The Marina moment

Print edition : February 17, 2017

At the Marina in Chennai on January 20, the fourth day of protests by students and youths against the ban on jallikattu. Photo: R. Senthil Kumar

A face-off between the police and the protesters who resisted attempts to remove them by moving close to the sea, on January 23. Photo: R. Ragu

Protesters pleading with the police after the crackdown on the protesters began on the Marina on January 23. Photo: L. Srinivasan

At the VOC Grounds in Coimbatore, support from students adn the public for jallikattu. Photo: J. Manoharan

A group of students shield a couple and their child from the police on the Marina beach. Photo: L. Srinivasan

A protest in Alanganallur near Madurai on January 15 by organisers of jallikattu and residents agains the ban on the sport. Photo: G. GNANAVELMURUGAN

Students from a city college perform a skit that highlighted corporate takeover of farmers' lands, the servility of the political leadership and other issues. Photo: L. SRINIVASAN

The jallikattu ban was only a trigger for the protest around Pongal on Chennai's Marina beach. Lakhs of people, most of them youths, gathered spontaneously on the sands in a carnival atmosphere as a collective response to the anti-people policies of the state.

IN an unprecedented show of unity, strength and non-violence, several lakh students and youths of Chennai gathered on the Marina beach and elsewhere across the State for a week to reclaim for the people of Tamil Nadu jallikattu (bull-taming), a sport that was part of the Tamil tradition for centuries but had been banned by the Supreme Court a few years ago.

They came together against what they believed was insincere attempts by the Central and State governments to take on legally animal rights activist groups (mainly PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI, a statutory advisory body set up in 1962 by the government of India under Section 4 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 (No.59 of 1960)), who have taken up the cudgels on behalf of the bull, and have the more than five-year-old ban overturned. As it turned out, the scope of the protest went beyond jallikattu and encompassed issues arising out of what the protesters perceived as injustice to Tamils, the failure of governments to address the livelihood and other concerns of people, major political parties’ obsession with capturing power and sharing its spoils, the attempts at cultural homogenisation, and multinational companies’ operations that went against the interests of the country. And the protesters refused to be swayed by “outsiders”, including political parties.

However, the extraordinarily peaceful, in fact carnival-like, protest ended on a violent note when the police swooped down on the protesters in the early hours of January 23 on the grounds that a few “anti-social elements” had infiltrated their ranks with a sinister agenda. While the burden of proving this claim lies with the law and order establishment, the fact remains that in the week-long mass protest that kept out politicians and celebrities alike, the new generation protest on the Marina, largely with the participation of the middle and lower classes, struck a chord in the people of Chennai who thronged the beach expressing their solidarity with the protesters in novel ways. “It is much more significant than the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement of 2011 in the United States, a manifestation of a long wait with frustration against social and economic inequality worldwide,” said Ramu Manivannan, Professor and Head of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Madras.

Ironically, the violent climax of the protest occurred at a time when a solution seemed to be in sight. Here is the sequence of events leading up to it:

In the face of the protest gathering momentum and drawing widespread support, Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam rushed to New Delhi and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi apparently to explore the options before the governments. Modi reportedly told him that the Centre could not pass a special ordinance to allow jallikattu as the matter was sub judice and suggested that the State government, within its powers, could promulgate an ordinance. However, he assured the Chief Minister of the Centre’s support in having a State ordinance passed. On his return to Chennai, the Panneerselvam government quickly passed an ordinance on January 20, with the concurrence of the Centre and “after obtaining the necessary prior instructions of the Honourable President as envisaged under Article 213 of the Constitution”, to facilitate the conduct of jallikattu this year. The message was clear: the Chief Minister and Prime Minister made extraordinary efforts to satisfy Tamils’ demand on jallikattu.

The protesters did not budge and demanded a “permanent solution”, that is, a law that could not be challenged legally.

Sensing their mood and on instructions from the Governor-In-Charge, Ch. Vidyasagar Rao, the State government convened a special session of the Legislative Assembly on January 23 evening to pass a Bill seeking to exempt conduct of jallikattu from the provisions of the PCA Act of 1960.

The Assembly unanimously passed the “Jallikattu Bill” (The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu Amendment) Bill, 2017), which it believes has cleared the legal hurdles to conducting the sport. Tabled by the Chief Minister and passed within a few minutes of its introduction, the Bill sought to amend certain provisions of the PCA Act by defining jallikattu as a traditional sport which would be allowed to be conducted in Tamil Nadu between January and May every year. It carefully removed the word “taming”—a word the Supreme Court frowned upon, while banning the sport in 2014.

The Centre also informed the Supreme Court that it would withdraw the January 7, 2016, notification of the Union Environment Ministry, which was issued to allow conduct of jallikattu but subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court. With this the Centre has indicated that it would have no objections to Tamil Nadu removing the bull from the list of animals that “shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animals” under Section 22 of the PCA Act.

A section of the youth on the Marina, fearing a legal challenge to the Bill from PETA and the AWBI, continued with the protest despite the Chief Minister’s assurance that jallikattu would henceforth be held without a break. (A day after the forcible eviction of the remaining protesters on the Marina, media reports about the AWBI filing a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Tamil Nadu Bill and the AWBI’s advice that any petition filed on behalf of the Board may be withdrawn indicated some conflict among its members.) A section of legal experts claims that the State’s amendment to the Central law was a “fraud on the Constitution” and ultra vires of the parent Act and that it runs against the spirit of the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment banning the sport.

It was left to the good offices of the retired Madras High Court judge Justice D. Hariparanthaman and a host of others on January 23 to convince the remaining protesters that the State’s ordinance had the concurrence of the Centre, that the State Assembly had passed the Bill unanimously, and that it would be made into a law. P. Rajasekhar, president of the Jallikattu Pathukaapu Peravai (Jallikattu Protection Federation), the film director V. Gouthaman and a few others who had been active in the jallikattu struggle for a few years urged the youth to call off the stir. The protesters demanded a ban on PETA, which they claimed was “interfering in their cultural right”.

The Chennai City police issued an advisory in the wee hours of January 23 asking the protesters to disperse from the Marina and elsewhere. Claiming that a group of miscreants had infiltrated the ranks of the protesters, the police attempted to evict them forcibly. That was the trigger for the violence that followed. A section of the protesters entered the sea and continued the protest. The police went after some protesters and their supporters who were rushing towards the beach on hearing about the crackdown. Violence spilled onto the nearby streets and lanes. The whole area wore the look of a battleground.

A police station was torched and scores of vehicles were gutted in arson, leaving 70 students and youths injured, many of them seriously. Police personnel too were injured. Protesters were caned and tear-gassed. There were allegations that police personnel themselves set fire to vehicles and huts. (Video clippings showing policemen and policewomen indulging in arson started doing the rounds, and a prominent TV channel telecast them.)

In Madurai and Coimbatore too, youths were forcefully evicted from their protest sites. Alanganallur, where jallikattu is held annually, had emerged as a nerve centre of protests, with villagers extending cooperation to them since Pongal day (January 14).

In Chennai, the police’s fury turned against fishermen and Dalits living in colonies near the Marina. Their crime: they helped students who took refugee in their huts after the police started attacking them (story on page 17). A fact-finding team led by the human rights activist A. Marx visited Nadukuppam, one of the colonies, and recorded the police excesses. It said the fishermen, Dalits and poor labourers were subjected to inhuman brutality. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) have suo motu taken up the issue. Political parties and other organisations have demanded a judicial inquiry into what they described as police excesses.

“The youths and students courageously defied the odds to achieve their objective in a peaceful way. But the state and its police had a different opinion. They did not want it to happen that way,” said the Tamil scholar and former University of Madras Professor Arasu. Scholars and activists like him criticised the state for its brutal suppression of the spontaneous agitation.

Said Ramu Manivannan: “The abject failure of the political class is the main issue that led to this mass agitation that sprang up from nowhere. Again, the sport jallikattu, though mired in social issues of caste and patriarchy [as Dalit activists and feminists have rightly pointed out], had emerged as the focal point for the agitators to rally around.” The negligence of the state on various fronts, institutionalisation of corruption, degradation of waterbodies, exploitation of the meek, and the helplessness of civil society were the main reasons for the uprising.

A few observers inappropriately equated the youths’ struggle with the 1965 anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu. But it should not be forgotten that the language stir was fuelled by a fledgling party (the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or the DMK) struggling to get a foothold in the State by constructing a movement around Tamil identity against the “Delhi regime” of the Congress party. The agitation against the Centre’s imposition of Hindi on Tamil Nadu saw the participation of an overwhelming number of students and ended in violence.

Many leaders of the present-day DMK were the products of the agitation, which was one of the main reasons for its rise as a political force that captured power. Arasu said that the political narrative of the North exploiting the South, which was in play during the days of Dravidian leaders E.V. Ramasamy Periyar and C.N. Annadurai, was very much in operation in Tamil Nadu even today. “The feeling of neglect Tamil Nadu experienced then continues to surface time and again. The present struggle is an example of that, though an elitist group opposes it,” he said.

A series of developments in the past few years—the Centre’s unhelpful attitude in Tamil Nadu’s dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters, the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) projects which have the potential to destroy agricultural land in parts of the State, and so on—strengthened this feeling of discontent. But the mass protest, Arasu said, was “non-violent, apolitical, peaceful and disciplined”. “Jallikattu” was just a rallying point and remained incident-free until the police intervened on the seventh day of the protest (January 23) under the ruse of flushing out “anti-social elements” who were said to have infiltrated the crowd of protesters. “Jallikattu was a signage. Though the protest realised its objective of drawing global attention to the State’s issues, and should have ended in a dignified manner, the State and its police wished it the other way,” said Arasu.

The agitation was multifaceted, indigenous and technology-driven. The mobilisation of this unique gathering through social media under a common banner “We do Jallikattu” was a refreshingly new phenomenon in Tamil Nadu, and perhaps in the country. They used their individual social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp) and created exclusive apps and hashtags to connect with youths across the State and coordinate the protests.

Tech-savvy and politically aware

It was clear that the youths, a considerable number of them IT professionals, were not only tech-savvy but also sensitive to the political and social developments around them. The slogans, speeches, banners and handmade posters at the venue gave expression to resentments of different types caused by government policies and actions and the political parties’ failures to address real issues that affected people’s everyday lives. These issues—drought, farmer suicides, the Cauvery dispute, demonetisation, prohibition of liquor, sand mining, corruption, freebies, and so on—all converged on the theme of jallikattu, which was seen as a symbol of Tamil pride that was sought to be obliterated by attempts at cultural homogenisation.

There was this dominant feeling that the Dravidian political parties, which have together ruled the State for half a century, had failed them. Political observers say that this disillusionment with the DMK and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was the result of the impression that they had patronised a clichéd politics marked by empty rhetoric. The political class is seen as one that ignores contemptuously the people, their aspirations and their needs, they say.

The protesters expressed their disillusionment with the rulers and their policies through skits, songs, dances and speeches besides banners and bunting. Black was the colour of the protest as almost all participants wore black T-shirts and held aloft black flags, while a few could be spotted wearing red. The gathering had space for varying political ideologies. The youths also rose in unison against the communal forces which they saw as trying to homogenise culture and erase the secular character of the State. No discerning political observer would have missed one significant underpinning of this entire struggle—channelling Tamil sentiment against the forces of Hindutva. “It is this overwhelming feeling of neglect by the present BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] government at the Centre that haunts the people of Tamil Nadu. They have identified their adversaries and are also well aware of how they are attempting to disturb the secular fabric of the State and the country through the imposition of one language and one culture,” said Arasu. Many protesters who spoke to Frontlineexplained how demonetisation had ruined the lives of industrial workers, peasants and agricultural labourers.

Narendra Modi and the BJP were targeted by the protesters for “betraying Tamils on issues such as the attacks on fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy, the demand for the retrieval of Katchatheevu, the oppression of anti-nuclear power activists at Kudankulam, and the stalling of the Sethu Samudram project”. These issues had endeared the youth to the local fishermen, resulting in their spontaneous support to the agitation. The attempt to saffronise education was criticised strongly.

Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy added fuel to the fire with his repeated tweets calling the protesters “porkis” (a corrupt form of the colloquial Tamil word porukki, which roughly translates as a thug). This derogatory reference to the peaceful protesters in a way prompted other sections of people to rally in support of the youths.

Former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee says that emotions should not be allowed to override the rule of law. But former Supreme Court judge Markandeya Katju has a different take on it. In a tweet, he said that the “victory shows people could rise unitedly like a typhoon or tornado, it becomes a force so powerful and so swift that no power on earth can resist it”. He said it showed that Indians “could unite, as we must, if we are to solve our massive problems”.

The leadership vacuum in Tamil Nadu and the subsequent power play in the ruling dispensation too disturbed the protesters. They disapproved of Panneerselvam’s servility and AIADMK general secretary V.K. Sasikala’s sudden prominence through what they see as back-room manoeuvres. All these issues reverberated through the Marina, but well within the margins of decency. “Perhaps this could have prompted the state and its police to attempt to discredit the students’ stir,” pointed out Raju Manivannan.

These issues, the professor observed, had been directly affecting the youths in one way or the other. “The gathering accepted multiple narratives. The protesters, besides speaking in detail on the Cauvery dispute, farmers’ suicides and the GAIL and methane projects, also expressed their anguish over the loot of natural resources, corruption, unemployment, commercialisation of education and also the sudden introduction of the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test [NEET],” he pointed out.

At a time when the state has been pursuing ruthless free market reforms and undermining social welfare, such bouts of disenchantment were bound to surface. In any democracy the voice of dissent, Arasu said, should not be smothered. “Yes, it is pent-up anger that found a vent in the protest. How could you define the state violence unleashed against students protesting against a TASMAC outlet in Chennai last year? The youngsters were courageous but polite in questioning the rulers and had the entire public lined up behind them,” said Arasu.

Even sympathisers of the protest pointed to its nature of being leaderless. “All are leaders here. We share our decisions and go by the majority,” said Samson, a second year engineering student of a private college, who was there with his friends on the second day of the agitation. A silent, invisible leadership coordinating it was evident across the State. There were striking similarities in the way in which the protests had been organised from Chennai to Kanyakumari, though the police claimed that “some separatist elements” had found place among them and operated from behind.

“They should have allowed a leader like Kanhaiya Kumar to emerge from among them,” said Prof. G. Palanithurai, academic activist and a coordinator of the Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayati Raj Studies in the Department of Political Science and Development Administration, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Dindigul. “Without this, the gains accrued from the manifestation of spontaneous public disenchantment against a state and nation would be lost,” he said.

Another notable feature of the protests was the organising capacity of these youths at the protest sites. The more level-headed among them had taken effective command and kept in check the adventurists. It was a tightrope walk. “We could not stop anyone from joining us since it was for a public cause. However, we saw to it that no untoward and unpleasant incidents took place. It turned into a sort of carnival with the heavy influx of the general public. Women and children too joined us, sang and danced with us and ate with us. Nowhere an agitation of such a magnitude could have ever worn a festive atmosphere, till the police, armed with a vicious motive, entered the scene,” said Deenadayalan, a student at the protest.

“Yes. In many European and African countries such people’s protests would be marked by dance and song. It is a soft but powerful way to counter state oppression. But, unfortunately, in Tamil Nadu we are programmed to listen to stereotyped political rhetoric and agitations. The youths have ushered in a new culture today,” said Arasu. This protest was an expression of the youths’ simmering anger against a state’s feudalistic administration and the shrinking space for dissent.

The youths have increasingly come to believe that leaders of personality-driven politics have all along kept their attention away from important issues that have a direct bearing on their lives. They have cultivated a sort of distrust of the system itself. Thiagarajan from Karur, who had been on the Marina since the second day of the protest, told Frontline that a strong feeling of being let down by the political and ruling class had been gnawing at their minds. Indeed, the victim mindset was overwhelmingly present among them. “We find ourselves voiceless,” he claimed.

The paradox of this jallikattu-centric movement was that it could attract people from all walks of life, the haves and the have-nots, the working class and white-collar workers, including those who had never seen the sport. Numerous sponsors sprouted overnight to help the protesters. Muslim women and men came in droves to join the youths, while fisherfolk from far-off places ferried water sachets and food packets in boats. “They are representing us. They are sitting under the scorching sun and in the biting cold for us. We join them with our tiny contributions,” said Ramasamy, a fisherman from Kasimedu in Chennai.

Volunteers from the Tamil Nadu Tauheed Jamaat, which earned encomiums from the Chennai public for its rescue and relief efforts at the time of the Chennai floods in December 2015, chipped in to keep the youths adequately hydrated and fed. Even blankets were provided to girls among the protesters who slept on the beach. Migrant labourers from States such as Assam and Manipur, besides a number of them from Rajasthan, too lent their support to the youths. Reports from Coimbatore said that a group of visually handicapped children joined the protest. “Hence to discredit any such humane act is unwarranted and in bad taste,” said an activist.

Political parties kept away

The participants politely turned down the offers of support from political parties. Advocates of Tamil nationalism were present at the site but could not take the stage. During the police action, one could see some students holding aloft a poster of former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Also, when the police tried to evict them forcibly, protesters shouted “Vande Mataram”. Protesters had repeatedly underscored one specific point from the outset, that their movement was apolitical and well beyond caste and religious affiliations.

“Thus we did not welcome Seeman of the Naam Thamizhar Katchi; we also told the DMK people the same thing politely when they said that their working president and Opposition Leader M.K. Stalin wished to see us at the Marina,” said Ravi, an MBA graduate, who was one among the last to leave Marina, just before the police evacuation.

In the entire episode the Left was not totally isolated. Members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and the Students Federation of India (SFI), youth and students wing respectively of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who have been in the forefront of various struggles, were present but without their banners.

Arasu, however, pointed out that any politically conscious view and act would be treated as “radical” in Tamil Nadu. “The singer Kovan was a radical when he protested last year against TASMAC shops; the protest was forcefully suppressed by the police. He became an anti-national after singing a song against Modi and demonetisation. The state would not have treated these students like anti-socials had they confined their struggle to jallikattu, which is an issue the BJP is trying to appropriate,” said yet another activist.

But what explained the brutal police action on the last day? “Violence was brought in to discredit the youth agitation as the political class had lost its relevance here. None of the leaders and senior bureaucrats came to convince the protesters with reasonable facts. The state and the police had resorted to mindless violence when people were protesting for their rights. It is to traumatise the people, youths and students who took part in it, and to tell them that there is no space in this State for any dissent,” said Ramu Manivannan. The state’s character, not to be surprised, would always be oppressive, said Arasu. A Centre that does not hesitate to encroach into the State’s rights and a distant and disconnected New Delhi, which uses its power to interfere in the culture and traditional practices of various ethnic groups, lead to such disenchantment among youths and others.

Noting that there was a disconnect between civil society and the government in Tamil Nadu today, A. Narayanan, an anti-jallikattu activist and director of a non-governmental organisation Change India, said that though he disapproved of the sport because of its casteist and patriarchal character, he would not justify the police action on the students and the youths. In any crowd, he said, some miscreants would be present. “The issue here was not jallikattu. As I am entitled to oppose jallikattu, they, the youths, have their right to dissent. The police could have initiated talks with the protesters in a more mature and constructive manner and waited for some more time for their dispersal,” he said.

Narayanan had sent a petition to the State Human Rights Commission demanding an inquiry into the police violence that left many people injured. He said nearly 20 protesters had been admitted to the Department of Facio-Maxillary Surgery in the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital in Chennai with broken jaws, lost teeth, and injured face and head. Many suffered fractures and sustained head injuries. The police, it is evident, had used their long batons on the youths indiscriminately,” he said.

Dissenting voices

A prominent political leader with a strong anti-jallikattu stance is Dr K. Krishnaswamy, the founder leader of the Dalit political party Puthiya Thamizhagam. He said that the State should have enacted a law against “honour killings” as it was more important and essential than the ban on jallikattu. He said “honour killing” was an instrument in the hands of a few casteist forces that practise discrimination against Dalits in many places in the southern districts.

Krishnaswamy said that jallikattu was held in very few villages in the southern districts. “It is not the Tamils’ identity. The sport is not inclusive and is feudalistic and has been in practice for the past 200 to 300 years, perpetuating caste inequality,” he said. Another Dalit political leader Thol. Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), though he supported the jallikattu struggle simply for the reason that the youths represent all vital issues, said that the sport should not be identified with casteist elements.

The claims that the sport is not inclusive are true. At a manju virattu event (another form of jallikattu), held at Kalapur village in Sivaganga district on January 15, a few Dalit youths took part in it. Angered over this, a group of caste Hindus attacked their colony, injuring four Dalits. The police have registered a case in this connection.

S. Karuppiah, joint general secretary of the Dalit Liberation Movement, who worked extensively in Madurai and surrounding villages on Dalit and other social issues, said: “Many rural households who kept bulls for the event are losing interest. The number of bulls in and around Madurai where the sport was held predominantly is coming down drastically. But for the ban, the sport would have been forgotten in another decade or so. Now thanks to animal rights activists, the sport has been revived with vigour.” He, however, took part in the agitation at Alanganallur with his family for three days “mainly being a Tamil and also to support the students’ movement”. It is true that the majority of those who took part in the protest would not have even witnessed the event on the field, but they participated in it because the jallikattu struggle has become a symbol of Tamil culture and went beyond it. Another section of people do not approve of the irrational, unscientific, illiterate arguments put forward by some people in support of the sport. One of the arguments is that the ban on jallikattu was part of a conspiracy of multinational corporations involved in milk production to eliminate the native breeds of the bull because the milk from these breeds (A2) is far superior to their products and that the milk marketed by these corporations (A1) causes cancer and diabetes in consumers. Veterinarians and scientists have dismissed these theories as hollow and without a scientific basis. (Milk from breeds of cows that originated in northern Europe is high in A1 beta-casein. A1 milk comes from breeds like the Holstein, Friesian, Ayrshire and British Shorthorn. Milk that is high in A2 beta-casein is mainly found in breeds that originated in the Channel Islands and Southern France such as the Guernsey, Jersey, Charolais and Limousin.)

The protest is a new phenomenon. It is so baffling that interpretations range from romanticising it as a revolution to condescendingly discrediting it as an instance of mobocracy to reducing it to a law and order issue. A look at the nature of protests in the age of neoliberalism offers some understanding of its nature. For instance, in the Latin American protests in the 1990s, the Internet played a major role in mobilising different sections of people, especially the youths affected in various ways by neoliberalism. It is too early in the day to say whether this pro-jallikattu protest will eventually lead to protests of such proportions. What is clear, however, is that the struggle has heightened the political consciousness of its participants. They have started asking difficult questions which governments and other establishments can no longer ignore.

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