South India’s mini rebellion over Modi’s new cattle law kindles an old secessionist spark

One step away from rebellion.
One step away from rebellion.
Image: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
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Southern India is up in arms. And, if recent trends are any indication, it may be a wee bit more than a mere difference of opinion over policy.

Chief ministers (CM) of at least four states—three from southern India—have refused to implement the new rules on cattle slaughter notified a few days ago by the Narendra Modi-led central government.

The rules, which make it extremely difficult to slaughter cows, buffaloes, bulls, or even camels for meat, are applicable to cattle markets across the country and allow their trading only for agricultural and dairy purposes. Called the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2016, these were reportedly posted online by the government in January for public review. With little publicity, the online post evoked a mere 13 responses—all of them supporting the move. And now they are law of the land.

Mamata Banerjee, the CM of West Bengal, one of the handful of Indian states that allow the consumption of beef and cow slaughter, said, “It is a deliberate attempt to encroach on the state’s powers. It is undemocratic, unconstitutional and unethical. It is also an attempt to destroy the federal structure of the country.”

Three other CMs, Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala, Siddaramaiah of Karnataka, and V Narayanasamy of Puducherry, too, are defiant. Kerala doesn’t need lessons in food habits from “Delhi and Nagpur,” Vijayan reportedly said, alluding to the attempts at the ideological imposition of Hindu extremist norms.

The Kerala and West Bengal governments may even move court.

Meanwhile, protests broke out in Tamil Nadu against the Modi government with senior leaders giving voice to Tamil anger.

Of course, these stands are consistent with the traditional ethos and past positions of these states and leaders, respectively. However, this time, there may be something more to it.

Dravida Nadu

Over the past two days, #DravidaNadu has trended on Twitter. Dravida Nadu is the name of the hypothetical sovereign country that would be home to people of the Dravidian race or speakers of the Dravidian languages: Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, and their various dialects.

The idea of a Dravida Nadu was most forcefully argued for by Tamil icon “Periyar” EV Ramasamy in the early part of the 20th century. Ever since, the Dravidian movement has swung between militancy and dormancy. Its primary fuel has been the grassroot anger against the imposition of northern Indian—often read Aryan—linguistic and cultural sensibilities on southern Indian states.

While, of late, the remnants of the Dravidian movement have been limited to Tamil Nadu, over the last weekend, #DravidaNadu was being backed by non-Tamils as well.

Leading national political parties, however, refused to “add fuel to the fire.” “But it is the (central) government’s duty to ensure that such tendencies are not encouraged. And this government has failed on that front. In Tamil Nadu, villagers consume beef and the meat is sold in small roadside restaurants, too. In Kerala it is much more,” A Chellakumar, secretary (Tamil Nadu), All India Congress Committee, told Quartz. “While as a Congressman, I will never encourage such talk (Dravida Nadu), the government must do much more to stop this.”

“Absolutely not,” is all that GVLN Rao, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said when asked if this controversy had the potential to snowball.

Yet, Kerala saw an outburst of beef festivals following the notification of the new rules. Students at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, too, organised such an event on Sunday evening in protest. The Students’ Federation of India, affiliated to one of the Marxist parties, planned a protest in Bengaluru on Monday. The local police, however, denied them permission.

The serial beef fests raised the hackles of Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath, till recently the representative of the BJP’s extremist fringe. “I feel there is a lot of talk in the country to respect each others feelings and several organisations demand this in the name of secularism. But why are they silent on the Kerala incident?” Adityanath asked.

The anger on social media against the centre’s new rules was reflective of a larger recent trend. In April this year, BJP leader Tarun Vijay was caught on the wrong foot vis a vis the north-south divide. Trying to convey to the Al Jazeera television channel that India remains an inclusive country, Vijay said, “If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south…Tamil, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra…why do we live with them? We have black people around us.”

Vijay, expectedly, was pilloried at that time for the evident condescension. Top Telugu actor-politician Pawan Kalyan gave vent to this anger eloquently on Twitter. Picking up Kalyan’s old statement, Congress parliamentarian from Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor, added a note of caution in the current context.

Commenting on #DravidaNadu, Tharoor said: “I implore my fellow Southerners not to express anti-national ideas like promoting #dravidanadu. Let’s improveIndia.”