Jallikattu: The Making of a Tamil Identity

in Article
Published on: 18 April 2019

Kalaiyarasan A.

Kalaiyarasan A. is Assistant Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. He holds a PhD in Economics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Previously, he was a faculty at the National Institute of Labour Economics Research and Development, Planning Commission, Government of India. He works on the political economy of caste, group inequality, and regional political economy in India. His recent works are on the political economy of agitations for quotas by the dominant caste groups in India.

The massive protests of Tamils against the ban on Jallikattu, a bull-taming sport held during the harvest festival of Pongal, attracted much attention across the world in 2017. This sport, which till then had been prevalent among only a small number of communities in a few districts in southern Tamil Nadu, suddenly acquired widespread significance and became a marker of an authentic Tamil identity. The making of this identity can be traced to two sets of factors that are internal and external to the state of Tamil Nadu. The external factors are rooted in contemporary political processes: the Centre’s attitude towards Tamil Nadu ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014; its previous contentious role in the racial politics against Tamils in Sri Lanka; the repeated attempts at imposing Hindi and Sanskrit in schools; the use of Hindi and Devanagari numerals on rupee notes; the inroads that the Centre has made into Tamil cultural practices; and, more recently, the Centre’s involvement in political and administrative practices in Tamil Nadu. The internal factors can be traced to changing socioeconomic realities, such as the agrarian crisis; increased anxieties among intermediate caste groups due to the recent new mobility of Dalit groups; and rapid urbanisation leading to a sense of nostalgia among those new to urban life. Mass urbanisation has led to changing social relations, as well as to feelings of alienation and anxiety among recent migrants to cities because of the often rootless and abstract nature of their new lifestyles.

Animal lovers have been waging a legal battle against Jallikattu since 2014 on the charge that it constitutes cruelty to bulls. The elitist nature of the campaign has been pointed out by many observers. But the pro-Jallikattu argument is that the sport is not about taming bulls but rather about ‘embracing’ them and expressing camaraderie with them. Taking a cue from ancient Tamil literature, Jallikattu supporters argue that the sport is not a show of bravery, but is a practice of Yeru Thazhuvuthal (embracing the bull).

However, as the debate raged for over a decade in court rooms, newsrooms, and other public fora, the argument of animal lovers (under a variety of banners such as Animal Welfare Board of India [AWBI] and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA]) held sway over those who wanted to conserve their ancient culture. Two Pongal festivals went by without a Jallikattu event, much to the chagrin and disappointment of subaltern communities. But in January 2017, a group of Jallikattu supporters converged at Alanganallur, a village near Madurai that is famous for the sport, demanding the lifting of the ban. Many of the protesters were students who expressed solidarity with the local people. When police arrested the pro-Jallikattu protesters, the news spread like wildfire through social networking sites (including primarily WhatsApp), resulting in, among other things, a group of Chennai students gathering at Marina Beach to demand the release of the arrested student protesters. The same day, people all over Tamil Nadu organised impromptu protests that were led by students and youth. These protests subsequently came to be referred to as the 'Tamil Spring' and ‘Thai Revolution’ (Thai being the Tamil month that is synonymous with hope and new opportunities brought on by the new harvest).

The protest acquired an iconic place in the history of Tamil Nadu for many reasons. Not only was it massive, non-violent, and spontaneous, but men and women from all walks of life participated in the protests in large numbers. The protesters saw the Jallikattu ban as an attack on Tamil culture and identity—even though many of them might not have ever watched a live version of the sport—and thus Jallikattu became a symbol of Tamil pride.


Jallikattu as a trigger

If the protests saw a forced violent end, it was because the Tamil Spring earned the ire of not just animal lovers but also of an entire establishment that saw in such mobilisations a potential socio-political movement. Just as Tamil language was used by Dravidian political parties to produce horizontal solidarities among lower castes and classes in the past, Jallikattu had now become a symbol of Tamil pride in the political process that ensued.

In the most popular perceptions among the communities and circles outside of the affected ones, Jallikattu came to be seen as an aberration—a weird custom of the Tamils. The 2017 protests that sought its preservation were seen as lawlessness by both the Tamil elites and their counterparts in Delhi, Mumbai, and other urban centres in India. It was felt that Tamils had been carried away by passion and pride instead of reason and nuance. What such critics failed to note were the reasons, contexts, and histories that had led to the Tamil people developing a deeper relationship with the Jallikattu festival. It must be noted that it is not new for the Tamil elite to look down on such large scale student-led protests. In 1939, for example, the premier of the Madras Presidency, C. Rajagopalachari, ridiculed the first anti-Hindi martyr, L. Natarajan, who died in prison. As Rajagopalachari stated: ‘It was due to his illiteracy that he picketed and it was due to his picketing that he happened to be in jail, but his illness was certainly due to other causes’.[i] In the case of the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, T.N. Seshan, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, observed that ‘mobs of illiterate and semi-literate Tamil people, mostly poor, lapsed into fits of fury in the cause of so remote a language, English’.[ii]

Similarly, Nirupama Subramanian[iii] called the 2017 pro-Jallikattu protests as acts of ‘lawlessness’ that set ‘a dangerous new precedent’ in the country. What Subramanian perhaps could not understand was that Jallikattu was about more than 'hurt sentiments' and 'injured pride'.

Another national leader, Subramanian Swamy, called the protesters porukkis (thugs). As in the past, several commentators and critics called the protest ‘anti-national’. It must be noted that the honour of being called ‘anti-national’ is not new to Tamils. Protesters claimed that just as the anti-Hindi agitation was not simply about language, the pro-Jallikattu protest was not just about a sport. Although Jallikattu was undoubtedly the trigger, at least two other strands of popular discontent were discernible at the various protest sites, including the one at Marina Beach in Chennai: an anti-Centre and an anti-corporate sentiment.



The Cauvery water dispute was one of the issues that echoed during the protest, as this dispute has influenced the politics of the state for a long time, due to the deep cultural and economic significance the river holds. The dispute has generated a sense of betrayal among Tamils, as Karnataka had failed to implement the Supreme Court directive to release the river water to save the Samba rice crop in 2017. Despite the state government's efforts, the insufficient release of Cauvery water was seen as the main cause of the 2017 agrarian crisis, which took a heavy toll—more than a hundred farmers died during the crisis. The National Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognizance of the deaths and issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government seeking an explanation.[iv]

The people of the state believed that the Centre had not done enough to ensure their fair share of Cauvery water, and the farmers’ deaths accentuated Tamil resentment against the Centre. This sense of injustice remained fresh in people's memories which is evident from the slogan that resonated throughout the pro-Jallikattu protests—'enough is enough’. In the Mullaperiyar water dispute, Tamils perceived their state as being the victim of a larger conspiracy by the Central Government, where Kerala was being favoured and Tamil Nadu deceived. At some of the protests, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was also raised, and the Centre was accused of its collusion with Sri Lanka in the massacre of Tamils in 2009. 

In addition, there are other policies that have been initiated by the Central Government which the state has been opposing or has sought to be exempted from. One such policy involves the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), which the Supreme Court has made mandatory for all medical school admissions across the country. The state of Tamil Nadu has been opposing it on the grounds that it would jeopardise its social justice policy and other state-specific objectives. All these issues have generated a pent-up anger against the Centre.

This anger became evident when several protesters carried caricatures denigrating Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The slogans and placards asked why Tamil Nadu should respect the Supreme Court when it was unable to assure the state’s water rights. The Central Government’s inaction on several other issues troubling Tamil Nadu also found resonance in the protests. In that sense, Jallikattu was the trigger for the expression of a variety of issues and discontents.


Tamil against Hindu

A new but significant player in the politics surrounding Jallikattu is the Hindu Right, which for the last two decades has been courting Tamils and their culture. Its new-found slogan appears to be ‘Tamil, Hindu and Hindustan’.[v] ‘Tamil’ in the past connoted something to be feared, but that is no longer the case. When the early adherents of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) referred to ‘speaking Tamil’, it was not just about the language, but it also had an anti-caste, secular, and anti-Sanskrit connotation. Unlike in those earlier times, however, Tamil is now harmless: one can be a good Tamil, a good Hindu, and a good Indian simultaneously. But the Hindu right has indeed more recently found supporters in the state. It mobilised around the trope of Thirvalluvar, an ancient Tamil poet, to display its new-found love for Tamil. Thirvalluvar and his works, the Thirukkural, are symbols of the secular tradition of Tamils. For similar reasons, the Hindu right attempted to take up the issue of Jallikattu as a way of preserving ‘Tamil’ culture; however, this strategy backfired, as the weight of history was stronger than current political manoeuvres.

The 2016 move by the Centre to impose Hindi and Sanskrit in schools did not find many supporters in Tamil Nadu. The Jallikattu protests clearly indicate the failure of the attempt to subsume the Tamil identity under Hindu and Indian identities—the placards and slogans displayed in the protests are evidence of this rejection. A quote by a senior BJP leader in the state sums up this mood:

All sorts of anti-national elements are participating in the protests. We don’t bother if you shout against Modi, but what about the nation? There are those in the crowd carrying placards which say that if you don’t allow Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu will secede. Portraits of … LTTE leader Prabhakaran are rampant at the venue. Small children are carrying Modi’s placards with denigrating words about the prime minister…[vi]

The protests also warmed the hearts of raucous Tamil nationals. Both the Hindu Right and Tamil nationalists share a pure love for Tamils, though for different reasons. The symbol of Yeru Thazhuvuthal was seen as celebrating Tamil glory; the Indus Valley Civilisation was co-opted into Tamil culture as the seal with the bull was believed to depict the Tamil Age. Did this protest then signify the redefining of Tamil nationalism? Earlier, when Tamil identity was felt to be under attack, defending it had had a broad appeal and had inspired radical responses, mobilising horizontal solidarities among different sections of society. It was more than a language—it became a vehicle for lower-caste assertion. The citizens of the state now have a vibrant Tamil cultural public and self-confident segment of lower castes who are placed across spectrum due to successive reservation policies.[vii] In that sense, whether this present mobilization is more a question of pride now than in the past which was rooted in deprivations, is yet to be unfolded.



The omnipresent placards conveying the message ‘PETA is a corporate lobby and the ban is a corporate ploy’ and similar slogans that rang throughout the protest sites in the state was a clear indicator that anti-corporate sentiments had gripped the collective psyche of the Tamils. To that extent, it came as no surprise that one of the fallouts of the protest was that international soft drink brands such as Coke and Pepsi went off the shelves of many shops across Tamil Nadu. The slogans running ‘Down with Coke and Pepsi’, along with ‘Down with PETA’, were repeatedly raised to drive home the point that there was an international corporate ploy to play with the health of Tamils.

A housewife when asked her motive for attending the protest said: 'Corporatisation is happening rapidly. All things we use are controlled now by the corporate. What worries me most is that corporate things are occupying my kitchen. My children like junk food, noodles, soft drinks like Coke and Pepsi, and so on. Now, the corporates have brought in substandard quality milk that would make my children weak. But the milk from native cows would make them stronger. This understanding has pushed me to the protest that was called by the students,' said Usha, mother of two children.[viii]

By linking the ban on Jallikattu to the imagined corporate takeover of milk production in the state, protestors managed to connect with the women. In various campaigns, women have been repeatedly told about the need to follow traditional culinary cultures, and have been presented with frightening portends of corporate lures. The narrative that the bulls used in Jallikattu are pure bred, and that they are preserved because of Jallikattu, were circulated widely during the protests. They are told that the sport helps in segregating the best bulls from the weak ones, and that these winning bulls are then bred with cows, which go on to offer the best milk. These cows are expected to live a long time and to offer enough milk for both their calves and people. The purebred bulls known as Kangayam and Pulikulam are preserved primarily for breeding, and take part in Jallikattu. ‘If the sport is banned, we will lose these native cattle’—this sentiment resonated throughout the protests. Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, who runs the Senapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation, helped spearhead this campaign. He says that, ‘The banning of Jallikattu and the demand for banning of other rural sports like rekhla race will ultimately result in the vanishing of native species and ultimately result in the country turning into import dependent on bovine animals’.[ix]

The fear generated particularly among women was that losing these cattle means losing self-sufficiency in milk production. It is a corporate ploy, they were told. The ‘corporate’ genetically-modified breeds of cows have a short life and produce huge quantities of milk. This milk, women were told, causes many health issues, such as digestive issues and allergies in children. This campaign was conducted so vehemently that it bordered on neo-nativism.[x] Not only did it capture the existing anti-corporate imagination of the people, but it turned the protesters, and people in general, against the Central Government, which was projected as a natural ally of the corporates.


New social movement?

Tamil Nadu has been witnessing vibrant social media-led activism in recent times. Evidence of this trend are the student uprisings against war crimes in Sri Lanka in 2013, well-organised flood relief in 2015, and the mobilisation for Jallikattu. The 2015 floods were the worst that Chennai and Cuddalore had witnessed in nearly a hundred years, and the state government's ineptitude in implementing preventive measures carrying out post-flood relief efforts were still fresh in people's memories. It was the youth and students who took the lead in rehabilitation efforts for flood victims, and they mobilised support across the state through social media. A similar style of organisation was observable during the Jallikattu protests.

A vibrant social-media culture needs an educated class and shared vocabularies and a cultural language to connect, communicate, and mobilise people. How did this become possible in Tamil Nadu? A historical perspective would not be out of place here. The significant outcomes of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu include achievements in social justice and the assertion of Tamil identity. While the former—through innovative reservation policies—produced social and economic mobility for a substantial section of the population across caste groups, the latter produced a well-informed Tamil cultural public. As Pandian sums this up: ‘Avant-garde magazines, proliferation of publishing houses, an expanded reading public, globally-informed debates, and books which both in their content and design can compete with the best in the world, are all hallmarks of the new self-confident Tamil cultural public.’[xi] 

The mobilisation for Jallikattu was driven by an active social-media presence which became possible because of an educated class that has formed across caste groups, and the overall Tamil cultural public. The groundswell of student and youth activism was seen as a Tamil Spring akin to the Arab Spring—it is indeed a spring in terms of its mobilisation if not in content. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp played a significant role in disseminating information and in coordinating and organising rallies, as well as in planning the occupation of public spaces. The social-media engine generated slogans used by protesters across the state. This sort of social-media-led mobilisation has changed the traditional protest or demonstration into what Castells calls the new social movement.[xii] Castells argues that the internet not only facilitates instant communication but also liberates individuals to shape a new autonomy and freedom as individuals. In the process, mass individual-based horizontal networks get built that can criticise any one, offer space to vent collective anger against the powers-that-be, and ensure mass participation. Since it offers independent and autonomous space, people can share their experiences and relate their lived stories with others, helping them to overcome ‘the powerlessness of their solitary despair by networking desire’.[xiii]


As a woman participant in the protests said, 

This is my first ever protest. Though I have resentments over a few other doings of the government, I have never come out boldly like this before. I also spoke among the gathering at the protest venue in my first protest itself. I have left my one-year baby in my mother-in-law's care and come to this protest with my husband. When I said this in my speech, many women appreciated me. I have come to know about these issues through WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube videos.[xiv]


Similarly, it was observed in the protests that whenever a person said that they migrated to Chennai from Madurai or other places, and narrated their experience of the city and of life in the corporate workspace, they would receive huge applause from the crowd. The gathering at Chennai’s Marina Beach was thus both protest and celebration. The claiming of a social space which had become unavailable to those who were now city dwellers and became a new-found source of freedom and joy for those who felt alienated from their work and surroundings in the city.

If social media worked to coordinate, communicate, and disseminate these messages, non-stop coverage by Tamil electronic media helped to magnify the movement, which particularly drew women from across various sectors of society. Just as the self-immolation of a young street vendor in Tunisia triggered a sea of protests and became the Arab Spring, so Jallikattu became a trigger for the Tamil Spring.



[i] Pandian and Kalaiyarasan, ‘A Tamil Spring?’

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Subramanian, ‘Lawless on the Shore.’

[iv] Janardhanan, ‘NHRC Notice to Tamil Nadu over Farmer Deaths.’

[v] Pandian, ‘Tamil-Friendly Hindutva.’

[vi] Ramasubramanian, ‘Jallikattu Protestors Battle Tamil Nadu Police, But for Many, Modi, Centre are Main Target.’

[vii] Pandian, ‘New Times in Tamil Nadu.’

[viii] The comment is taken from the unstructured interview conducted by me among the people gathered at the protests.

[ix] Babu, ‘Jallikattu: Tug of War Over Bull-Taming Festival in Tamil Nadu Continues.’

[x] I use neo-nativism here as the defence comes not only from natives but also the urban folk.

[xi] Pandian, ‘New Times in Tamil Nadu.’

[xii] Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] The comment is taken from an unstructured interview conducted by Dr Kalaiyarasan A. among the people gathered at the Marina Beach protests.



Babu, Gireesh. ‘Jallikattu: Tug of War Over Bull-Taming Festival in Tamil Nadu Continues.’ Business Standard, Chennai, 10 January, 2017. https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/jallikattu-tug-of-war-over-bull-taming-festival-in-tamil-nadu-continues-117011000829_1.html.

Castells, Manuel. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2015.

Janardhanan, Arun. ‘NHRC Notice to Tamil Nadu over Farmer Deaths.’ The Indian Express. New Delhi, January 6, 2017. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/nhrc-notice-to-tamil-nadu-over-farmer-deaths-4461003/.

Pandian, M.S.S. ‘Tamil-Friendly Hindutva’, Economic and Political Weekly 35, no. 22 (2000): 1805–06.

—— ‘New Times in Tamil Nadu.’ Seminar 620 (April 2011). http://www.india-seminar.com/2011/620/620_m_s_s_pandian.htm.

Pandian, M.S.S., and Kalaiyarasan, A. ‘A Tamil Spring?’ Economic and Political Weekly 48. no. 15 (2013): 1011.

Ramasubramanian, R. ‘Jallikattu Protestors Battle Tamil Nadu Police, But for Many, Modi, Centre are Main Target.’ The Wire. January 23, 2017. https://thewire.in/culture/suppression-of-anti-modi-sentiments-at-marina-beach-undermines-media-credibility.

Subramanian, Nirupama. ‘Lawless on the Shore.’ The Indian Express ‘Opinion’. January 24, 2017. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/jallikattu-protest-marina-beach-tamil-nadu-ban-government-solution-4488303/.

Times of India.  ‘BJP Minister Asks Tamils To Learn Hindi & Sanskrit.’ Times of India. Chennai, September 14, 2015. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/BJP-minister-asks-Tamils-to-learn-Hindi-Sanskrit/articleshow/48950871.cms.