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Politics of Jallikattu

The author thanks Ezhil, Babu Jayakumar and Anandhi S for their inputs in writing this article.Kalaiyarasan A ( is with the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi.

The protest of Tamils against the ban on Jallikattu is a trigger. The pent-up anger against the successive policies of the central government and corporate encroachment of resources is the main cause of massive turnout in the protests. The protests displayed the limits of the Hindu right’s attempts to make inroads into the state’s politics by valorising Tamil language and culture. The protests indicate a continuity of Tamil politics with renewed strength through social media activism.

A condition for individual experiences to link up and form a movement is the existence of a communication process that propagates the events and the emotions attached to it.

—Manuel Castells (2015: 15)

The massive protest of Tamils against the ban on Jallikattu, a bull sport held during the harvest festival of Pongal, attracted much attention across the world. A sport that was popular among only some communities of a few districts in Tamil Nadu suddenly acquired an authentic Tamil identity, over a decade after it drew the attention of those who struggled to banish it. Animal lovers have been waging a legal battle, besides embarking on a “vicious campaign” against Jallikattu on the charge that it amounted to cruelty to bulls. But the argument of the protesters is that the sport is not about bull taming but embracing them. Taking a cue from the ancient Tamil literature, Yeru Thazhuvuthal (embracing bull), the supporters argue that the sport is more about embracing the bull than the show of human bravery over the bull. The literal meaning of Jallikattu is—Jalli/salli (coins) and kattu (tied)—grabbing a bag of coins tied to the horns of the bulls.

However, as the debate raged for over a decade in courtrooms, newsrooms and other public fora, animal lovers, who came under a slew of banners like Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), were ahead of those who wanted the conservation of their ancient culture. Two Pongal festivals went by without a Jallikattu event much to the chagrin and disappointment of the subaltern communities. But this year, a group of supporters of the Jallikattu converged at Alanganallur, the village near Madurai that is famous for the sport, demanding the lifting of the ban.

Many of the protesters were students who were expressing solidarity with the local people. When police arrested the protesters, the news spread like fire through social networking sites and WhatsApp messages, and a group of students in Chennai gathered at the Marina sands to demand the release of the students. On the same day, people all over Tamil Nadu organised impromptu protests, led by students and youth, and hence subsequently came to be called a “Tamil Spring” and also as a “Thai Revolution” (Thai referring to the Tamil month that is synonymous with hope and new opportunities).

The protest acquired an iconic place in the history of Tamil Nadu for many reasons. Not only was it massive, non-violent, and spontaneous, it attracted people from all walks of life with a large number of women participating in the protest. The protesters saw the Jallikattu ban as an attack on Tamil culture and identity, though many of them might not have watched a live bull sport in their lifetime. Thus, Jallikattu became a symbol of Tamil pride.

Jallikattu as a Trigger

So, if the protests saw a forced violent end, it is because the Tamil Spring earned the ire of not just animal lovers but an entire establishment sensed sociopolitical repercussions in such mobilisations. If Tamil was used to produce horizontal solidarities among the lower castes and classes in the past, Jallikattu was used as a symbol of Tamil pride now.

If Jallikattu is seen as a weird custom of Tamils, the protest seeking its preservation was seen as lawlessness by both the Tamil elites and their counterparts in Delhi. They resented that Tamils have been taken over by passion and pride, instead of reason and nuance. What they failed to note, however, was that Tamils are more than emotional. The critics missed the context and history. It is not new for Tamil elites to look down upon such large-scale protests led by students. For instance, in 1939, C Rajagopalachari, the premier of the Madras Presidency, ridiculed the first anti-Hindi martyr L Nadarajan, who died in prison. “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” (Pandian 1996: 3327). Following Rajagopalachari, T N Seshan, in the case of 1965 anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, observes 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” (Pandian and Kalaiyarasan 2013).

On the same lines, Nirupama Subramanian (2017) called the current protest an act of lawlessness which sets “a dangerous new precedent” in the country. What she could not understand perhaps was that the Jallikattu is more than “hurt sentiment” and “injured pride.” Her counterpart, Subramanian Swamy, calls the protesters porukkis (thugs). As in the past, this protest too was dubbed as anti-national. The honour of being dubbed as anti-national is not new to Tamils, the protesters claim. As the anti-Hindi agitation was not simply about the language, Jallikattu protest was not just about a sport. Though, undoubtedly, Jallikattu was the trigger, at least two other strands of popular discontent were discernible at the various protest sites, including Marina—one, anti-corporate, and two, anti-centre.

Anti-corporate Sentiment

The omnipresent placards conveying the message, “PETA is a corporate lobby and the ban is a corporate ploy,” and the slogans that rang through the protest sites in the state were clear indicators that anti-corporate sentiments have gripped the collective psyche of the Tamils. So, it is not a surprise that a fallout of the protest is that at least the international brands of soft drinks, Coke and Pepsi, have gone off the shelves of many shops in Tamil Nadu. The slogans running down Coke and Pepsi, along 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, Usha, when asked about her motive for attending the protest said:

Corporatisation is happening rapidly. All things we used 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 corporate has brought in substandard quality milk that would make my children weak. But the milk from native cows would make him stronger. This understanding has pushed me to the protest that was called by the students.

By linking the ban on Jallikattu to the imagined corporate takeover of milk production in the state, protesters managed to connect with the women who have been repeatedly told by various activists, carrying out different campaigns on the need to follow traditional culinary cultures by warning of corporate baits. The story of cattle told to women is that the bulls used in Jallikattu are of pure breed, and are preserved through the sport. Jallikattu helps in segregating the best bulls from the weak ones. The cows that are bred from these bulls offer the best milk. These cows are expected to live long and offer milk enough for both the calf and people. The indigenous bulls known as  Kangayam and Pulikulam are pure ones and they are preserved primarily for breeding and to take part in Jallikattu.

“If the sport is banned, we will lose these native cattle,” resonated all along the protest. Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, who runs Cattle Research Foundation, also spearheaded this campaign. He said:

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. (Babu 2017)

The fear among women in particular is that losing these cattle is losing the self-sufficiency in milk production. It is a corporate ploy, they were told. The corporate-run cross-bred cow has a short life and produces a huge quantity of milk. This milk has many health issues affecting digestion and causing allergies in infants. This campaign was done to such a level that it bordered on neo-nativism. Not only did the campaign capture the existing anti-corporate imagination of the people, it turned the protesters and the people in general against the central government that was projected as a natural ally of the corporates.

Anti-centre Politics

Among others, an issue which echoed during the protest is the Cauvery water dispute. The dispute has influenced the politics of the state for long as the river has a deep cultural and economic significance. Despite its complex history, the dispute has generated a sense of betrayal among Tamils. Karnataka has failed to implement the Supreme Court directive for the release of water to save the samba crops this year. Despite the state government’s efforts, the insufficient release of the Cauvery water was seen as the main cause of the agrarian crisis in 2016, which took a toll of more than 100 lives. The National Human Rights Commission took suo motu cognisance of the deaths and issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government seeking explanation (Janardhanan 2017).

The people of the state perceive that the centre has not done enough to ensure adequate water supply from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu. The farmers’ deaths have, thus, accentuated the resentment against the centre. The wound is still fresh in people’s memory. The slogan, “enough is enough” is driven by this frustration.

The supporters also mentioned Mullaiperiyar water dispute where Tamil Nadu is being seen as the victim of larger conspiracy of the centre. There was a strong sentiment among the protesters that the centre has favoured Kerala and deceived Tamil Nadu. In some sites of protests, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was also articulated, where the centre was not spared for its collusion with the Sri Lankan state for the massacre of Tamils in 2009. 

In addition, there are other policies initiated by the centre that the state has been opposing or seeking an exemption. One such issue is the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). The Supreme Court made NEET mandatory for all medical admissions across the country. Tamil Nadu has been opposing it stating the need to preserve its social justice policy and other state-specific objectives. All these issues have generated a pent-up anger against the centre.

This became evident when the protesters carried caricatures of Narendra Modi. The slogans and placards asked why Tamil Nadu should respect the Supreme Court when it cannot enforce the water rights of Tamil Nadu. The state’s inactions on several other issues ailing Tamil Nadu too resonated in the protests. Jallikattu was just a trigger.

Tamil against Hindu

A new yet significant player in this politics of the sport is the Hindu right. For the last two decades, the Hindu right has been courting Tamil language and culture. Its new-found slogan appears to be “Tamil, Hindu and Hindustan” (Pandian 2000). Tamil used to be a sub-nationalist assertion for many in the past. It is no longer so. When the early Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) spoke of Tamil, it was more than a language. The assertion of speaking Tamil is simultaneously anti-caste, secularist and anti-Sanskrit. Tamil is harmless now. One can be a good Tamil, good Hindu and a good Indian together. This option was not available earlier. The Hindu right could indeed find its takers in the state now. It mobilised Thirvalluvar, an ancient Tamil poet, to display its new-found love for Tamil. Thirvalluvar, and his works Thirukkural were seen as the symbols of secular tradition of the Tamils. Along this line, the Hindu right attempted to take up the issue of Jallikattu to preserve “Tamil” culture. It backfired. The weight of history is stronger than their current political manoeuvres.

The recent move by the centre imposing Hindi and Sanskrit in schools did not find many takers in Tamil Nadu. In addition, the imprint of Hindi and Devanagari numerals in the newly-introduced rupee notes in November 2016 also attracted wide oppositions in the state. The attempt to subsume Tamil identity under Hindu and Indian is perhaps not working. The Jallikattu protest shows the refusal of Tamil to be subsumed. Those placards and slogans displayed in the protest are witness to this. A quote of a senior leader of Bharatiya Janta Party 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. (Ramasubramanian 2017)

The protests have also warmed the hearts of raucous Tamil nationalists. Both share pure love for Tamil, though for different reasons. The symbol of Eru Thazhuvuthal (embracing a bull) is seen as Tamil glory—the seal with the bull depicts the Tamil age. Does this protest signify redefining Tamil nationalism? Tamil identity was presented as one that was beleaguered, and its defence carried a broad appeal and performed the radical task of mobilising horizontal solidarities among different sections. It was more than a language. It was a vehicle for lower-caste assertion. Now the state has a vibrant Tamil culture, and a self-confident segment of lower castes who are placed across the spectrum due to successive reservation policies (Pandian 2011).

Does this mobilisation signify change in Tamil identity? Whether it is more of pride now than the one which is rooted in deprivations is yet to be seen.

New Social Movement?

Tamil Nadu has been witnessing a vibrant social media-led activism in recent times. The student uprising against war crimes in Sri Lanka in 2013, well-organised flood relief in 2015 and the current mobilisation for Jallikattu are evidence of such trends. For instance, Chennai and Cuddalore witnessed the worst floods in nearly a hundred years. The state government’s ineptitude in both preventive and post-flood relief efforts are still fresh in people’s memory. It is the youth and students who took a lead in rehabilitation of flood victims and mobilised support across the state through social media. A similar style of work is evident during the Jallikattu protests.

A vibrant social media needs an educated class, shared vocabularies and a cultural language to connect, communicate and mobilise the people. How does this become possible in Tamil Nadu? A slice of history would not be out of place here. The significant outcomes of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu are achievements in social justice and assertion of Tamil identity. While the former produced social and economic mobility for a substantial section across caste groups by innovative reservation policies, the latter produced a well-informed Tamil cultural public. The Dravidian movement’s assertion of Tamil identity made this cultural public possible. As Pandian (2000) sums 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. 

If the mobilisation for Jallikattu is driven by active social media, the latter itself became possible because of an educated section of the people cutting across caste groups and Tamil cultural public in the state. The current uprising of student and youth is being seen as a Tamil Spring akin to the Arab Spring. It is indeed so in mobilisation if not in content. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp have played a significant role in disseminating information, organising rallies and planning the occupation of public spaces. The social media supplied slogans to the protest sites across the state. 

This sort of social media networks-led mobilisation changed the traditional protest or demonstration into what Castells (2015) calls the new social movement. He argues that the internet not only facilitates instant communication but also liberates individuals to shape a new autonomy and freedom. In the process, mass self-communicated horizontal networks get built which can criticise anyone, offer space to vent out all collective anger against 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. This helps them to overcome “the powerlessness of their solitary despair by networking their desire” (Castells 2015).

As a woman participant says:

This is the first protest I have ever participated in. 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-old 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.

Similarly, it is observed in the protests that whenever a person says that she/he comes from Madurai or from places other than Chennai, and starts narrating her/his experience in the city and life in corporate workspaces, she/he gets a huge applause from the crowd. The gathering in Chennai Marina is, thus, both protest and celebration. The claiming of a social space which was not available for someone in the city became a new-found source of freedom and joy for the one who is alienated from her/his work and her/his surroundings in the city.

If social media worked to coordinate, communicate and disseminate the messages, non-stop coverage of Tamil electronic media helped in magnifying the movement, which drew women from across various sections. As the self-immolation of a young street vendor in Tunisia triggered a sea of protest and became Arab spring, the Jallikattu is a trigger for Tamil spring.


Babu, Gireesh (2017): “Jallikattu: Tug of War over Bull-taming Festival in Tamil Nadu Continues,” Business Standard, 10 January.

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

Janardhanan, Arun (2017): “NHRC Notice to Tamil Nadu over Farmer Deaths,” Indian Express, 6 January.

Pandian, M S S (1996): “Towards National-Popular: Notes on Self-Respecters’ Tamil,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 31, No 51.

— (2000): “Tamil-Friendly Hindutva,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 35, No 21–22, pp 1805–06.

— (2011): “New Times in Tamil Nadu,” Seminar, No 620.

Pandian, M S S and Kalaiyarasan A (2013): “Tamil Spring?” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 15, pp 10–11.

Ramasubramanian, P (2017): “Jallikattu Protestors Battle Tamil Nadu Police, but for Many, Modi, Centre Are Main Target,” Wire, 23 January.

Subramanian, Nirupama (2017): “Lawless on the Shore,” Indian Express, 24 January.

Updated On : 15th Feb, 2017


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