Kalaiyarasan A. and Shruti Ragavan

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.

Shruti Ragavan is currently a doctoral candidate at National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. She undertook a study on Jallikattu as part of her MA dissertation at Ambedkar University Delhi. Her interest lies in understanding human-animal relationships in the urban.

In January 2017, protests and demonstrations were held across Tamil Nadu challenging the 2014 ­Supreme Court (SC) ban on a rural traditional sportJallikattu. Alongside the movement, a debate raged in electronic and print media (both in English and Tamil) on the history, politics and ethics of Jallikattu. This debate evoked widespread public participation, with academics, political figures, writers, animal rights activists, and cultural figures, including members of the Tamil film industry, voicing their opinions. The Jallikattu debate in 2017 became the fulcrum of discussions on culture, folk traditions, modernity, regional identity, caste, gender, law, the environment, animal rights and so on. In this module, we attempt to briefly trace the socio-politico-cultural genealogy of Jallikattu in order to better understand the complexities and nuances of these contemporary debates.

 

A Historical and Cultural Overview

The term ‘Jallikattu’ is a compound word derived from two Tamil wordssallikaasu (coins) and kattu (a package)which gained currency during the colonial period. The festival was named thus as it involved releasing a bull through a narrow gate known as vaadivaasal into an arena where male participants in the festival try to grab a pouch tied to its horns by catching hold of the running animal’s hump. The aim is to secure the pouch successfully without falling off the bull. Taming the bull requires quick reflexes, the absence of which can lead to serious injuries or even fatalities. Celebrated annually across various towns in certain districts of Tamil Nadu such as Trichy, Pudukkottai, Sivaganga and Madurai, Jallikattu is part of the traditional repertoire of Pongal, the three-day-long harvest festival held in January, or the Tamil month of Thai.

The Tamil word for bull or cow, i.e., maadu, has also come to denote wealth. Moreover, according to the classical Tamil text Thirukkural, authored by poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar, education or knowledge is the real ‘maadu’.[i] In this sense, there is ‘value’ attached to the bull—be it in terms of economic wealth or the wealth of knowledge/nature—which has been corroborated in our interviews with bull keepers/tamers, who attribute values of regional pride, identity and culture to the bull (elaborated in the allied article ‘Story of a Bull Keeper’).

While no one disputes that Jallikattu is a long-standing tradition, recent attempts by the state and animal rights organisations to ban the festival have provoked a flurry of articles and essays on the history of this sport that have attempted to prove its legitimacy by establishing the longevity of the practice. This quest to prove the ‘ancientness’ of Jallikattu often calls upon evidence such as a seal depicting the bull-taming practice in the Indus Valley Civilisation—unearthed during excavations in the 1930s at Mohenjo-daro[ii]—as proof of its antiquity. Similarly, several rock paintings dating back over 3,500 years found at Karikkiyur, a remote village in Tamil Nadu, show men chasing bulls with big humps and long, straight horns. According to local folklore, Jallikattu has been celebrated since the days of the Nayaka kings, and it is known even to this day as a Veera Vilayattu (warrior sport). The biggest open space available in each village would be used for the sport, and the vaadivaasal marked out for the bulls to make an entrance.

Although traditionally the festival was celebrated in rural Tamil Nadu on the second and third days of Pongal, today, Jallikattu takes place on the first day of Pongal in the town of Avaniyapuram in the Madurai district, and on the second and third days in the towns of Palamedu and Alanganallur, respectively; the festival draws thousands of spectators across the state, who either attend the events themselves or watch it broadcasted on TV.[iii] Following the Pongal festival, Jallikattu is conducted across the southern rural belt of the state for the next six months. Interchangeably referred to as festival (vizha) and sport (vilayattu), Jallikattu, at least in its present form (since 2017), is more akin to the latter than the former—due in part to the regulated, organised nature of the practice, including the rigorous methods of care-taking that have evolved to prepare the bulls for the festival.

The changing dynamics of the sport, its representation in popular discourse and the place of the bull in the hierarchy of this world can be traced through multiple Tamil literary texts. One finds historical references to bull-fighting practices during festivals which date back to the Tamil classical period also known as the Sangam period (400 BC–AD 200). The first elaborate description of this sport, known then as Yeruthazhuvuthal (embrace the bull), can be found in Kalithogai, a Sangam anthology of 150 poems in the kali metre of varied length[iv], composed around 200 BC.[v] In Kalithogai, the festival is described as part of a rural pastoral setup and as being popular among warriors, as it involves both courage and violence. Lines 1535 of section 102 recount a scene of the festival thus: ‘There is a crowd of people standing around. A man arises and grabs the hump of the bull, then its neck and then the head. The bull runs in all ferocity with him initially, but gets tamed. At the end, the entire crowd and village is happy’.[vi] Traditionally, Jallikattu referred to as Yeru Thazhuvuthal (meaning embracing the bull), seems to have been conducted to judge a man’s valour and strength, and this was perceived to be one of the ways to win a woman’s hand in marriage. Another poem in Kalithogai describes the bull as being a woman’s best friend, as it helps select the best man for her.[vii]

Apart from being referenced in Sangam literature, the Jallikattu festival has also been prominently featured in modern literary texts in Tamil. For instance, it has been written about in a number of Tamil novels that provide crucial insights into the various iterations of this tradition over the years. B.R. Rajam Aiyar’s Kamalambal Charithiram, written in 1893, depicts the celebration accompanying the sport as one that was attended by men and women in large numbers. In Aiyar’s novel, we also see how the terminology associated with the sport evolved and was used, and how the practice was entangled with rural power structures in the districts of Madurai and Tirunelveli, where the story is set. In the 1930s, Kothamangalam Subbu wrote a short story titled ‘Manji Virattu’, which also refers to a form of Jallikattu. It narrates a conflict which arises against the backdrop of this sport between two caste groups, and, for the first time, describes the festival as one that all Tamils celebrate. He also wrote a novel, Rao Bahadur Singaram, which was published in the popular Tamil weekly, Ananda Vikatan. Here, the story centres on a romance between a young girl who raises a bull and a youth who sets out to capture it. However, it was C.S. Chellapa’s 1959 novella, Vaadivaasal, which became the ‘locus classicus’ of Jallikattu.[viii] The book captures the shifting dynamics of the sport, not just between man and man, but also as it plays out between man and animal. Interestingly, while the port/festival is primarily celebrated among the intermediary castes (such as Thevars), all these texts mentioned above were written by Brahmins.[ix] In that sense what we observe here is the cultural significance of Jallikattu in the way that it seems to have captured the Tamil modern imagination across caste lines. Modern Tamil literature depicts Jallikattu in its multiple social and political dimensions, from the changing landscape around it, and the caste conflicts that arise in its context, to the relationship between man and animal.

From the mid-20th century, in cinematic representations of the festival ‘the taming of the bull by the rural hero became a recurring trope’.[x] The town of Alanganallur in the Madurai district soon became synonymous with the sport because of the hit movie starring Rajnikanth, Murattu Kaalai released in 1980. This continues to hold true today, as Govindaraj, one of the bull keepers we interviewed (on 23rd December, 2017 at Alanganallur), said, ‘Jallikattu is Alanganallur. Alanganallur is Jallikattu. Jallikattu is a symbol of Alanganallur’. Therefore, through these representations, Jallikattu began to transcend its narrow regional and caste definitions, evolving into a symbol of Tamil identity, pride and culture.

 

The Jallikattu Protests and Tamil Identity: Background and Context

In January 2017, a 15-day pro-Jallikattu demonstration was held on Marina Beach, Chennai, primarily to protest the SC’s 2014 ban on the sport/festival on the grounds of animal cruelty. The Marina beach protest was one of several protests which occurred across the statein Madurai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Kanchipuram, Erode and Tirunelveli, among other locations. The protest also received international support from Tamil diaspora communities in UK, Australia, Ireland, China, Russia and the US.[xi] The Chennai protest was by far the largest and best attended. Although often referred to as a ‘student movement’, the protest comprised a large number of people across occupationsworking professionals, academics, celebrities, politicians, conservation activists, writers, daily wage workers, and other members of the working classnot just from the city, but several thousands who travelled from other parts of the state to the capital in support of the cause. The protest soon became a fulcrum for addressing a range of grievances against the state. Some of these related directly to Jallikattu, such as the demand to ban the animal rights organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and other organisations with an ‘international agenda’ which failed to take cognisance of local communitarian and cultural interests. Some of the other issues raised had no direct relation to Jallikattu, such as demands to boycott multi-national corporations (MNCs), to resolve the ongoing agrarian crisis in the context of the Cauvery River issue, to resist the enforcement of Hindi as an official language by the central government, to improve the plight of the fishermen community, and for a separate Tamil Eelam, to mention some. In that sense, the protest became a movement, a platform to raise voice against several burning issues that signalled state apathy toward regional concerns, and therefore, came to be called a ‘Tamil uprising’ or ‘Tamil Spring’.

Thus, multiple socio-political and economic factors were at play in the protests that erupted in Tamil Nadu in defence of Jallikattu. Political issues including the perceived role of the Indian state in the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka; the recent move by the centre to impose Hindi and Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu’s schools; and the inclusion of Hindi and Devanagari numerals in the design of the newly introduced rupee note all contributed to the transformation of the Jallikattu protest into a Tamil Spring. The Hindu Right’s attempts to subsume Tamil identity under a pan-Indian Hindu identity is perhaps the primary cause for this assertion of ‘Tamilness’. However, the mobilisation of the Tamil people in the pro-Jallikattu protests also needs to be considered in the context of changing socio-economic realities in Tamil Nadu.

 

The Rural as a Site of Nostalgia

The rural is no longer synonymous with agrarian life in Tamil Nadu, with youth withdrawal from agriculture occurring at a faster pace here than in other Indian states.[xii] Tamil Nadu is one of the fastest urbanising states in the country; about 50 per cent of its population has been urban since 2011. With the acceleration in urbanisation over the last two decades, many migrants from rural areas living in urban Tamil Nadu have been unable to find jobs suitable to their education, particularly those with degrees in engineering. This has created a sense of nostalgia for the rural among young city-dwellers in the state, combined with feelings of alienation and rootlessness—all of which were evident in the speeches and songs heard during the Jallikattu protests. However, while the Tamil village continues to exist, the life that it offers is fast changing. And change is not desirable in itself for all—a matter that holds true particularly for certain castes who enjoyed power and privilege in the rural structures of the past. Thus, many who participated in the pro-Jallikattu protests were also driven by nostalgiaa desire to travel back in time, reassert in an agrarian culture that might restore those privileges. The movement’s emphasis on Tamil pride seems to have offered solace to that sense of lost power. The taming of the bull was seen as an affirmation of that pride.

 

Vanishing Agrarian Life

The agrarian economy has experienced vast transformations in Tamil Nadu in recent decades. A steady decline in both the share and absolute number of cultivators since the 1990s suggests a movement of the rural workforce to non-agricultural and urban spaces. The percentage of cultivators in rural Tamil Nadu has come down from 29 per cent in 1981 to just 13 per cent in 2011, which is one of the lowest figures across states in India.[xiii] Household incomes from cultivation have also declined. Among agricultural households in the state, only about 43 per cent of the household income is from cultivation, as against 60 per cent for the rest of India. Even the net sown area declined from 62.32 lakh hectares in 197980 to 49.86 lakh hectares in 201112. The urban settings are often seen as a source of opportunities and freedom, thereby inviting migration from rural settings. Yet, neither these promised opportunities nor this anticipated freedom have been made available to all.

 

Engineers on Paper

Tamil Nadu has become a supply hub for engineers in recent years. The state has 534 engineering colleges, fewer only than Maharashtra. Affirmative action policies in the state’s education sector have ensured access to education across social strata. While it is true that intermediate castes (such as Vanniars, Nadars, Gounders and Devars) exploited their access to political power and further cemented their economic status from building private engineering colleges across the state (given the huge demand for engineering courses in Tamil Nadu), these colleges granted diverse caste groups access to education. The gross enrolment ratio in higher education in Tamil Nadu is one of the highest among the states and is double the all-India average. According to a report by the All India Survey on Higher Education (201415), 45.2 per cent of the state’s youth in the 1823 age group are engaged in some form of higher education, whereas the all-India figure is just 24.3 per cent. There is also a measure of equality of educational opportunity, as mentioned before, between caste groups in Tamil Nadu. However, increased access to education may constitute a problem when, despite investing in education, one finds no returns—as, for example, in a situation where there are not enough jobs to absorb all the engineers that the state has produced. Given the limited generation of quality jobs, mere access to higher education, without proportional diversification in the employment market, does not translate into better prospects for its beneficiaries.

A recent National Sample Survey (68th round for 201112) suggests that a large percentage of rural Tamil Nadu’s youth population is unemployed and underemployed. Many of them are in the category of ‘neither in jobs nor in education’. The fact that nearly 30 per cent of male graduates from rural areas fall under this category suggests that education does not guarantee quality employment.[xiv]

 

English as a Barrier

The dividing line between those who get jobs and those who do not is mediated by language, among other factors. In other words, English has become a marker of the opportunity divide, functioning as barrier to entry for many in the job market. The nature of job opportunities created by the recent economic growth in the state demands a set of soft skills—social graces, professional communicative styles and a particular class dispositionto land a desirable job. Despite possessing formal engineering degrees, many job-seekers from rural Tamil Nadu lack these skills. A recent study suggests that the medium of education is a critical factor of differentiation in the job market[xv], where a lack of access to English often becomes a barrier to better employment opportunities, particularly in service sectors.

Many who have invested considerable sums to study at private colleges feel a deep sense of despair and frustration at not having found remunerative jobs. Very often, families take out bank loans to fund youths’ higher education. Recent data show that Tamil Nadu accounted for more than one-fifth of all educational loans availed in the country through public sector banks in 2013–14 as well as 2015–16; it was also the biggest borrower in this sector among all the states.[xvi] Engineering is the most sought-after profession, followed by construction-related work, indicating a kind of a dualistic labour market in terms of skills and incomes. The question of who lands which job is often decided by language skills. The inability to acquire English language speaking skills has also renewed a certain pride in Tamil among many, and the protests in defence of Jallikattu became a platform to display that pride.

 

Anxieties of the Intermediate Castes

Under the rule of the Dravidian parties since the 1960s, the combination of affirmative action and a new sense of Tamil identity worked to empower lower castes—particularly the intermediate caste groups, which benefited the most from the overhauling of the system. Education and land offered mobility to those who possessed a certain ‘social capability’, i.e., minimum resources which enabled them to avail new opportunities created by this political mobilisation.[xvii] When land was transferred from the elite to these caste groups[xviii], the surplus generated in agriculture and other sectors made its way into real estate and construction, liquor production and educational institutions. Contrasting to this growth of the intermediate castes, the gains for the lower castes and classes were uneven. Intra-caste differentiation sharpened to the extent that while some Dalit caste groups experienced new mobility, others were left behind. Indeed, several recent micro studies suggest that as a result of this new mobility for some Dalit caste groups, the intermediate castes no longer wield control over them in the way that they used to in the past.[xix] Further, state interventions through a slew of welfare measures as well as urbanisation have improved the position of Dalits vis-à-vis intermediate caste groups. The large turnout at the Jallikattu protests in some sense represent this desire of the intermediate castes to return to what is perceived as an older social equilibrium of their caste dominance over lower caste groups.

 

The Protest as an Event

Several people and organisations have demanded that Jallikattu be given legal status, including Karthikeyan Sivasenapathy (Senapathy Kangeyam Cattle Research Foundation), Dr P. Rajasekaran (Jallikattu Peravai Tamil Nadu), and Tamil hip-hop artist Tamizha Adhi, among others, since the initial ban on the sport in 2006. For instance, since 2012 in Madurai, Sivasenapathy has been working to create awareness about the festival and the science behind the practice, bringing it together with notions of Tamil pride and culture. Despite many such efforts, the SC banned the Jallikattu festival in 2014, based on evidence of animal abuse and cruelty submitted by PETA and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). Preparations for the festival took place even in the two years following the ban in the hope that it would be revoked. However, the SC did not budge on its verdict despite appeals made by both state and central governments. In 2016, the Central Government reversed its earlier decision and exempted bulls from the list of performing animals[xx], an action which met with severe criticism from SC justices who questioned the authority of the Centre on this matter. The SC then issued a stay order, effectively banning the sport once again, just five days after the Centre revoked the ban. Repeated attempts to legalise the festival sparked much discussion and debate around the sport, especially on social media. In June 2016, a video released by rapper Adhi, linking Jallikattu and Tamil pride, went viral on YouTube, garnering six million views.[xxi] The video addressed the importance of Jallikattu’s role in promoting native breeds of livestock and organic farming. With resentment growing against not only political parties within the state, but the central government as well, on account of their failure to legalise and legitimise the festival, the SC’s refusal to reconsider the matter in November 2016 was the final straw that set off a spate of protests across the state.

As mentioned earlier, social media, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp, played a crucial role in bringing the protesters together and making the protests possible. The posts were circulated widely and included messages of unity and pleas to collectively defy the orders of the apex court; demands for a revival of Tamil culture; and calls to save native breeds of cattle. Multiple hashtags were used across popular mediums, ensuring that the messages and posts had a wide reach. The protests in Chennai began on January 8, 2017, with about 5000 pro-Jallikattu protesters holding placards saying, among other things, ‘Save Jallikattu’, touting it as a matter of ‘Tamil Pride’ and ‘Tamil Culture’.[xxii] Various slogans were raised during the protest against the ban, including some demanding the ban of PETA. The site of the protest was the six-kilometre-long stretch of Marina Beach, a popular and prominent location which attracts a large number of visitors on a daily basis.

Protesters, predominantly students, marched from the lighthouse to the ‘Triumph of Labour’ statue on the beach, along with folk performers and a decorated bull.[xxiii] The protest marches continued for a couple of days until the SC once again rejected the plea for reverting its judgement on Jallikattu. Afterwards, numerous student protesters were arrested in Alanganallur, and once again, massive protests erupted on January 17 in Chennai. What began at 6 am with a handful of students grew into a crowd of thousands of people protesting until past midnight. While protesters engaged in sloganeering, holding placards, and forming human chains, they ensured that the demonstrations were peaceful, demonstrators cleaned up the protest sites, and food and water were supplied to all. When the Chennai police turned off the lights along the Marina stretch that night, thousands of mobile phone torches were lit up in defiance of this attempt by the state to subdue the protests. Protesters who stayed back that night and camped on the beach were provided with tents and blankets. In the media, the demonstrators were applauded for how the whole affair was conducted—the protest was driven by the youth of today, strove to keep away the political class and the state, and above all, was mindful and peaceful.

The leaders of the protest—Sivasenapathy, Rajasekaran and Adhi—met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh on January 20, 2017, and along with President Pranab Mukherjee and the Governor of Tamil Nadu, C. Vidyasagar Rao, drafted and signed an ordinance which sanctioned the festival on January 21. By the time they returned to the city, however, the mood of the protest had changed. According to Sivasenapathy, students from other districts and towns had left the site, but other groups with vested interests had taken over the protest.[xxiv] On January 23, parts of the protest turned violent and the organisers distanced themselves from these groups, claiming that a victory delivered by students was being hijacked by ‘fringe’ causes that were overshadowing the core demand of the movement. While both English and Tamil media supported the event, neither they nor the state recognised that the protests were not concerned merely with one demand. They were unable to realise the transformative potential and nature of the event.

 

Conclusion

Jallikattu, the sport, is generally practised in certain districts of Tamil NaduTrichy, Pudukkottai, Sivaganga, and Maduraiduring the harvest festival of Pongal, celebrated in the month of January or Thai as per the Tamil calendar. While the sport has a long social and cultural history, it acquired a new prominence and became the symbol of a resurgent Tamil identity during the Jallikattu protest in 2017. The protest has a pretext and context. The pretext is, inter alia, resistance to the Indian state’s aggressive policies in Tamil Naduits role in the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, its imposition of Hindi and Sanskrit in schools, and the inclusion of Hindi and Devanagari numerals in the design of rupee notesaimed at extending the Centre’s shadow power over the region by making inroads in cultural as well as political and administrative practices. The context of the protest is the fast-changing socioeconomic reality of the state. On the one hand, the agrarian crisis, rapid urbanisation and the blurring distinction between the rural and urban have recast the Tamil village as a site of nostalgia. On the other, Dalit mobility and changing social relations have generated fresh anxieties among intermediate castes. The increasing sense of alienation, displacement, and incompleteness felt by new inhabitants of urban spaces in Tamil Nadu, owing to the rootless and abstract lifestyles of the city, often induces in them the desire to seek compensation in an idyllic, almost mythical, rural past.

 

Notes

[i] Venkatachalapathy, 'Catching a sport by its horns.'

[ii] Karthikeyan, 'Jallikattu: Tradition first, safety next.'

[iii] Pal, 'To ban or not to ban: Jallikattu, its interesting history and both sides of the debate.'

[iv] Kali metre is noted as different from the akaval and vanchi metres which were more commonly used in early classical Tamil poetry. Along with another metre called paripatal, kali is deemed by scholars as best suited to love poetry.

[v] Pal, 'To ban or not to ban: Jallikattu, its interesting history and both sides of the debate.'

[vi] Translated by the authors.

[vii] Pal, 'To ban or not to ban: Jallikattu, its interesting history and both sides of the debate.'

[viii] Venkatachalapathy, 'Catching a sport by its horns.'

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] The News Minute, 'From London to Madurai and beyond: Tamilians protest against Jallikattu ban.'

[xii] Vijayabaskar, Narayanan and Srinivasan, 'Agricultural Revival and Reaping the Youth Dividend.'

[xiii] Vijayabaskar, 'The Agrarian Question amidst Populist Welfare.'

[xiv] Vijayabaskar, Narayanan and Srinivasan, 'Agricultural Revival and Reaping the Youth Dividend.'

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Vijayabaskar, 'The Agrarian Question amidst Populist Welfare.'

[xvii] Subramanian, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization, 74.

[xviii] Jeyaranjan, ‘Tenancy Reforms in Tamil Nadu: A Study from the Cauvery Delta Region.’

[xix] Pandian, 'Caste in Tamil Nadu - II'

[xx] Chapter V of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960 which was constituted to prevent unnecessary pain or suffering on animals, deals with ‘Performing Animals’animals which are trained or exhibited for the purpose of entertainment. According to the PCA (TN Amendments) Act 2017, bulls participating in Jallikattu are exempt from the rules applicable to performing animals.

[xxi] Ravishankar and Kumar, 'Jallikattu protests: Was the students’ ‘movement’ in Tamil Nadu hijacked?'

[xxii] Financial Express, ‘Jallikattu’ ban: Chennai public takes to streets, demands annulment.'

[xxiii] The Hindu, 'Thousands hit the streets for Jallikattu.'

[xxiv] Ravishankar and Kumar, 'Jallikattu protests: Was the students’ ‘movement’ in Tamil Nadu hijacked?'

 

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