Jallikattu Syndrome: Expression of ethnic angst
by R Hariharan on 19 Jan 2018 6 Comments

In mid-January last year, Tamil Nadu was paralysed when people rose up in massive protest against the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu for reasons of cruelty to bulls. To the uninitiated, Jallikattu is a traditional bull-taming or racing sport, organised in different forms in mid-January in parts of Tamil Nadu. Some of the other Southern states also indulge in different versions of the same sport.


Far from traditional Jallikattu venues of rural Tamil Nadu, in Chennai an estimated half a million to a million plus people occupied the sands of Marina beach in protest against the ban. It quickly spread all over Tamil Nadu and paralysed the state. In one voice people demanded immediate government action to restore the sport. The massive scale of the protest stunned the state government. As there was no visible political or civil society leadership among the protestors, the government had no one to negotiate with to end the protest. It took three days for the Tamil Nadu government to regain control of the situation to retain its credibility by urgently legislating to permit holding of Jallikattu in the state and get the President’s assent in double time.


N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and columnist familiar to Sri Lankans, has come out with the book “Jallikattu: New Symbol of Tamil Angst” [Vitasta Publishing Pvt. Ltd.] to answer some of the nagging questions about how the Jallikattu agitation came about spontaneously. Though the author calls the book an analytical narrative, it is actually a mind mapping exercise of Jallikattu protest and its symbolism of Tamil angst.


Based on the unprecedented spread of protest, not only all over Tamil Nadu, but also overseas among Tamil expatriates, the author concludes the ban on the popular fun-event became a major rallying point for the outburst of Tamil angst. In support of this argument, Sathiya Moorthy has marshalled, and linked in his narrative, a whole range of socio-political personalities and events in Tamil Nadu and wherever Tamils lived, to explore the makings of Tamil angst. 


The Jallikattu protests were next only to the anti-Hindi agitation that shook Tamil in the sixties in spontaneity, mass participation and spread across the state. The anti-Hindi agitation had a political narrative; it was limited to the state and resulted in violence and arson and strong state response was unleashed to quell it. On the other hand, the Jallikattu agitation was peaceful and the state administration’s response to control it was conciliatory rather than confrontational. Significantly, the government did not depend solely on administrative methods to handle the issue but used legislative and constitutional avenues to defuse the agitation.


The biggest difference was the Jallikattu agitation assumed a pan-Tamil character to spread beyond the shores of Tamil Nadu. Perhaps, as the author says the pan-Tamil appeal was  because it “extended the cause to cover all that was Tamil – customs, traditions and practices from the distant past, to the present day aspirations of irrigation waters, development and jobs synchronized with nature.” The real time TV coverage of the agitation and quick convergence on venues of agitation, helped.


Sathiya Moorthy’s book analyses the issues that progressively added up to build the Tamil angst. These include the failure of the central and state governments to resolve many issues close to the heart of the people notably, the Cauvery waters issue, the Tamil Nadu fishermen’s problems, insensitivity to farmers’ grievances, endemic corruption in the administrative and political machinery, jobless education, lack of rural infrastructure, use of state machinery to suppress dissent and the neglect of rural poor.


He also touches upon a host of issues, which perhaps had some impact on building up of Tamil angst; these include the demolition of Babri masjid, ban on cow slaughter and beef, state government’s casual attitude to enforce judicial orders and judgements as well as internal polemics of the ruling party in the state.


Though the rise of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu helped galvanizing Tamil identity and growth of Tamil nationalism, it is doubtful whether it was germane to the Jallikattu agitation. But there is no doubt it has contributed to growth of pan-Tamil mindset, which came in handy for the agitation. However, the failure of Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian parties to make positive contribution to resolve the Sri Lanka Tamil issue during showed up its limitations.


The ‘Jallikattu syndrome’ – the spontaneous outburst of peoples protest in massive numbers without organized leadership – differs from the ‘Arab Spring’ in early 2011, which were mostly leadership driven, often with the backing of external forces.  It was also qualitatively different from the ethnic extremism and insurgency we have seen in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.


Though the narrative is generalised in its efforts to cover a large canvass, it contains cues relevant to understand not only Jallikattu agitation, but similar spontaneous outbursts of public anger. These were due to failure of the rulers to read and understand increasing alienation of peoples’ interests. Often governments tend to ignore popular demands deliberately for short term gains as it had been happening in Tamil Nadu.


In South Asia, the population has shown immense patience and puts up with large doses of misuse of office, corruption, poor governance; governments used to treat public grievances casually.  However, Jallikattu agitation has shown that in the era of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, people can be mobilized in massive numbers to protest on issues that contribute to their feeling of alienation on the basis of their culture, language and tradition.


The insights of the book are useful for Sri Lankans as popular angst against the rulers is building up in Sri Lanka, not only due to continued feeling of alienation among Tamils, but also due to apathy among political parties to attend to long standing public demand for good governance.


Courtesy Col. R Hariharan


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