Nearly three months ago, Tamil Nadu saw a huge wave of protests against a controversial ban of a traditional sport – Jallikattu. At its peak, the protest wave transcended its local purposes and became a social, political and cultural movement that provoked institutional reversal, albeit momentarily. However, underlying the overwhelming mass-appeal of the protests, there are some problematic strains that undercut the protest narrative that need to be addressed. The importance of refining protest language and rhetoric amidst a political struggle is very high, because it is not only representative but also formative in shaping popular dispositions and argumentative structure.
To offer a little background, Jallikattu or Aer Thazhuvuthal (literally Bull Hugging) is a kind of bull-fighting where an agitated bull is released amidst a sea of participants who try to subdue it. There are clear rules about how many people are supposed to engage with the bull at any given time, as well as which part of the bull can be held during the event. However, the actual numbers of bull to man ratio is not clear on any of the sources. This sport has been a point of contention, as many see a move to forbid such events as a challenge to or dilution of their culture. And many who are outside the culture do not see the point of something that is visibly cruel towards an animal.
The debate over Jallikattu has raged sporadically for a few years around this season but an uneasy compromise often was offered instead of a clear solution. This year, the issue reached a head when the Supreme court ordered to ban the event. Compounded with a general anger against unilateral government policies that lost touch with ground reality, the issue of Jallikattu became a flashpoint of public action. Supporters of the sport took to social media and the streets to protest peacefully in remarkable numbers. The critical mass of the movement was so monumental that it changed the popular discourse about the event, and it gained national and even international attention, leading to a change in the laws themselves. In a nation where the idea of political change is often dealt with skepticism, if not cynicism, the results were beyond the most optimistic expectations. Jallikattu events happened around the state and it was seen as a victory for the untapped political power of youth movement and social media networking.
However, the language in which much of the protest was carried out was anticlimactic and weak, because it called for hostility towards one organization (PETA) and ignored the core issue at hand. Ignored were the other Indian Animal Welfare organizations that also had called for a ban on the sport. Instead of engaging with the politics and more importantly, the ethics of the criticism – the resistance focused on the origin of the opponent. By attacking PETA’s American origin, the protests slipped away from the legitimacy of their position, creating greater ambiguity of message. Ironically, PETA was not called out for its many inconsistencies or hypocritical reaction to animal welfare. Instead, it was challenged simply because it was not an ‘Indian’ organization. Other Indian organizations were dismissed equally nonchalantly, because they were not ‘Tamil’. And what happens to those who happen to be Tamil, and against the sport? They are traitors and outcasts who are no longer connected to the roots of the culture.
I am also aware that my own opposing views would be seen as at best, contrarian or at worst – treacherous. It does not help that I am writing this piece in English – I am already a sellout. I can already hear the accusation that, “Of course he lives abroad, disconnected from the realpolitik of day-to-day Tamil Nadu and the aspirations of the Tamil people. What else can you expect?” And I ask the same question – what else can you expect, when the quality of your resistance lacks moral direction? The rhetoric was constructed on a fervent Tamil nationalism and a rhetoric of anger that discredited any view that was opposed to theirs. This is a dangerous and totalitarian discourse that resists dialogue in favor of a populist will. Sensitive issues are inherently polarizing and a misguided rhetoric that prevents communication does not improve the situation – it simply turns into a political tug-o-war.
And perhaps the most disheartening part of this fervent discourse was the ad hominem attacks which took the easy routes of sexism and xenophobia. The overwhelming misogyny directed towards actress Trisha when she expressed an opinion contrary to the public groundswell was downright shameful. She was addressed with the most unimaginative epithets and was called out for drinking and hanging out with people from outside the state. The shutting down of a film production which featured her was celebrated as an achievement. Similar moral outrage over drinking and threats of physical violence were directed at the head of PETA’s Indian administration. Of course, she was a woman as well. None of the social media bravos expressed their displeasure with the usage of such language, regardless of their own drinking or smoking habits. The populist imagination was so opposed to contradiction that it fiercely challenges any form of dissent. Beyond a question of doubt, such language was mainly directed towards women, chastising them for the impunity of trying to curb something that is masculine. This attitude of cultivated ignorance and rage against the other that has insinuated itself into the culture of protest so deeply, that it achieved little more than simply changing a decision about an event – while utterly wasting its potential that once seemed to become a point of legitimate dialogue between opposing ideals.
Equally worrisome was the demand for banning things. There is a petulance that could easily take a fascist turn if not checked with a desire to engage with opposition in a responsible and co-operative manner. To call for a ban on something is to reject a conversation in favor of fascist political control. Why not test the validity of the idea in the open market? Why not boycott PETA or any organization whose principles you are against? Why not simply stop using the products of the multi-billion dollar companies who are seen as an anti-national enemy? Nothing cuts a business more than the absence of growth and profit. A ban does not express the will of the people – it only reveals the insecurity of those who want to remove anything that is challenges their power and authority. The call for a ban is a reactionary and rage-fueled response that unironically affirms the same authority which had banned Jallikattu unilaterally in the first place.
There were many voices that presented a well-argued position that stemmed from pragmatism (protection of native species) and rationalism (a call to closely regulate the events instead of banning it) – which were very clearly visible throughout the protests. However, they were never invested with the responsibility to be the most important part of the protests. Instead, show of strength and populist slogans took over the narrative. There are agriculturalists and historians who watch helplessly as their nuanced arguments have been steamrolled over by simplistic jingoism.
Ultimately, the sport was conducted, but the results were anti-climactic in their mundanity. Despite the many advocacy groups which flagrantly declared their guarantee of better treatment of the animals – the sport was conducted in the same way as it always had been – with abuse, death and irregularities. Nobody was interested in talking about reform of the problem after the fact. That would be a conversation for next year, three days before the event. Questioning the brutality of the sport which left two dead this year also quickly became taboo – you cannot choose the extent to which you support the event. There can be no discussion on the evolution of the sport to offer greater protection for the participants and the bulls. You are either with the protest or against Tamil Culture. We need a better quality of protestors, those who engage with the problem and not the people. Those who believe that ideas can be debated without disrespect. Those who know that just because something was a certain way in the past, it does not mean that it ought to continue in the same way.
That is why, despite my own personal support of Jallikattu – I am not comfortable with the “I Support Jallikattu” movement. It is important to remember that a movement which loses its moral direction becomes irrelevant, regardless of its cause. When the dust settles, the issue of Jallikattu has not yet been resolved, it has been summarily and perpetually postponed by the overwhelming will of the majority. A truly ethical decision would focus on developing a much more nuanced way of conducting the sport which includes incorporation of safety elements for both the animals as well as the participants. The current reactionary move to reinstate the sport does little than revert to an older form of status quo. Instead of addressing any of the questions (such as these raised in an opinion piece featured in The Hindu) that should haunt the self-proclaimed lovers of animals and those who call upon the greater good of preserving native species of cattle, all we got was a day with a few agitated bulls rushed through roaring crowds.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.