Pongal celebrations in Tamil Nadu this year have been marred by discontent surrounding the Supreme Court’s ban on Jallikattu, a bull-taming sport that forms an integral part of the harvest festival.
Jallikattu, derived from the Tamil terms “salli kaasu” (coins) and “kattu” (a package of coins tied to the horns of a bull), has become a contentious symbol of Tamil nationalist pride, with political parties across the state viewing the SC’s decision as an affront to the state’s culture and heritage.
DMK working president, MK Stalin, led statewide protests on Friday, condemning the Centre for its unwillingness to promulgate an ordinance to allow the ritual, traditionally held during the third day of Pongal.
The ruling AIADMK too has been equally vociferous in their demand for Jallikattu, with chief minister O Panneerselvam saying the government will not “back off a bit” and that the sport will be held.
“I would like to assure the people of Tamil Nadu that we will uphold the heritage and culture of the Tamils,” the chief minister said on Wednesday.
It’s more than ironic that an ancient sport has garnered this much attention from the major Dravidian parties; an irony that becomes tragic given the magnitude of the agrarian crisis the state now finds itself in.
Tamil Nadu’s agricultural sector is shattered beyond belief. All of its districts have been declared drought-hit following the worst Northeast monsoon in 140 years.
At least 144 farmers, faced with the failure of their winter harvest and mounting financial debt, have died in the last three months alone. According to the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Union, the majority of them committed suicide after facing a second crop failure.
Panneerselvam announced several financial measures to assist drought-affected farmers earlier this week, such as expanding the repayment period for crop loans to more than a year, and promising additional fiscal assistance from the Centre.
Farmers who suffered a 33% crop loss will be provided Rs 5,465 per acre as compensation, while long-term crops will receive Rs 7,287 per acre, and fields with other crops Rs 3,000 per acre, the CM added.
But farmers themselves remain unconvinced the measures promised will help them recoup after the loss of two harvests.
“144 farmers have committed suicide because of the failure of their harvests,” says R Sukumaran, president of the Thanjavur branch of the farmers’ union. “The government should first provide compensation to them. Promises of an increased repayment period won’t help us at all.”
“Most of us take loans from private moneylenders,” says N Sampath, a farmer from Cuddalore district. “The ones who died all took private loans and put their land on lease. That is the issue that needs to be solved, not extending the time period that the cooperative banks give us.”
Despite sustained media coverage -- one Tamil TV channel spent a week covering the worst-affected districts in the state -- the subsequent responses from the government has been lacklustre.
For the farmers, whose livelihoods are in ruin, there are no human chains on Marina beach, or statewide political protests in defence of them.
The ban on Jallikattu is also inextricably linked with the crisis the state’s farmers now find themselves in. Beyond the vocal articulation of Tamil pride and heritage lies the decline of the state’s indigenous cattle breeds, and the subsequent financial impact on farmers whose livelihood is dependent on their sales.
Of the five recognised indigenous breeds of Tamil Nadu - Kangayam, Pulikulam, Umblachery, Bargur, and Alambadi -- it is the first whose fate is primarily at stake after the 2014 ban, though the others are also in danger of dying out too.
Improvements in agricultural technology mean that bulls are no longer required for ploughing fields. Foreign breeds of cows, such as the Purebred Jersey and the Holstein Friesian, can comfortably produce litres of milk a day, outperforming their indigenous cousins.
And Tamil Nadu’s strict 1958 legislation, which bans the raising of cattle primarily for slaughter, means there is only one thing that bulls are valued for: Honour.
And that honour is inextricably tied to traditional sports like Jallikattu, or its equivalent in Coimbatore and Pollachi, called Rekla.
Without these sports, the indigenous breeds have no value, which means their breeders can’t sell them, further adding to the distress of the agrarian sector.
But this point seems to be secondary for the major political parties.
And the fact that both the major Dravidian parties have devoted so much time and energy in favour of a sport as opposed to addressing Tamil Nadu’s acute agrarian distress indicates there is something wrong with the state’s political priorities.