The tyranny of populism

Print edition : February 17, 2017

THOMAS PAINE in his Common Sense put it so presciently that it belongs as much here and now as it did in the context in which it was written in the 18th century, that of the struggle for independence and Bill of Rights and constitution-making in the American colonies. “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong,” Paine wrote, “gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

Those of us nonplussed and upset by the public upsurge this Pongal season in Tamil Nadu in defiance of the May 2014 ruling by the Supreme Court, which effectively banned jallikkattu, and provided the state with a handle, which it eagerly seized, to undo the court order, can only seek solace in the hope that it is a long habit of not thinking the thing wrong that gave this cruel sport the false prestige or gravitas of tradition and fomented the widespread public resentment against its ban, and that with time its inhumane, cruel and lethal manifestation and consequences will speak to the Tamil collective conscience and change hearts. That, though, would be an excruciatingly gradualist move towards a modern, rational and progressive social order, towards realising the scientific temper and humaneness enshrined in the Constitution. Excruciating, because many more bulls will be tortured and maimed and killed, and many more people will be injured and lose their lives before we consensually let go of this primitive practice.

There is, of course, the slim, very slim, chance that the chastening effect of the public awareness of the manner of this sport generated in the course of this mass melee may play a deterrent role on the continuing conduct of it; that there will be self-regulation or oversight by the bodies organising jallikkattu events in the few districts where they are held, to ensure that the bulls are not tortured or traumatised. But given the nature of the sport, where the excitement and adrenalin levels are determined by the extent to which the bull is goaded and roused to become uncontrollably panic-stricken and volatile, and given the crass commercialisation of the sport through betting, and the stakes involved in generally making it a high-risk spectacle, it is unlikely to transform into just a playful trial of strength between a frisky bull and its keepers and well-wishers.

The romanticised portrayal of the organic, earthy, almost filial, as is made out, relationship between the bull and its keeper or master on the one hand, and the grim evidence produced before the court by the Animal Welfare Board of India and animal rights NGOs like PETA, of what the bulls are forced to go through in the cramped stalls (known as the vaadivasal) where they are primed before they are unleashed into the jallikkattu arena, on the other, seem like two divergent narratives. It could well be that both are true, but it is small comfort to know that there are some bulls that work in the fields and which are tended with care by the households they are owned by and others that are reared specifically for jallikkattu and treated the way they are to provide sporting adventure and excitement and to fulfil male machismo. That Dalits are by and large not allowed to participate in jallikkattu makes the hoary tradition complete—feudal, casteist and patriarchal. While only the Dalit political parties kept away from the agitation, it was not clear whether they were against the regressive sport per se or against Dalits not being allowed to participate in it.

And then there was the romanticisation of the agitation itself by the media. True, it did initially look like, and was for a good part throughout, a spontaneous mobilisation, although when journalists let the scales fall from their eyes they saw sophisticated coordination and management of the crowds by a large group of technology-savvy social media activists. There were, more potentially dangerously, anonymous agents provocateur using social media, in the later phase in Chennai when the police intervened and things turned violent and confusing, to insinuate rumours of deaths in the clashes and to run what sounded like an ad hoc guerilla operation against the police by exhorting city dwellers to come out of their homes and block the roads in the vicinity they lived in to save, as the message conveyed with alarmist urgency, unspecified youth who were in unspecified trouble.

The congregation on the sands of the Marina was a miscellany of causes. The right to jallikkattu had partly transformed into an emotive assertion of Tamil identity and Tamil nationalism and an expression of a cumulative indignation of the way Tamil Nadu and Tamilians had been treated by the Centre. Such a sublimation was only to be expected and was, to a good extent, legitimate. But the media, particularly television channels, were not so much reporting with a view to providing an understanding of the mass demonstration and action as feeding the frenzy. They seemed impatient for the revolution on the street to happen and, all too predictably and blithely, let their impatience become their agenda and declared that the revolution was here.

In the process, if one did not, outside of and in spite of this tendentious media, get to read the detailed reasoning provided in the Supreme Court judgment of May 7, 2014, by Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Pinaki Chandra Ghose, one might wonder what on earth was wrong with the honourable judges; how could the court get it so wrong? At least as far as the TV channels were concerned it was a no-brainer. The bull games must go on. The reason why was simple and self-evident and had emotional immediacy and attracted eyeballs. The reasons why not were complicated and had to do with evidence and rule of law and statutes and the Constitution and were unlikely to fetch TRP ratings.

There was a convergence between the emotion-driven populism on the street and the ratings-driven populism in the media, which created a disquieting sense, especially for the silent dissenters, of a tyranny of populism. There may have been no physical violence at least in the initial phase, but the visceral intolerance of the opposite view was palpable. Those, including from or associated with PETA, who were against jallikkattu on the grounds of cruelty to the animals, instantly and ipso facto became enemies of Tamil culture and tradition and were liable to be ostracised. There was intimidation and verbal haranguing and trolling of targeted individuals, both male and female, in downright obscene language. Traffic and travel were disrupted, becoming a source of harassment to commuters, and trains from and to Chennai were held up on open tracks en route for days. All of this hardly merits the badge of a convivial, non-violent agitation.

There was the compounding populism, more peculiar to Tamil Nadu than other parts of the country, of film stars. Thus spake the stars in tinsel town on the issue and the media all too eagerly took up the refrain. Going by the media representation (in this as in most issues now), one would think a few film stars and godmen comprise the public sphere in Tamil Nadu. Their flaky, uninformed or ill-informed views were touted by the media as if they had the definitive, authoritative say on the matter. There was Kamal Hassan trying to sound childish or funny or both by saying something to the effect that those against jallikkattu should also ban biriyani (get the connection?). There was Kamal Hassan again, pointing out that more people died in road accidents than in the traditional bull sport, which is hardly startling, apart from the rudimentary incompatibility of the statistics of fatal road accidents in traffic plying round the clock round the year and the toll taken by this sport which happens once a year in specific pockets of the State. And again, taunting PETA to go back to Trump’s U.S. and get rid of rodeos there, to which the PETA India chief responded separately saying the organisation’s counterparts in the U.S. were indeed at it. And yet again, and this was the only time he made a semblance of sense, saying if there was something wrong with the sport regulate it, don’t ban it, to which the counsel for the Animal Welfare Board, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, responded elsewhere that in practice the sport hinged on the incitement of the bulls, which was cruel, and therefore a ban, not regulation, was the only effective solution.

Rajinikanth, as always, didn’t have to say much to be made much of. In what must have been a mumble, he expressed his sadness about the violence involving the police and the protesters and left it at that. Kamal Hassan was more articulate on that one and demanded accountability for excesses by the police when they set about clearing the Marina of the agitators. Film-maker Bharathiraja’s interventions were as strong as they were wrong. When the agitation got going, he asserted that there were no instances of deaths in jallikkattu, and towards the end, flush with victory, declared that the people had rewritten the verdict written by the courts. Not to be left behind, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar weighed in early on on the whole affair on television with a sylvan evocation of maattu pongal as representative of the bovine-human bond in Tamil tradition, meaning no doubt to suggest that jallikkattu was no less benign or kindly a practice. He even seemed to offer his services as an interlocutor to settle the agitation, but there were no takers. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev made an odd comparison between cricket and jallikkattu, between the batsman facing the cricket ball hurtling down at him at about 125 km an hour and, ostensibly, the bull tamers in the ring facing the charge of the bull (actually the tamers chase and clamber after the bull which is trying desperately to get away from them and the pain they inflict on it). Try and ban cricket, he challenged ominously.

None of them—and one wonders whether this includes chess maestro Viswanathan Anand, who too jumped into the “fight the bull” fray—had apparently read the judgment of May 2014 meticulously detailing the systematic and deliberate pain and suffering inflicted on the bulls in the process of the jallikkattu bout. That, to any sentient being with a heart that feels, even without a mind that thinks, would have made painful reading and realisation of what actually goes on. Cattle killed for human consumption in abattoirs are not systematically tortured. True, the cramped and stifling conditions in which they are transported in vehicles or even the way they are killed are often inhumanly inefficient or ritually painful. But surely the answer is to oppose and campaign against these practices too and not justify one act of cruelty with another.

The media abnegated their responsibility to reflect the diversity of opinion on the issue and turned themselves into echo chambers, force multipliers of the chant and chorus for revoking the ban on jallikkattu. In a State where the government has had a chilling effect on the media through a spate of defamation cases filed against anyone critical of it, the media itself became complicit in engineering a dominant narrative in support of the sport and revocation of the ban (without exploring the nature of the actual practice on the ground or investigating the sundry mythologies that were circulated to make it seem a sacrosanct belief system that was inalienably constitutive of Tamil identity); a narrative which implicitly demanded support and allegiance, forcing those who had a counter view, including many artistes, legal luminaries, scholars, public intellectuals and creative writers of Tamil Nadu, into a temporary self-imposed exile of silence. Faced with the prospect of being dubbed anti-Tamil if they opposed jallikkattu for what it did to the animals and humans involved, and to what should be our common concern for humaneness and the dignity of mute animals, they thought it more prudent not to express what they really thought about it. In this atmosphere, when some people died in the jallikkattu performed after the ordinance setting aside the ban was passed, there was no one to say “I told you so”; the victims became mere statistics, collateral damage to be glossed over, in the media treatment.

The judiciary has been put on the back foot and the implications of the street dictating to the court are likely to be counterproductive to democracy, rule of law and the principle of separation of powers as envisaged in our Constitution. Legal imperatives are no doubt a function of effective demand, and justice, as we have been told by justices themselves, is not a cloistered virtue. Judges of the higher courts factor in the expectation of the collective conscience of society even in the awarding of capital punishment. Judges, as Kamal Hassan pointed out in one of his series of comments on the jallikkattu issue, are not infallible, and we are alive to the dire possibility of miscarriage of justice even in the case of death sentences. It is not as if judges and trials are totally insulated from public sentiment and aspirations. But evidence and the need to interpret the law in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Constitution and the demands of justice must add up to something. Also, the judiciary would be redundant if it merely catered to or reflected majority opinion. It becomes its mandate, perhaps more than that of the executive or the legislature, to ensure that the minority can exercise its legally and constitutionally endowed rights; and in the instant case to see that the rights of mute animals are protected in keeping with the law.

On the other hand, it isn’t as if the public or the popular are always right either. Makkal theerpu, magesan theerpu (the people’s verdict is god’s verdict), as former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was fond of saying, may be good rhetoric and may apply, the Election Commission willing, to elections. But the same people, through the same elections, through the same principle of majoritarian choice, can give us a range of results from fascism, through the authoritarianisms of the current Russian or Turkish variety, to the aberration of Trump. History tells us how many of the seminal advancements or discoveries in science, math, and philosophy have been achieved against the grain of the popular, against the belief systems of the time. When people believed the earth was flat or that the sun moved round the earth, those who thought otherwise were likely candidates to be burnt at the stake, until the Copernican revolution took hold.

As a stark reminder of how populism interfering with the judicial process can be dangerous, let us rewind just a few months to the September 2016 Supreme Court directive to Karnataka to release Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu and the, no doubt orchestrated plus spontaneous, public furore in Karnataka against the decision. The government there stood its ground against the agitators and implemented the Supreme Court directive, no doubt at considerable cost to its own popularity. Imagine if the court had adopted a hands-off policy, swayed not by the merits of the case and the evidence before it but by the antagonistic and volatile public mood in Karnataka? Or if the government had pleaded helplessness before the wrath of the people?

The way closure, at least for now, has been applied on the jallikkattu imbroglio may lead to different, perhaps undesirable, outcomes in similar situations where the judiciary, a section of the people and the government are involved in a three-way face-off.

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