shows how Tamils are infantilised as being incapable of deciding their own affairs, including their own cultural practices or for that matter, animal welfare issues. This stems from the two long lists called the Union and Concurrent lists of the Constitution of India that give almost unfettered authority to distant people from Union government agencies over the lives and issues of people of various states. It is this false federalism, in which state rights have been completely disrespected, that is the source of much of the problem. Solutions to this are achievable within the ambit of the Indian constitution by large-scale movement of subjects from Union and Concurrent lists to the State list in keeping with the federal democratic spirit of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946, to which most elected lawmakers of the time agreed, only to turn their back on it after 1947. Yes, reforms are needed and they can take many shapes. The ambit of the Supreme Court can be limited to Union and concurrent list subjects with state-based apex courts becoming the highest authority on state subjects. This along with a move of most subjects to the State list can realise the full federal democratic potential of the Union of India. Otherwise, such deep-rooted political grievances promote alienation and make their presence felt in some way or the other, in not so palatable ways.
The defence of Jallikattu on the basis of practice and culture has been likened to the defence of Sati. That so many have learnt to instinctively make this Sati argument, in fact, has a long past in British imperial pedagogy’s depiction of brown colonised lands. As my friend Ritinkar Das Bhaumik said, “We should stop drawing parallels to Sati. We already have one group that sees an analogy between cattle and women. We don’t need others.” While deciding to hang Afzal Guru, in spite of many grounds of reasonable doubt about the case, the Supreme Court of India said, “The collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru.” If the ‘collective conscience’ of the society has already been admitted by the Supreme Court to be a decider in handing out judgements, what prevents it from listening to the ‘collective conscience’ of Tamils regarding Jallikattu that is on display in the protests all over their land today?
Garga Chatterjee is a Kolkata-based commentator on South Asian politics and culture. He received his PhD from Harvard and is a member of faculty at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. He blogs at hajarduari.wordpress.com