Jallikattu : An Appraisal

After following various responses by people for and against Jallikattu in the last one week, one glaring lacuna comes to the fore in these responses and most analysis. The lacuna arises due to the complete reduction of the Jallikattu protests to the individual merits and demerits of the sport. Amidst this cacophony, what is not properly accounted for are the reasons behind the ‘Jallikattu Movement’. Such responses also fail to understand that the protestors are not a homogenous body. This response tries to capture those aspects that were not communicated adequately through the mass media especially for those observers outside Tamil Nadu. Hence this piece does not intent to engage in the pros and cons of the event. Rather it tries to place Jallikattu in the social and political milieu of contemporary Tamil Nadu.

I argue that while Jallikattu properly belongs to an aggressive masculine domain and shows little scope for an egalitarian transformation, it will be wild exaggeration to ascribe the same sentiments and attitude to the thousands of protesting youth across Tamil Nadu. Let me make it clear at the outset that most of the observations made in this piece are limited to the protests at Marina.

What is Jallikattu?

Jallikattu is a ritual sport performed in some rural areas mostly in southern Tamil Nadu, the most famous among them being Alanganallur Jallikattu in Madurai district. Hundreds of trained bulls belonging to six specific breeds are let loose from a narrow gate named vadivasal in the Jallikattu field. Youngsters belonging mostly to dominant caste team around the vadivasal to catch hold of the raging bulls. They have to clinch the prize tied by a thread to the bull’s horn or hang onto the hump of the bull for a considerable distance within a hundred odd meters after which the Bull cannot be tamed. The sport serves two purposes- one, to identify the sturdier and healthier bulls to be used for insemination of the local cattle and two, as an opportunity for the youth to show their masculine prowess. An article by Stalin Rajangam in Hindustan Times shows how Tamil Cinema has portrayed masculinity and Jallikattu.

Caste and Gender of Jallikattu

Jallikattu is practiced in parts of southern districts namely Madurai, Sivagangai and Ramanthapuram. While dalits are allowed to participate and a dalit priest oversees the ceremony in the most emblematic Jallikattu i.e. Alanganallur Jallikattu, in other areas by default dalits are not allowed to participate. The Alanganallur Jallikattu unlike other Jallikattu is regulated by the state government following Supreme Court’s interventions. Incidents of violence against dalits associated with Jallikattu were not rare especially in the violent 90s when southern Tamil Nadu reeled under caste violence perpetrated by intermediate castes mainly Thevars (a caste group comprising three major castes- Maravars, Agamudaiyars and Kallars) and Nadars on dalits. The role of dominant, agricultural and industrial castes of Kongu region (comprising northwesterndistrics- Coimbatore, Erode, Karur, Namakkal and parts of Dindigul and Salem) namely Gounders and Naickers is also important as they are one of the major breeders of cattle and breeds. Breeds like Kangeyam and Bargur are named after locales in this region.

Also breeding Jallikattu bulls or conducting the event is not at all possible for dalits and would be vehemently opposed by the casteist forces. Jallikattu bull raisers are known to spend lakhs of rupees on the bulls and the event. It is a sport conducted by the rural dominant caste elites where youth from the dominant caste participate to prove their prowess though other non-dalits are not prohibited from participating. Thus it is not surprising that a considerable section among male cine stars have come in open support of the game as Thevars form the most influential bloc in the sector.

Social Significance of the Sport

A major bone of contention among the participants in the debates is related to the antiquity of the sport. Though there are more evidences to prove the historical antiquity of the sport than those against it, this serves only to limited extent. The more pertinent point to be noted is that the very social group i.e. the youth that is engaged in this protest belongs to a generation that has watched Jallikattu being closely associated with Pongal and thereby to Tamil national identity. For those belonging to Chennai, northern Tamil Nadu and other areas where Jallikattu is not practiced, Jallikattu signifies an inseparable part of Tamil culture.

The rising sense of not being treated equal and belonging to the same national community is very much palpable among the protesting youth in Tamil Nadu. It is in the background of these developments that developments with respect to Jallikattu has to be placed. The active campaign by pro-Jallikattu interests by appealing to the cultural heritage of Tamils has certainly had played major role in motivating the protesters. But it is the reserve of frustration and enchantment with the forces in the Centre that has actually made this a mass protest.

It has come to signify what Vallamkali (Boat Race) does for Malayalees. The symbolic importance of Jallikattu got its impetus through cinema and much more through television that entwined Jallikattu with the social imagery of Pongal and Tamil culture. It is this association with Jallikattu that has enabled it to be projected in the backdrop of the recent political developments in Tamil Nadu. In short, while Jallikattu as a sport is a strong signifier of intermediate caste masculinity, it is visualised as a shared cultural symbol by most other Tamils in other parts of the state. Thus the confrontational assertion of a strong Tamil identity that marks the protests at this moment cannot be limited only to the characteristics of the sport. The protest can only be fully grasped when situated in the current socio-political context.

The Immediate Backdrop

The immediate backdrop of the Jallikattu protest can be seen as a well planned intervention by the pro-Jallikattu section through social media in the immediate aftermath of the SC judgment. The issue was presented as an assault on the cultural identity of the Tamils. More importantly, the haste with which PETA and AWB manned by people belonging to urban elite sections (Brahmins) far removed from the common masses raised suspicions and immediate reactions by the pro-Jallikattu sections. The haste with which 19 senior advocates were pushed into action provided ample reasons to question their sources of funding and the actual interests behind them. The fact that this has happened exactly at the eve of Pongal added much fuel and passions. This provided opportunity to the pro-Jallikattu rural elite section to raise the accusation of corporate conspiracy to finish off the local cattle breeds and capture the dairy and beef market. The sentiments were further hurt when the centre played with the holiday status of the Pongal. This created major anger against the center and provided further impetus to the already hurt sentiments of large sections of youth. The very gesture that the ‘compulsory holiday’ status of Pongal can be altered at the will of a “north Indian” central government added fuel to the fire. Unmistakably the discourse bore all the elements of a valorous male response to the perceived assaults by big business and the North Indian government.

The Disenchantment with the Centre

To reduce this certainly but limitedly planned 'spontaneity' to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is to miss lots of other factors. The most important among the factors is the continuing and intensifying sense of political discrimination felt by Tamils from other states and especially the Indian Union (this partly answers why there were no protests earlier). The mass murder of more than 50,000 Tamils by Rajapakse government in Srilanka probably marks the beginning. During the war, Tamil Nadu was gripped by spontaneous protests which saw emotions running high. Though it didn’t galvanise as a massive protest against the Indian state, the perception about the Indian state as a collaborator in the genocide is still fresh among an influential section of youth. The use of social media as a medium of organising protests also marked its beginning in those protests when college students organised protests with only limited interventions by pro-Eelam and chauvinist forces. This disenchantment with the Indian state only intensified by the attitude of the Centre in both Mullaperiyar and the Cauveri water dispute. In both the cases, Tamil Nadu which had received favourable judgments from the judiciary has been made to be at the mercy of the neighbouring states while the centre either failed or covertly collaborated with other states expecting to reap political mileage. The long standing issue of aggression of Sri Lankan navy over Tamil fishermen forms part of the same list.

The disenchantment reached another node when the centre and the national media failed to respond adequately to the Chennai floods. The latest episode among the continuing discrimination was directly felt by Chennaites as demonetisation wrecked havoc in the event of Vardha cyclone. For days people were left helpless as electricity and internet connections failed and made life miserable in a cashless economy shattered by cyclone. The seeds for anti-modi sentiments were strongly sown at least in the Chennai region in those days which only solidified as the demonetisation unravelled.


The rising sense of not being treated equal and belonging to the same national community is very much palpable among the protesting youth in Tamil Nadu. It is in the background of these developments that developments with respect to Jallikattu has to be placed. The active campaign by pro-Jallikattu interests by appealing to the cultural heritage of Tamils (also by instigating masculine pride directly and indirectly) has certainly had played major role in motivating the protesters. But it is the reserve of frustration and enchantment with the forces in the Centre that has actually made this a mass protest.

A much more real hurt can be uncovered if one listens to the A2 and A1 Milk debate. The A1 and A2 refers to the beta-casein proteins found in milk. The pro-Jallikattu section provides the argument that we are deprived of superior A2 milk and provided inferior A1 milk. While most use these scientifically unfound arguments to justify Jallikattu it is not rare to find the same logic being used to express how Tamils have been made an inferior stock due to these measures. And more often than not these expressions are soon followed by the references to insults Tamils have been recently put to.

The Political Vaccuum

While the disenchantment rose on one side, the leadership vacuum in the state intensified with Jayalalitha’s demise. The vacuum turned into disenchantment with the political class as the events associated with Sasikala unfolded. In all these developments the Chief Minister O.Panneerselvam has exposed himself as a loyal puppet in the hands of Sasikala (It will not be completely blasphemous to suspect whether the movement would have achieved the same dimensions had Jayalalitha continued to reign considering her capacity to exert pressure over both centre and the protestors). In fact the movement as of now is attempting to keep complete distance from the political parties and politicians. This is more so in the case of the protests in Chennai. Not only DMK chief Stalin but also Seeman, the leader of a chauvinist organisation named Naam Tamizhar were insulted and driven away from protest sites (though Seeman was accommodated in another protest site). The fact that Seeman who rose to prominence in the earlier pro-Eelam protests is no more fully receptive to a large section of youth in a protest for ‘Tamil Pride’ shows the level of disenchantment with the political class. The situation of People’s Welfare Front is also not much different as those who viewed the alliance favourably when it was formed fell off following political somersaults and stunts of its constituents – Vijayakant and Vaiko.

The Contradictions

It is in the midst of this high political vacuum that figures like KarthikeyanSivasenathipathy (a realtor who runs a foundation for cattle research) enter who appear to balance the 'great culture' on the one hand (being both a patron of Kangeyam Bulls and a wealthy agriculturalist) and the modern 'techno-sensibilities' (english educated, IT oriented and pseudo-scientific) on the other. Unfound claims are made of the scientific nature of Jallikattu to the extent that it is being branded as a ‘breeding science’. Medicinal qualities and health benefits of the milk of the indigenous cattle are exalted and exaggerated by him which have become the fundamental justifications for saving Jallikattu in the face of Corporate conspiracy. Self-obsessed entities run by elites like PETA are labelled as conspirators in a global conspiracy by western diary giants and beef industry in their bid to capture the local market. Strong denunciations of Coca Cola and Pepsi remind the earlier protests against them more than a decade ago. Farmer suicides are ascribed to the giants of fertilizer and pesticide industry (Read Karthikeyan’s speech here). Most of the vocal protests are well within the limits of conservative critique of corporates and modern farming technologies. The problem is that all these manipulations in the name of science is done on the basis of a real concern – that most of these indigenous species are facing existential threat and their numbers are drastically falling down.

It is in the interest of the big farmer-breeders, who are very much part of the rural and state political establishment, that are behind Jallikattu to limit the discourse on farming to rhetoric. The exploitative aspect of agrarian crisis demands concrete political action over and above rhetoric and against their interests. However, it is the revivalist agenda that is being fulfilled by the rhetoric.

It is a fact that Jallikattu Protest at Marina Beach has surprised almost all political quarters in Tamil Nadu. While progressive sections were highly vary of the masculine and chauvinist tones and turns it could take, the protesters have managed to conduct themselves democratically. While cine artists who opined against Jallikattu were denounced and especially a female artist, Trisha, was met with intense sexual abuse in social media, the protesters didn’t allow such sentiments to gain currency on the ground. The protest site has emerged as a site of resistance and engagement though within certain limits. The revivalist arguments with respect to farming and cattle however are not being allowed to completely overshadow other opinions. Discussions are rampant and vocal about demonetisation and attempts by RSS to convert this movement into a communal issue. The religious harmony represented through this protest reasserts the secular character of the Tamil public sphere and its national cultural symbols with respect to religion. The demand for preservation of bulls is applied only to the Jallikattu breeds. Jallikattu supporters also argue that slaughtering of the Jallikattu bulls is preferable as it denotes lesser suffering for the older animal and lesser burden for the farmer. The protesters are also consciously ensuring that women participants are not harassed or mistreated. While all these strands are present and the protest site certainly represent a far cry from the usually non-political character of larger student community of Tamil Nadu, it lacks the political orientation and a common agenda other than removing the ban on Jallikattu. The more radical and pro-farmer sentiments that are expressed are not being channelised into any meaningful political action.

Interestingly the Jallikattu protest has seen foregrounding of the agrarian crisis that is gripping the state. Cries for Jallikattu are invariably accompanied by cries to save farmers from the crisis. However these lamentations are also ambiguous as cries for saving the farmers from the current crisis are mixed with saving farmers as an undifferentiated class from extinction and re-establishing ‘his’ ‘prestige’ or ‘honour’. Both sentiments are simultaneously echoed. There is an obvious tension in the figure of the (generalised) farmer being raised in this protest - the debt ridden farmer on the one hand and the great traditional farmer on the other, the largely dalit agricultural labour being almost non-existent. However the concern for farmers falls short of translating into any concrete actions.

It is also in the interest of the big farmer-breeders (who are very much part of the rural and state political establishment) that are behind Jallikattu to limit the discourse on farming to rhetoric. The exploitative aspect of agrarian crisis demands concrete political action over and above rhetoric and against their interest while the revivalist agenda is fulfilled by the rhetoric. The suspicion is only strengthened when Karthikeyan authoritatively requested the protestors to limit the movement only to ‘amend PCA’ and not to raise slogans against Pepsi and Coca cola as that might lead to fizzling out of the movement. He certainly adds that protests against corporates and their toxic foods should be taken up after clinching the Jallikattu agenda. In short, the fact that it is the rich farmers (elites among Gounders and Thevar) who are representing the farmers in the protest sites and TV studios and not the actually suffering farmers should caution us.

The Dubious role of Media

Apart from the apolitical nature, the entire protest in Marina is also manipulated and selectively broadcasted by the media. Especially lots of discussions that take place on the sidelines are selectively white washed and the entire movement had been shown as being targeted against PETA. Also the activities and speeches are not limited to large addresses but are also found to be decentralised and discursive which are not covered by the media. For example, a talk on demonetisation was conducted attended by around 2000 audience. Hardly any media covered this event.

What Lies Ahead

Until now the Jallikattu protests represent a genuine protest against unilateral imposition of values and orders against a Tamil cultural symbol heightened by continuous step-motherly treatment being meted out by the centre. Though the discourse is highly couched in highly revivalist and masculinist terms, the protest sites especially at Chennai has evolved as a space for resistance through democratic means. While the Marina Protest seems to have gained the trust among women and more women are expressing their trust in the protesters through social media, how much inclusive are the protests in other areas of Tamil Nadu is not obvious. To use Satchidanandan’s description, Jallikattu as a signifier has risen above its common day to day meaning and has risen as a signifier of protest against a repressive system.

However gender equal the current space of protest the turn of events presents a bigger challenge in the long run. The emulation and replication of Jallikattu in other parts of Tamil Nadu adds to the existing odds in the fight against patriarchy. When the democratically held movement recedes, the hyper-masculine Jallikattu would have reached newer sites and corners. Thus unless this current mobilisation and political churning is redirected through active political interventions by progressive sections, the movement may end up producing long term damages both in terms of gender and caste. While the implications for caste can be limited by bringing all the events under governmental regulation, it is almost impossible to wean it away from its patriarchal and hyper-masculine content.For the progressive forces, another major challenge lies in dealing with this bull of discontent and loosely organised spontaneous protests that has become a regular mode of expression of the politics of youth in Tamil Nadu. For now for a left political activist, in the words of a CPIM intellectual in Tamil Nadu, this movement offers a unique opportunity to listen to what the students and youth have to say. What have reached them due to all these years of progressive political and cultural activism and what has not been communicated and what lacunae exists in reaching the students.

At the time of writing this piece, the Chief Minister has announced that he himself will inaugurate Jallikattu in a couple of days. Cursorily, it will also be interesting and curious to see whether OPS will use this opportunity to make his own mark and salvage his dropping public acceptability in the high and ugly drama that is going on in ADMK.