Many years ago, when I was around 8-years-old, my family and I were on a train from Manali to Delhi. My elders and the co passengers were all very tired of my constant chatter and no one was paying attention. Yet, I still had a lot to say which might have meant something to me then. I picked up a little tissue paper from the corner table and scribbled a little poem with the few fancy words from my vocabulary. My feelings remained captured in my memories and I wrote my first poem.
The last few months, went by with some furious debates about animal rights, Indian culture and heritage, feminism and lot of other heavy topics. As the nation continues to remain polarized about their support or hatred towards Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu, I am still searching for some discussions arguing about what the tradition actually is and the manner in which it is performed. As forever, the noise of jingoistic bias seems to eclipse truth and reality.
“The Bull Taming Sport“, “Gladiator like Bull Fighting“, are the amusing titles that have been used to brand a tradition that is over 5,000-years-old and yet is preserved carefully and is deep rooted in the agrarian identity of the Indian nationhood.
Jallikattu or Aer Thazhavuthal finds its existence way back to the times of the Indus Valley civilization and Sangam Poetry. It is a sport for the celebration of the power of the bull. The activity is primarily performed in order to identify the strongest of the bulls to keep to be kept in the temple as the deity bull that helps in the insemination of the village cows in order to procreate.
Nationhood, in terms of finding an identity and pride is much broader a term than mere nationalism. And the Indian nationhood spreads to every part of the world. It is the idea of our culture, history and civilization that binds the globe in a chord of shared storytelling. As British Historian, Arnold Toynbee describes, “India is the whole world and our national affiliations cannot be so narrow.” Yet, Tamils, who are a part of the region, as marked in the mainstream Indian map, are struggling today, not just to determine their heritage but also to assert their identity.
The protest at Marina beach in Chennai is more than just an agitation against the banning of Jallikattu. It is a desperate plea to the countrymen by the entire Southern population to make themselves heard…to make themselves known. After all, our nationhood is not just centered on the popular belt of Northern India. The country was built by everyone, including those in the South, particularly Tamils. Social movements of Tamil Nadu had played no less a role in the liberation of India. If our History remembers the values imparted by Dr Ambedkar, we are equally incomplete without the depth and courage of Periyar.
Our history books brutally ignore most parts of the freedom movement and the ideologies that collectively shaped our national fabric. The central board’s (CBSE) history textbooks outline the Indian Freedom Struggle as a movement dominated only by certain minds. Amidst such a heavy indoctrination of cultural dominance, one perhaps, needs to pause and retrospect. We are so detached from the collective history of our own nation that some of us have reached the extent of believing that Tamils or the southerners had no participation in the struggle. I do not really blame them. Popular culture remembered and applauded the strength of Shahid Bhagat Singh and his letter to his family became a revolutionary example. Thus we knew him.
Around the 1960s, the Indian National Dairy Development Board began its ambitious project of the “White Revolution” in India. In order to sustain a multiplied production of milk in the Indian market, the State began to import many western bred bulls and encouraged their mix breeding with the indigenous cows. The imposition of mix breed cattle for the milk production of India, had suddenly become so intense that the Kerala Livestock Act of 1961, directly prohibited the maintenance of productive indigenous bulls by the farmers. Agriculture inspectors literally circumcised any local bull capable of reproduction. The Act remained, though it was in conflict with the Biodiversity Act of 2002 that aims to preserve indigenous breeds of India. Yet, indigenous breeds, continued to become lesser each day as western breeds replaced them. More than 2,694 bulls were castrated only in the years 2012-13.
The Vechur cow, known as the world’s shortest cattle breed and most other indigenous breed began disappearing so fast that immediate action was needed. These local breeds, specifically needed protection for the quality of their milk which is high in fat content, require much lesser feed and provide very high resistance to diseases. The richness of the A2 milk that the local cows produced began to be substituted by western A1 milk which was not just of inferior quality, but also inflicted many health challenges after consumption. From a self sufficient milk economy, India is now headed towards importing artificial insemination from the west. Even a hundred years back, native breeds counted to around 130. Only 37 survive today.
Eru Thazhuvuthal means “bull embracing”. At the time of Nayaka kings of Tamil Nadu, gold coins were wrapped in cloth and tied on the horns of the bulls. The tackler, who hung on the hump of the bull, took the prize. “Jalli” means coins and “Kattu” means tied. The rules of the game were strictly to not hurt the bull in any manner whatsoever and to hang on to its hump without provocation. The sport is particularly a festival of worship towards nature and animals. Not everything ancient is always outdated.
In the casteist Indian society, Jallikattu is a socialist exercise, where the entire village participates irrespective of caste differences. The cattle are bred by the women of the families who treat the bulls as their own children. Not only is it an inclusive societal effort, but also resonates historical eco feminism whose traces can be seen in Sangam Literature and Epics.
Rearing a bull is not a cheap liability. When a poor rural family raises an animal giving it better food that what they usually eat, obviously, they shall not tolerate any harm inflicted on it during the sport.
The bravery and passion attached to Jallikattu find its mention even in British records. However, without the reward of Jallikattu and the prospect of bull rearing, farmers shall cease this legacy. Not all farmers can afford to raise bulls. Through Jallikattu, the strongest bulls are identified and preserved in temples to breed further. Not just the agrarian socio-cultural chord shall be tampered by banning Jallikattu but also, none of these animals shall live on for our future generations. Soon, the native breeds shall be slaughtered moving towards further extinction.
It is heartbreaking to see most of the conversations and debates about Jallikattu around me. Most of us have the least knowledge about the tradition and its value and importance. Yet we have casually labeled it “primordial” and “cruel”. Yet, what I find most cruel is the manner in which we have detached ourselves from our own people. In our minds, south India has never grown beyond the “Madras” presidency. To us, “Madrasis” are no more than a bunch of regressive, cynical and grumpy people. We have visualized, nearly every Tamil, as a dhoti clad (which we call Lungi), dark skinned (which we find ugly) Brahmin with ashes all over the forehead and strictly vegetarian “idli dosa diet”, always visiting only temples.
The stereotypes are no less for southern women either. Our favorite south Indian food joints are inevitably vegetarian, serving the typical “pakka food” made of ghee while distributing the Brahmin tradition. Very few travel shows have ever really highlighted on the traditions like mutton dindigul biriyani of Chennai or the appam and mutton stew of Kerala. In fact, no one has really ever spoken about the traditional beef and other non-vegetarian dishes of Tamil Nadu and the south Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka.
We see, only what we choose to see.
For us, Tamil films are only about the mindless hyperactivity of Rajnikanth. Yet, somewhere in time, Rajnikanth had starred in the film “Aval Appadithan” that had not just defied societal taboos, but also had gathered admiration from cinema lovers like Mrinal Sen. It is the same Tamil film industry that produced Parasakthi. Kamal Haasan in Anbe Sivam, Hey Ram, Uttama Villain, Moondram Pirai (Sadma in Hindi), never found our notice. Yet, we only found Rajnikanth in “Sivaji-the Boss” and “Robot”. Tamil Cinema got labeled as jester performances. Illaiyaraja, Sivaji Ganeshan, Balachander , Karunanidhi are all the jesters that keep these Tamilians entertained.
Not just Tamil Nadu or south Indians. We do not know, most of our country. How many literature texts in school, ever read some poetry from Habba Khatoon of Kashmir? Did a single history module ever discuss the legacy and story of Kashmir? But our conscience was infused with the rant – “Kashmir Hamara hai (Kashmir is ours)!” What is Kashmir? Just a piece of land to conquer? Of course, we have stereotyped Kashmir enough anyway. Just as we are least bothered about the truth of Chattisgarh. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, we are burning and yet, Delhi is calm.
Soon, the state machinery in Chennai began arresting the poor Dalit fishermen when they could not break the Marina beach crowd. The city is being brutalized and the cops continue to burn down property and harm the protesters. We are still silent like we were, when Najeeb Ahmad disappeared or our children in Kashmir were butchered by pellets. We stayed silent during the Nandigram struggle too. Manipur or any of the North East was anyway beyond the comprehension of the Indian identity. No one knows Madkam Hidme or her stories. Dika Kumari, Rohit Vemula and a million others are monotonous stories which the corporate media ignores while reporting. The glamour supplements grow glossier
We never listened when our countrymen struggled against atrocities. We are common Indians spread across the globe. Not all Tamils, either realize the value of the movement and spontaneity in its solidarity. Just as some Bengalis felt that Nandigram needed the Tatas for development. We are yet to know ourselves.
Then how is India united in its diversity? Are we not simply concentrated amidst a popular Hindi noise? Let me not impugn the richness of Hindi as a language. Most of us have not read Munshi Premchand beyond our Hindi textbooks or heard of Zauq either. Few even bother to remember Avatar Singh Paash or his poetry. We are only too preoccupied in our own pre conceived notions to even open ourselves up to the expressions that surround us.
The Tamil dissent at Marina Beach was much more than just a protest. It was a desperate plea of the people to make them known and heard. The protest had turned into a movement when the entire struggle was so well informed. The participants set an example and led each other with utmost solidarity.
The self conduct of each protestor carried the message of their character. The crowd cleaned the beach themselves and not a single threat to women’s security occurred. The crowd was in millions, yet, not a single case of harassment occurred. Women slept on the beaches with men and they felt no fear. There was no political affiliation to the voices and everyone joined as one. Actors, lawyers, doctors, fishermen, people from all walks of life. They all had one message – the message of pride for their civilization and defiance of stereotypes imposed by all of us. The movement had a steady evolution with every passing day. They stood as one.
Our history books may have erased Rani Velu Nachyar but her civilization has kept her in their heart. Even though popular culture forgot the letter of Vanchinathan, his spark remains alive in his people. How else, would the youth be so committed in their spontaneous struggle to save their identity? Where else would they find the courage and the valor to look into the eyes of the state and refuse to relent to pressure and torture?
The traders’ association raised the issue of Coke and Pepsi plants that continue to dry up the Tamirabarani River beds which cause the drought and farmer suicides. Voices were collectively raised even by corporate employees against these terrible multinational atrocities and they were heard. Coke and Pepsi have been disallowed from March 1, 2017 in Tamil Nadu. No longer can powerful capitalists and multinationals take our living, our rights for granted. This movement is not just important for the Tamil liberation but also valuable for all those battling corporate tyranny everyday in their lives.
Legally, the Tamils have full right to preserve their tradition and culture. Banning Jallikattu for cruelty is like banning marriages in the fear of domestic violence! Jallikattu Act of 2000, itself regulates the sport. Besides, through Public International Law and the Convention for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which India ratified in 2005, Jallikattu is a basic human right. Jallikattu is an ancient science of breeding and must be protected. Article 253 of Indian constitution confers this power to make legislations in order to comply with international laws and conventions.
The Tamil Nadu Governor has already passed an ordinance under Article 213(2) of the Indian Constitution allowing Jallikattu and the State Legislature has made it a law. The President, under Article 254(2) of the constitution has also assented to the same. The constitutionality of the Act obviously remains valid even under a possible challenge as it was assented by the President and under Article 51 (c), Indian constitution must foster respect and abide by international laws and treaties. Such arbitrary bans violate our fundamental right to expression and the preservation of our culture and education.
Marina Beach has rekindled courage with compassion. We must awaken to the calling of our people and understand them, trust them and form that chain of human relations that entail our Indian nationhood. We cannot live our pretentious lives anymore when students much younger than us and common men and women are dying for our collective conscience. We must believe in ourselves and each other to understand the internationalism that Indian sense of nationhood propagates. Our identity cannot be captured and miniaturized. This is our fight to survive, this is our fight to love who we are and a fight to embrace our individuality.
I lost that tissue paper on which I had written my first poem. I don’t even remember the next few lines of it. Yet, I still write my opinions, when the meaningless chaos depresses me. When I am not able to counter the unfounded arguments on television, I write my views. I write my stories that no one wishes to hear. My subject has changed, my content has developed, but my roots have not been altered. The tissue paper still holds a part of my reality and who I am, no matter where I go. I shall never give away the possession of that profound memory in which even today, I nurture my honesty. Our roots never leave us and without them, we have no identity. We are of our culture, our civilizations, that sustain us. Our history is our childhood that can never be separated from us. I do not intend to be so unfortunate to give up the gift of childhood. I shall not let the glamour of nothingness change my honesty.
“Jodi beche dite bole, shikar badha maati,
Jeno ami bechte debo na” (If you ask me to sell my roots seeped into the soil…Remember, I shall not let you sell me”)
Beche Thankar Gaan (The song of survival) – Rupam Islam