Jallikattu – A symbol and a shutterbug story

Is there a middle ground? Apparently, there isn’t. Watching the protest beamed in television sets across the country, I was wondering how will this end as the balmy marina witnessed its citizens take centrestage.

As someone who grew up in a mofussil area near Chennai, our knowledge of Jalllikattu was confined to the TV footage being telecasted during the Pongal festival of bull being tamed in the famed alanganallur as an annual ritual. Besides mentions in Tamil literature, Tamil movies patronized this game and so did the matinee idols who graced the silver screen. Right from MGR to Rajinikanth and sarath Kumar, they tamed bulls adding machismo to their aura and invincibility on screen.

The scale of uprising left many wondering, is Jallikattu such a big issue in Tamil Nadu. Because many who were associated with the protests had no direct involvement with the sport or the ritual surrounding it. After all this was an annual ritual that was confined to specific boroughs of Tamilnadu. Justifications were thrown in in the form of Tamil pride, protecting native breed, fight against imperial forces, better milk variety etc. Few added that it was the manifestation of bottled up angst given the lack of decisive solution in addressing Cauvery water sharing issues, fisherman deaths and farmer suicides and the impending drought staring Tamilnadu

This form of citizen activism reminded me of another recent event, the Chennai floods. One could not help but notice similarities in terms of, widely perceived government apathy, social media influence, youngsters being at the forefront, collective effort without the intervention of any political leaders etc. The difference with Chennai floods being an extreme crisis owing to natural calamity and in case of Jallikattu an existential crisis on Tamil pride and culture. With pride at stake no argument stands the test of scrutiny.

In a country like India with its rich heritage and diversity, discussion on culture and the pride within becomes a very sensitive and emotionally volatile topic to deal with. Having lived across the country over the past decade, I have approached one’s attachment to culture as their relationship towards their parents.

You are born in to your culture and have no control or the authority of making choices to begin with. Secondly it is an unconditional bond (in many cases) forged by unwritten code of love. Moreover, it is an extremely personal space where you are indifferent to other’s judgements. To me therefore one’s culture is like the bond you share with your parents and you don’t have to necessarily compare with your friend’s parents to feel superior. You just love them and the love is intrinsic to you. Nothing changes it.  I wouldn’t go at war with my neighbour on what is strictly my personal space. Again, this is my opinion.

While the politicians across party lines were instrumental in stoking the regional pride, media followed up by whipping up the frenzy ensuring the decibel levels were high.  The animal rights group chose to address the issue without acknowledging the socio-cultural element, as Jallikattu rose to become an emotional issue with regional pride making it a sticky issue to negotiate.

Symbolism historically have been powerful agents of expression behind mass movements including our independence movements. Mahatma Gandhi embracing Khadi, Periyar breaking the idols, the hindi agitations and the more recently the beef ban while being symbolic have had massive impact. Jallikattu inadvertently became the symbol of pent-up regional pride finding expression.

In an emotional charged atmosphere under the media glare, a middle ground became therefore unlikely. Hence one could note a clear confusion and resulting violence when they tried to disperse.  People had contrarian view points on the nature of conclusion to the problem and hence couldn’t agree with the interim ordinance. A disappointing end to a promising movement.

The citizen movement without any political influences certainly is a healthy start for a robust democracy. However, the narrow definition of cultural pride bordering protectionism can be hazardous in the longer run in an increasingly globalized world we live in.  One shouldn’t forget that Tamils have had robust cultural exchanges with others in the past evident in its rich history.

While protest is a good form of getting the attention a more constructive one would be dedicate a fund and contribute a day’s salary to address the drought situation or the fishermen’s plight. This would make a tangible difference to the plight of the farmers/fisherman who are awaiting funds from the central government. Tamilnadu being one of the most urbanised states with high education levels cannot afford to drop purpose for pride.  A purpose that works towards ensuring better mechanisms for agriculture, industrial growth and adequate employment opportunities.


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