Last week I was in Tamil Nadu, on a long overdue trip to visit the great Chola temples. The temples were even more majestic than I had anticipated or hoped for. I spent long afternoons in each of the three best known ones, together maintained as a World Heritage Site.
My visit coincided with the growing protests around Jallikattu. The place I was staying in had no television, but I was kept abreast of the news by family members at home, watching the protests unfold in Chennai and beyond. And I had internet access, so I could follow the thoughts on the subject that were pouring forth on websites and on Twitter.
Unlike some other Indians, I did not need the Supreme Court to inform me about the practice which many Tamils now sought to uphold. Two decades ago, I compiled an anthology of the writings of the great Tamil naturalist M Krishnan, which included a fine, sharply observed essay written in 1951 on what Krishnan (since he was writing for an English-owned paper), called ‘The Jellicut’. ‘A Jellicut is a major event in rural areas’, wrote Krishnan, addressing his Bengali and North Indian audience, adding: ‘Men and beasts come to it from all around, sometimes from considerable distances’.
Now, in 2017, the desire to defend the Jallikattu had become a major event in the urban areas of Tamil Nadu as well. Men were coming from considerable distances to display their devotion to the practice. I saw this at first-hand, when on my drive back to Bengaluru, I was confronted head-on by the rising tide of popular sentiment. I spotted several demonstrations along the road, and then at Salem, where the highway passes through the city, traffic stalled completely. Trucks and cars lay piled up, crowds (all male) were milling, and there were no police in sight. We were surrounded by a group of angry young men, whereupon we turned into a side road, and, via a long detour, rejoined the highway well past Salem.
My personal experience confirmed what I had been alerted to long ago by M Krishnan: that Jallikattu had deep roots in Tamil society. But the claims being made for it by the ideologists supporting the protests were far greater; that it was, in effect, the essence and embodiment of Tamil culture. The Supreme Court ban was thus being seen as a direct, dangerous and possibly mortal threat to the identity and survival of the Tamil people.
The hyperbole was particularly rife in social media. Here, there was a noticeable attempt to cloak the Tamil cause with the colours of Hindutva. It was being said that Western-funded NGOs had coerced the Court to ban the practice; and that this would aid multinational corporations to sell foreign breeds of cows here (since the survival of native breeds allegedly depended on their being bashed and bruised during Jallikattu). Other enthusiasts were comparing the leaders of the protest on Marina Beach to Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh.
In social media as well as on the streets, passion almost always trumps over reason. But within the space afforded by a newspaper column one can at least try to redress the balance. So let me say first of all that there are reasonable grounds to oppose a ban on Jallikattu. One can seek to conduct the practice in moderation, and within parameters that minimize animal or human suffering.
That said, the extreme claims made on behalf of the agitation are untenable. It was certainly not an uprising of the Tamil people. It was active only in a few districts, and here, too, dominated by men, often of particular castes. Dalit intellectuals had spoken out against Jallikattu, since the practice tied Dalits down to the rearing of animals, closing down their avenues to a dignified livelihood. And as some Tamil feminists pertinently asked, why were there no such ‘mass protests’ against the widespread attacks on women?
Untenable, too, is the attempt make Jallikattu a signifier of the authentic or true Tamil identity. Surely aesthestically-minded Tamils should be far prouder of their great heritage of art, architecture, literature and music. Surely socially conscious Tamils should and would be prouder of the great traditions of progressive social reform represented by, among others, Iyothee Thass and Periyar. In a state still rife with caste and gender discrimination, a state reeling under the impact of a severe drought, did this defence of an archaic and sometimes oppressive practice merit such massive and disproportionate attention, so much passion and energy?
Nationalism allied with emotion can make people do strange and sometimes stupid things. There is certainly a case for continuing Jallikattu in a modified form. Animal rights fundamentalists are often wrong, and even the Supreme Court can occasionally be mistaken. But the manner in which the Jallikattu protests are being furthered and represented does the Tamil people no justice. To reduce Tamil identity to Jallikattu is as farcical and tragic as the ongoing attempt to reduce Indian identity to the worship of the flag.