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How Jallikattu protests left the State on the backfoot

January 25, 2017 11:51 IST

The governments at the Centre and in the state were unprepared to handle the massive response to the large numbers of people, as they were not aware of the groundswell of public admonition that was against the Establishment, says N Sathiyamoorthy. 

IMAGE: Students during a protest to lift the ban on Jallikattu at Marina Beach in Chennai. Photograph: R Senthil Kumar/PTI Photo

Even as the massive show of people’s peaceful strength across southern Tamil Nadu over the Jallikattu ban is winding down slowly but surely, a few questions remain, for which authorities, both at the Centre and in the state, have to find answers -- and address them, too.

It’s not without reason. From around 50 persons on the sands of capital Chennai’s famed Marina beach, the number of protesters had swelled to over 500,000 on day five. Elsewhere across the state, too, the numbers kept swelling, and included children to aged people, men and women.

Across the state, too, the non-existent Jallikattu movement found sudden traction across the board, religion, caste and class, no bar.

Clearly, Jallikattu was an annual sub-regional sport of the dominant and militant Mukkulathore community in central Tamil Nadu, dating back to centuries, yes.

But then, none had expected it to spread to other parts, including, for instance, the southern-most Kanyakumari district of Union minister Pon Radhakrishnan, which had been a part of neighbouring Kerala until the linguistic reorganisation of Indian states in 1956.

Protests and mock Jallikattu did galore in western and northern districts, where again it had not been a custom of practice.

Yet, to belittle the cause, citing the same reason and argue in the reverse amounts to a perverted interpretation or wanton misinterpretation of ground realities.

In turn, it meant an insult to the collective Tamil angst of the previous decades, almost since the anti-Hindi agitation of the ’sixties if not adding up the earlier times.

Conversely, the question should be asked as to why a ‘sub-regional, caste-centric annual sport’, mostly unknown to the outside world, came to occupy such a centre-place in the collective Tamil psyche.

Such a probe would find the answers, but only for those who want to ask those questions honestly and find answers to the same with all sincerity.

It’s now the collective job of the central and state governments, to undertake this probe in their own spheres, and implement/enforce the responses, in whatever way they need to be addressed.

Going beyond Jallikattu, it was an all-inclusive, agonising Tamil feeling of neglect, both by his own rulers nearer home in the state and more so in ‘distant’ Delhi.

Nowhere else did it find better traction than in the recent years of successive Supreme Court verdicts on the Cauvery and Mullaperiyar water disputes with the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Kerala, respectively.

In both cases, the court verdicts favoured Tamil Nadu almost at every turn, but the Union of India found no way to ‘enforce’ it.

If anything, the executive-judiciary ping-pong game on the Cauvery dispute since the early ’nineties, and mostly anti-Tamil riots in Karnataka, once then and more recently late last year, were among the ignored pointers.

Ditto in the case of Kerala and Mullaperiyar, too, though the violence quotient was absent -- but relatively.

Suffice to point out, on the politico-administrative side, the Centre has no soft solution on the Sri Lankan fishers’ front.

Nor has the Centre given any serious response -- positive or negative -- to then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s repeated requests for grants to facilitate purchase/conversion onto ‘deep-sea fishing’ in the Rameswaram area, so that the local fishers would be away from trouble at the hands of Sri Lanka Navy or fishers.

Jaya’s successor at the helm, Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, too, had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the one-plus month he has been in office.


It does not stop there, though. On the related issue of Katchchativu going to Sri Lanka under the 1974-76 bilateral accords, the Centre swears by the same.

But the Supreme Court has not found time to adjudicate -- favourably or otherwise -- the pending plea of Jayalalithaa and Dravida Munnetra Kazagham rival M Karunanidhi.

The former is dead and the latter has become ill. The petition thus filed by the former has now become infructuous until the new AIADMK general secretary impleads herself as a party in Jaya’s place, and M K Stalin as executive president of the DMK gets himself replaced in father Karunanidhi’s separate petition before the Supreme Court. 

Both the ruling AIADMK and the rival DMK and the rest of the Tamil Nadu polity, including the national/nationalist BJP, Congress and the Communists back the Tamil fishers’ case but their own positions are compromised whenever they are in power at the Centre.

But intellectuals, strategic thinkers and political/bureaucratic administrators only end up belittling the ‘Dravidian competitiveness’, whenever any or all these issues come up for national discourse, if at all they come up for a national discourse, involving ill-informed anchors and semi-knowledgeable guests in TV talk shows.

Less said about social media the better. At the height of the Jallikattu protests, one Tamil local media enthusiast asked the question, why is it always Tamil actors, including the nation’s highest-paid ‘super-star’ Rajnikanth, who has to be at the receiving end of all social media jokes in English and/or Hindi, and not any one from the Bollywood or elsewhere.

All of it may sound silly to the rest of India, but that’s how the Tamils feel, fullstop. And greater the GenX Tamils’ interaction with their counterparts in other parts of the country in the IT corridors across the country and elsewhere, worse has been their experience -- or, so it seems.

The inherent reason lies in the possibility that IT education and jobs began going to the rural youth in the southern states long ago whereas it’s still mostly a preserve of the urban/semi-urban elite elsewhere. 

If the unsure nature of farming forced the rural youth to take to education-based employment over the past decades, the lack of job- security attaching the private sector, which alone is readily available (as against tenure-guaranteed government jobs) has made even middle-aged men and women in the IT and ITE sectors feeling unsure all the time.

They are yet to accept and acknowledge the western ways of hiring-and-firing, a culture that’s alien to the country and its own nature as a people and political administration.

This year round, anxieties induced by demonetisation-centric industrial sluggishness possibly leading to job losses and poor prospects of campus recruitments have added a new factor.

In the southern IT recruitment market, if you do not get a job when you are out of the campus, you may never ever get one. It’s another reality that GenNext across the nation are battling with.

All this, when linked to poor agriculture prospects, have driven all sections of the populace desperate. The Cauvery and Mullaperiyar issues apart, successive years of poor rains have led to ‘farmer suicides’ as never before in Tamil Nadu.

But the two ‘Dravidian majors’ were busy -- not even blaming each other -- but going through their succession plans. The local media too spent more time on political changes than farmers’ plight.

It was not better in the case of the Centre, or the national parties. Whether true or not, the BJP leader of the ruling NDA at the Centre was seen as playing one faction of the ruling AIADMK against the other, post-Jaya -- or, even from when the former chief minister was hospitalised.

At the same time, the Centre was also seen as holding back funds after the ‘Vardah’ cyclone hit Chennai in mid-December (independent, again, of whatever the truth).

This was at a time when the state was seen as having a quietly efficient, low-profile OPS as chief minister, who needed all the help the Centre could give him, even if meant that the BJP was ‘playing politics’ in and with the state.

Yet, none expected the public response to isolated social media calls to trigger such a massive response, nearer home and even outside the country -- wherever Tamils (purportedly) are residents, Russia and China included (if one went by shared social media pictures and believed them).

Clearly, the governments at the Centre and in the state were unprepared to handle such a situation, as they were not aware of the groundswell of public admonition that was against the Establishment.

It may also owe to the absence of modus and mechanics to follow social media campaigns that are swift beyond comprehension of governmental systems the world over.

-- 'There is cruelty in Jallikattu'

In India, the ‘Team Anna’ and ‘Nirbhaya’ protests were earlier examples, but none seemed to have looked at them in terms of repeat-performances of the Jallikattu kind.

Yet, in Tamil Nadu itself, the Kudamkulam protests provided a clear clue to government agencies about the possibilities of peripheral groups using a social cause and mass protests to infiltrate and induce the rest to avoidable violence.

Not that the state government did not have information -- or, was not warned. But the then Jayalalithaa government, and also the personality of the chief minister at the time, together meant that communication stalled somewhere mid-way, and/or absence of follow-up action became impossible in the absence of clear-cut political decision and direction.

It had led to laxity somewhere, and demoralised initiatives elsewhere. It was thus that the Jallikattu protest opportunity first and venue, later on, was an occasion that peripheral politico-ideological groups could not stay away from.

That they were present, first in the periphery -- or, did they want to give that impression? -- and moving later on to the Centre, became known with some credence and credibility when the early leaders of the Jallikattu movement over the past years came out in the open.

Even as the competition-centred electronic media did everything to keep the periphery out of their camera-centre in the early days, and for justified, nationalist reasons, these single-point Jallikattu activists went to town, pointing to the presence of anti-nationals in their midst.

For all the education-driven employment and social enlightenment flagged by years and decades of progressive politics of the Dravidian movement, Tamil Nadu has been one state where all forms of fundamentalist ideologies and militant modus have been on exhibit for quite some years now. You name it, and it’s there.

But with a face and name that was widely acknowledged in the state over the years, when the original promoters and defenders of Jallikattu told a Chennai news conference first, and later on took to social media to say that a section of the protestors were shouting anti-national slogans, were talking secessionism through their own public address systems, and were also insulting PM Modi and CM Panneer by name -- apart from insulting the national flag -- people readily accepted it on face-value.

Their conviction carried the day on Sunday, and apolitical bystanders and even apolitical students, who had made the protests hugely successful as never before in the state -- and possibly the rest of the country without a political leader or cause, began seeing things in perspective.

Greater the crowds at the protest venues across the country, greater was the possibility of more and more getting increasingly convinced about the truth of the charge, as they themselves were witnessing what was unfolding in the periphery and was beginning to capture the centre-stage.

The rest of the proceedings, including tail-end violence before it all folded up, had been written into the script, the police by then having been alert to the possibilities and prepared to tackle the same.

Yet, there was less of violence and more of success for the genuine protesters, who however could not celebrate it as many of them might have wished but became aware of the possibilities, there again!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

N Sathiyamoorthy