Tamil Nadu’s Jallikattu protest is just that: a rampaging bull on the loose in the delicate Indian landscape

Deadly turn.
Deadly turn.
Image: AP/Stringer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The third day of the Tamilian harvest festival, Kaanum Pongal (roughly, Visiting Pongal), is an occasion for family outings. Among the dozens of popular tourist spots that revellers throng on this day is Chennai’s Marina Beach. This year was no different.

On Monday (Jan. 16), the Tamil Nadu government deployed around 15,000 policemen at the spot to manage the expected crowd of children, the elderly, collegians, software professionals, and even visiting villagers from Chennai’s neighbourhood regions.

Three days later, it looks like Pongal never got over at Marina. For, the crowd hasn’t thinned. Though those gathered now are hardly celebrating. They are only angry. Very angry.

In the past week, Chennai’s most famous promenade, one of India’s longest natural urban beaches, has become the hotspot of largescale protests by Tamils furious at a two-year-old ban on an ancient bull-taming sport, Jallikattu. A beloved part of Tamil culture, particularly around Pongal, this rural tradition has drawn the ire of animal welfare activists who got it banned by the supreme court of India in 2014, citing the gross ill-treatment of bulls.

While anger has been simmering since, things came to a head this Pongal. Pass an ordinance and lift the ban, the protesters now demand of the central government. 

While a bulk of the ire is directed at PETA, the animal rights body that sought the ban, the upheaval now threatens to take into its fold several live and dormant socio-economic issues that have for long formed the contours of Tamil politics and identity: a raging agricultural crisis, a political vacuum, and, most ominously, linguistic and racial insecurity.

Pride, valour, bravery

Jallikattu is organised across Tamil Nadu on the second day of the harvest festival, referred to as Maattu Pongal, or bovine Pongal. By some estimates, around 200 bulls are made part of some 60-70 such events across Tamil Nadu, particularly in the rural south.

The oldest record of the sport in the state is a 2,500-year-old cave painting discovered near Madurai. The sport is said to have evolved either to identify the strongest bulls to be bred or to find strong young men capable of herding cattle.

It involves letting a specially raised, ferocious bull, the Bos indicus, loose among a horde of young men who risk life and limb to grab the pronounced hump that is characteristic of the species. Originally called Eruthazhuvuthal or embracing the bull, it began to be called Jallikattu when coins (salli) began to be tied (kattu) to the bulls’ horns as a prize for those who could hang on long enough to claim it.

The bull is led to a gate (vaadi vaasal) beyond which wait the men. In another version, the bull is given a free run of the village main street.

A third variant involves the bull being tethered by a 50-foot rope and the men attempting to subdue it. This is bull taming in the conventional sense and is not commonly practised.

Meanwhile, the bulls, too, can win by not letting anyone touch them. In fact, this is more common than one thinks. The winners get money and household appliances like grinders and television sets. The events garner generous sponsorships from the local businesses. This is apart from the free T-shirts, caps, beverages, and other perks.

Pride, valour, and bravery are the buzzwords. And unlike the Spanish bullfights, the animal is not killed but worshipped.

A raging agricultural crisis

The winning bull is not only a prize breeder for the owner, usually a farmer, but also fetches a huge price at the cattle fairs that are organised in the months following Pongal.

With the advent of tractors and other mechanised agricultural implements, bulls have no use except for breeding. Hence, the native species is facing extinction—three out of Tamil Nadu’s five are endangered.

The indiscriminate introduction of foreign breeds and unrestricted cross-breeding has increased milk yields. However, these animals are still unfit for Indian conditions,which happens only over generations and centuries of breeding. Thus, they are easily vulnerable to diseases, cruelly cutting short their lifespans.

Meanwhile, the native bulls that were the pride of the farmer, worth lakhs of rupees, are now heading to the slaughterhouse for a pittance. The question most protestors are asking is: Why ban beef and then ensure that the bulls have no future other than the abattoir?

Jallikattu, which is essentially a demonstration of the specimen’s quality, thus, helps keep the local breeds alive.

This is particularly critical at a time when the Tamil farmer is in trouble. Following the failure of the northeast monsoon this year, the government has declared all 32 districts of the state drought-hit. This points to another grievance that the Jallikattu row is being juxtaposed with to allege bias against the state: the long-running feud with the neighbouring state of Karnataka over sharing the Cauvery river’s waters.

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have often descended into violence and chaos over the sharing of the river’s waters. Despite supreme court orders, Karnataka has often refused to release enough water to a parched Tamil Nadu, leaving Tamil farmers distraught.

“Other state governments defied SC orders to share water with us. Why does our government not defy the (Jallikattu) ban? Our farmers are dying but PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is worried about a few bulls,” asked a student protester at Marina.

But the Tamil Nadu government itself has been found to be listless in the face of the massive turmoil.

Missing Amma, ailing Kalaigner

In many ways, the street-level anger in the state is a reflection an acute lack of political leadership that would otherwise have helped dissipate the anger or channelise it.

For decades, Tamil politics has been dominated by two colossal figures, albeit bitter rivals: former chief ministers J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi. The state is still mourning Jayalalithaa—Amma to her followers—who died on Dec. 05 last year. Ninety-two-year-old Karunanidhi, popularly referred to as Kalaigner, or the artist, is ailing and has been out of public view for a while.

While Amma’s protege and state chief minister, O Panneerselvam, has struck politically correct notes, he lacks the gravitas to be taken seriously. Particularly so when the real power centre is now seen to be Sasikala Natarajan, Amma’s former aide. On the other hand, M K Stalin, Karunanidhi’s son and political heir, is far from taking the reins of this agitation.

This is not to say that other leading lights of Tamil public life haven’t spoken up.

Romanticised for years by Tamil filmdom, right from the time of the deeply adored actor-turned-chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) in the 1960s and 70s, Jallikattu has brought forth the biggest of movie stars in its support.

Rajinikanth, the reigning matinee idol and a non-native Tamil speaker himself, recently said: “Rules should be framed to regulate the sport to prevent injuries, but instead of that, is it right to deny a culture?” Kamal Haasan, the other pillar of Tamil cinema whose portrayal as one of the bull tamers in the 2004 movie Virumaandi is considered the benchmark, also chipped in. “Ban biryani,” he told a television channel, following it up with his trademark smirk. Raghava Lawrence, an actor and choreographer, has dedicated Rs1 crore towards the cause.

A number of cricketers have tweeted in support.

However, it is not the stars or politicians who are spearheading the protest. Though a mainstay of Tamil Nadu’s rural south, it is the urban youth who are raising fists and slogans for Jallikattu. Social media memes, tweets, Facebook posts, videos, and WhatsApp chains have spread like wildfire, stirring up emotions among the youngsters through sarcasm, wit, and wild conspiracy theories.

And though the sport itself is intensely patriarchal, the anger is not restricted to men. A middle-aged lady camping at Marina claims she was cured of chronic diabetes after she began consuming milk from Tamil Nadu’s indigenous breeds. A heavily pregnant woman has come to support her protesting husband. Another declares that she is safe even in the crowd as everyone around is like her brother.

There are no real leaders. And they are referring to it as #MakkalMovement, or people’s movement.

Perhaps it is this lack of a strong figurehead—a first in decades for Tamil Nadu—for the protest that may just about prevent it from hurtling towards its worst outcome: secessionist impulses.

Re-awakening sub-nationalism

On Jan. 17, at Marina, a distinct voice could be heard saying: “I am proud of being a Tamizhan. I am proud of being an Indian, but not at the cost of my Tamil identity.” This was RJ Balaji, a popular radio jockey and actor.

Pride in the Tamil language and a deep wariness of Hindi chauvinism had for long underpinned the politics of southern India, even in the 1930s. However, an ill-advised move by the central government to push the Hindi language over India sparked a furious backlash from Tamil speakers in the 1960s and 70s. Madurai, the cultural capital in south-central Tamil Nadu, was the fount of that movement.

And Karunanidhi, besides MGR, former chief minister CN Annadurai, and others, was a stalwart of that movement. At its peak, the anti-Hindi agitation spawned secessionist tendencies, even in Karunanidhi’s party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Later, this Tamil nationalism was reflected in the massive support for the Sri Lankan terrorist organisation, the deeply feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in the 1970s and 80s. Over the last few decades, though, this has somewhat abated, only occasionally and weakly raising its head.

But the embers haven’t died out. The Jallikattu protest, too, has its epicentre at Madurai’s Alanganallur, which hosts the most famous of the sporting event. Though the turmoil has spread to cities such as Coimbatore, Madurai, Salem, Dindigul, and Trichy, too, by now.

M Kanimozhi, Karunanidhi’s daughter and a former parliamentarian, told a television channel earlier this week that the Jallikattu protest is a symbol of the Tamil people’s anger at “years of being dominated, years of being cheated, years of our rights being taken away.”

The rampaging bull threatens to enter the china shop.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.