January 25, 2017

India: Tamil Nadu Elites Flirting with Chauvinism (Narayan Lakshman)

The Hindu

Flirting with chauvinism

In Tamil Nadu right now, the danger lies in the possibility that political elites within the Dravidian parties may empower the more intolerant strand of Tamil identity politics.

A great wave of ethnic sentiment is sweeping across Tamil Nadu. What began as an admirably peaceful protest against restrictions on jallikattu, the Tamil tradition of bull taming, has this week mutated into violent hooliganism and police crackdowns. Many people have been injured across the State, police stations are in flames in some locations, and the State government machinery is getting stretched thin in its attempts to keep protesters, many thousands converging on Chennai’s Marina beach for example, under control.
Beneath the surface of these law-and-order problems a darker agenda of resurgent Tamil chauvinism also appears to be rearing its ugly head. Not only is the anti-Delhi mood of the mobs becoming more strident by the day, but posters of Velupillai Prabhakaran, late leader of the extremist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, are popping up, as are “secessionist slogans” reported in several protest sites.
These signs are indicative of a deeper play, and it cannot be a coincidence that the spiralling mass demonstrations come at this particular juncture in Tamil politics, when a feverish search is on for political legitimacy, and both major Dravidian parties are facing their toughest test of leadership in recent history.

Beyond jallikattu

While jallikattu indeed enjoys a temporal provenance that dates back to the hoary history of Tamil civilisation, as far back as 400-100 BC according to some accounts, the latest legal saga of the “sport” relates directly to the May 7, 2014 decision of the Supreme Court to ban the sport by upholding a notification issued by the Ministry of Environment in 2011 to add bulls to the list of animals whose training and exhibition is prohibited.
Perhaps fearing the loss of political currency associated with the ban in the aftermath of the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on December 5, 2016, the State government acted quickly, promulgating an ordinance to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (POCA), thus making jallikattu legal again. Legislation was subsequently passed in a special session of the State Assembly on Monday.
That, despite this, swelling crowds have continued to bring life to a standstill, that riot-like conditions have gripped other parts of the State such as Alanganallur in Madurai district, and that the anti-New Delhi sentiment continues to stalk the land speak to factors underpinning the civic disturbance that go beyond sentimentalism for jallikattu.
Taking a macro view, at the heart of the debate is the allegation by animal rights organisations such as the Animal Welfare Board of India and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) that the Bos indicus bulls used in jallikatu are subject to cruelty, are physically and mentally tortured for human pleasure, and the sport is thus directly in contravention of the POCA. This appears to be borne out by a plethora of photographic and video evidence, some of it available on the YouTube channels of the aforementioned animal rights groups.
The countervailing arguments by spokespersons of the jallikattu “movement” include the claim that as a key event of Mattu Pongal, jallikattu is essential to preserving the indigenous bull species, a way of life in rural, pastoral Tamil Nadu, and is indeed a celebrated feature of Tamil identity itself, described as it is at several points in the cherished Sangam literary tradition.
On the face of it, the argument about preserving biodiversity cannot constitute a full and consistent defence of jallikattu, for that reasoning does not address the charge of animal cruelty, the burden of disproving which belongs to the proponents of the event — especially given the startling clarity of the animal abuse evident in video evidence.
The proposed middle path of permitting jallikattu but tightly regulating it is potentially feasible; yet, as in the case of any policy in India, and specifically policies that clash with weighty historical-cultural practices, the efficacy of regulation will boil down to sheer political will. This applies to every level of government, from the very apex of the State administration down to officers charged with monitoring the event at the village level.
This brings us to the nub of the issue: the role of politics in fomenting or controlling what is being naively dubbed as the ‘Tamil Spring’ by some overzealous pundits.

Behind the protests

The remarkable energy that has infused this apparently leaderless ‘movement’, as well as its uniformly peaceful nature, were seen as praiseworthy attributes during the first few days of the protest marches in the State.
Yet as the protest slogans have become more shrill, and festive gatherings on the Marina beach have given way to more unruly agitations across the State, it has become evident that invisible forces have been backing the protesters.
Otherwise, who could have funded the distribution of food and water to the many thousands gathered with their families on the beach last week? Was it out of a sheer sense of duty that the entire police machinery quickly snapped to attention to marshal the crowds on Marina beach, to manage with a firm but gentle hand all the traffic snarls and bandh-associated disruptions across Chennai and similar issues elsewhere in the State?
While it will probably be an ongoing endeavour of investigative journalists and political analysts to unpack the forces of collusion behind the uprising built on the sentiments of Tamil cultural identity, the political ramifications may take much less time to bubble to the surface.
Yes, it is true that the top brass of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have been unable to assume the mantle of leadership of this protest so far. However, given that the former is witnessing a behind-the-scenes power tussle between the Sasikala clan and the disgruntled non-Thevar party bosses, and the latter may be awaiting an opportune moment for recently anointed Working President M.K. Stalin to prove his mettle once again, it would not be surprising if one or both of these parties soon seek to step into the fray.
No matter who wins this battle, either of the major parties, or even popular leaders from within the protester cohort, what is evident is that the jallikattu protests reflect a flirtation with the forces of Tamil ethnic politics that can demonstrably spin out of control of any institutional mechanism and become increasingly chauvinist.
The long history of the Dravidian movement shows that the Tamils have a remarkable capacity for articulating valued cultural attributes, whether the Tamil language, Tamil cinema, or their love for their god-like political heroes. It only takes an emotive trigger such as jallikattu to bring the masses to their feet, as we have seen over the past week.

The changing nature of the State

Historically the ebb and flow of this movement has come up against the broader rubric of the Indian state, for example during the anti-Hindi agitation, and on such occasions a compromise solution has usually emerged, striking a balance between radical ethnic-based demands and forced uniformity imposed by a distant capital.
Similarly the changing nature of Tamil society, which has been impacted by recent trends in economic mobility and the influx of people from other States, has profoundly transformed the more radical-assertive anti-Brahminism of the early years of the Dravidian movement into a more inclusive, paternal-populist welfarism of the late 1990s and beyond.
The danger at the present juncture lies in possibility that the political elites within the fold of the Dravidian parties may, in their bid to capture the momentum of the jallikattu movement, empower the more intolerant, unstable and violence-prone strand of Tamil identity politics.
If that unfortunate outcome should materialise, it would be a series backslide for the State in terms of the commendable progress made under the old guard.