It was not a special day in Chennai. Yet, scores of people were seen running towards Marina Beach. Not for a leisurely walk, but to stand up for a cause that has been bothering Tamil Nadu, and particularly its rural community, for some years now.
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Since 2004, Pongal in Tamil Nadu has been marred by controversy over a custom that is inseparable from the observance of the festival in the state. In other states, Pongal is primarily a festival of farmers and the Sun god, but in the rural southern areas of Tamil Nadu, it has been inextricably linked with Jallikattu, the bull-taming sport and a significant cultural emblem of the state.
The first ban on the sport was imposed in 2006 when A Nagarajan filed a petition after his son was killed while sitting in the portico and watching the sport. However, the High Court permitted conduct of the sport with a few regulations.
In 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Welfare Board of India filed a writ petition which called the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu (TNRJ) Act into question. The Ministry of Environment and Forests consequently notified that bulls cannot be used as performing animals and the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act was also amended in accordance with that. This resulted in the ban by the Supreme Court of Jallikattu along with bull races, or any type of performance by bulls, in 2014.
The Government of India subsequently issued an order permitting the sport on the grounds of tradition, with certain limitations and approval from the local administration, but this was again rejected by the Supreme Court, citing the 2014 judgement which pointed to the “considerable pain and distress to the bulls.”
The World Youth Organization, in 2016, staged a protest in Chennai demanding revocation of the ban on Jallikattu and a ban on PETA. In January this year, it was reported that a group of people in Alanganallur had organized Jallikattu in defiance of the Court ban; this was followed by a protest by local people, urging the lifting of the ban on the sport. The next day, police detained 220 people in Alanganallur and in support of the people who were detained, a small crowd gathered on Marina Beach. Electricity supply was disrupted and policemen were on the ground to dismiss the crowd.
However, this did not deter the protesters and the crowd started swelling the same evening, due to the updates posted by pages like Chennai Memes on their Facebook page Soon Marina was witness to a massive uprising of students and ordinary citizens, all vociferously demanding that the ban on Jallikattu be lifted. On January 20th, it was reported that 15000 people had assembled along a 6-km stretch on the Marina to demand the return of Jallikattu .
Prominent film stars eventually joined the protest too and declared their support for the conduct of Jallikattu. Apart from a love for Tamil culture, the protesters also shared the belief that the ban on the sport would be a final blow to the already dwindling indigenous breeds of cattle.
The call for lifting of the ban caught the public imagination not only in the state, but beyond and even in other corners of the world, such as Russia, South Africa, Melbourne etc.
Overwhelmed by the scale of protests across the state and the city, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu met the Prime Minister and requested that an ordinance be passed to enable the sport to be held. The draft suggested by the Tamil Nadu Government was approved on January 20th, but people continued to throng the Marina till January 21st and demanded a more permanent solution, which could come about only with an amendment to the PCA Act.
Even as the State Assembly passed the Jallikattu bill, a section of protesters continued to hold their ground on the beach, and the week-long organic, peaceful protest came to a rather unfortunate end, marred by violence, arson and alleged police excess.
As the events of the last few days continue to be discussed and analysed, questions are raised as to what led a group of city-based students and professionals, who are not overt moral or cultural guardians, to take part spontaneously in this massive people’s movement? And what do they feel about the gradual change in the character of the movement culminating in the unfortunate train of events on January 23rd?
We spoke to a few ordinary citizens to understand that.
Janaki Raman, 26, Designer
What happened on the last day was a huge loss for the movement. I’m not even able to smile after hearing about the victory because of the violence. What started with a small crowd supporting Jallikattu multiplied organically and people from several places started supporting us. To be frank, I went after watching Hiphop Tamizha’s video; it stood as a catalyst for the protest.
I did not protest just to save Tamil culture but to reclaim the rights of my state. Take any issue, we are not respected, the issue of Katchatheevu is another instance. For me personally, the State’s rights are paramount and culture was secondary. The takeaways from the protest are plenty—young children and women were there without any fear which could be a lesson for the entire country.
Shanmuga Priya, 22, Student at Loyola College
I have been raising my voice with my peers since 19 January as I do not want my culture to die without any support. Being a student of Food Chemistry, I was quickly able to identify the connection with native cattle breeds and the impact that banning Jallikattu could have. Many reports claim that the A2 milk from native cows are healthier than A1 milk from hybrid cows and I decided to give voice to that truth, despite the fact that I have never witnessed the sport directly. The recent song of Hiphop Tamizha is what united many of us.
I appreciate the wits of the volunteers who were quick to see that the ordinance was passed merely to pacify the crowds and I can see the need for such uprisings for several issues. But I feel that what they did to our fellows on the last day was absolutely pre-planned by the politicians.
Sunil Jayaram, 42, IT employee
The government and officials can no longer take the citizens for granted, which stood out as the primary message in this protest; they cannot deny us anything that genuinely belongs to us. The protests were spontaneous and disciplined: I saw the volunteers arranging for food packets, water, toilets and first aid medicines and everything was distributed at the right time. Of course, they must have had sponsors for all this.
However, since the legal experts could not assure us that the Ordinance would ensure a permanent return of Jallikattu, the protest continued and I feel we took the right decision in that respect.
The absence of a proper authority in the ruling government made this gathering surface easily this time whereas in the past, such gatherings were curbed in a very dictatorial way.
Swetha, 19, Student at Madras Christian College
I have been protesting since Day 2, but with minimal knowledge. I started to gather information on the same day and I understood the dynamics of foreign corporates and about the Illuminati families who are believed to govern the entire world secretly. Many claim that it is because of them that PETA came into India. I feel we should try to preserve our existing resources and customs and only then can we implement the Make in India movement.
This people’s movement gained momentum for various reasons and the leaderless protest opened up a window for everyone to question and contemplate on the pros and cons of the sport. Many were able to gain an understanding of the different reasons for not banning Jallikattu and it also led to discussions on other issues in Tamil Nadu.
Immanuel, 21, Assistant Coordinator at Shan and Dene
I was a part of the protest for a couple of days. I did not take part just because others were, I wanted to save the tradition of Tamil people as I have directly witnessed the sport. Even after the Ordinance was passed, I feel the people did the right thing by continuing the protest as we were able to understand the intensity of the rest of the social issues in the state. What happened on January 23rd, however, was chaotic and a total disaster but I still feel that it was a great opportunity to unite. I think such movements are necessary to wipe off many social evils.
Avinash, 23, Student at SRM University
Though I did not join the Marina protestors, I organized protests in my locality. I have heard stories of Jallikattu from my childhood days though I did not get a chance to watch the event ever. I understood that people were protesting without knowing all the facets of the issue. So I decided to educate myself and others, and organised small local protests. However, the protest by cinestars was purely an act of gaining name and fame; I personally did not see the actual purpose.
Karthika, 21, Student at Madras University
The prime reason for taking part in the protest for three days was because of the number of youths who took up this protest. I also wanted to highlight the scientific fact that A2 milk is nutritious and what we consume is A1 milk which is because of the non-native Jersey cows. With the ban on Jallikattu, A2 milk would only become more scarce. However, I have never been a part of a Jallikattu event myself.
I saw very minimal political interaction and organizational influence in the gathering and I felt it was right that they continued the struggle after the Ordinance. I think it was the digital era that made it easy for everyone to connect from different areas. Since the cause was close to their hearts, people gathered very easily. What the policemen did to the fellow volunteers, however, was too barbaric and could’ve been averted somehow.
Though this protest tasted victory, I do not support protests just for the sake of it; people should understand the background of an issue well and fight if their demands aren’t answered.
Naveen, 23, Independent photographer
This leaderless protest is the greatest dissent since the anti-Hindi agitations that took place in 1965 in the same state. Though I have heard about the sport only through my family members, the innate love for the culture inspired me to get involved in the peaceful battle. Social media united us and all the resources flew in from thin air from multiple sources who did not represent any organization in the field.
However, Day 6 onwards, I could see the involvement of anti-social elements, which I believe was because of the pressure from the Centre and Republic Day.
Vinotha, 21, Student at Meenakshi Sundararajan Engineering College
It is our right to play the sport but many with political influence took advantage of our peaceful battle. What happened in culmination could have been averted had the government given enough time for the crowd to get cleared. I support peaceful protests if the cause is good and feel that it is warranted when the government does not heed the unheard voices. The people’s undaunted struggle made the state pass the bill in a short span of time and it was right that we decided to fight in the first place. However, as far as the protest by film stars or celebrities is concerned, I saw very few fighting from their hearts.