The crowd at Marina Beach, incensed and in plenty, is indeed an overwhelming sight. The mind falls quiet and is found staring at a tremendous moment in history. On November 26, 1949, a gathering of the tallest individuals of that age assembled, with great solemnity, to adopt the Constitution of India. Years of treachery and serfdom had come to an end. The most diverse nation on earth was about to resume her ancient name. The world watched with wonderment.
“Will history repeat itself?” asked Dr B.R. Ambedkar in what was to be his final address to the Constituent Assembly. “If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgement we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional ways. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for the contrary.”
The Republic of India survives on the wisdom of these words.
Let me confess that I am very uncomfortable with Jallikattu. I don’t sympathise with the sport at all. But this doesn’t diminish my respect for those who disagree and, to my infinite admiration, for the peaceful and lawful manner in which they’ve carried out their protest. Surely, had Dr Ambedkar been alive, he would concur and with pride.
But observing the events of the last few days carefully, one is pained by the brute force of the decibel and its assault on conversation and nuance. Central to our democratic life is dialogue. The object of dialogue is not victory but progress. Those who have expressed their disaffection for Jallikattu have been abused or hounded. Counter arguments, if any, are often sloppy and unbecoming of intelligent and progressive people.
Take for instance the claim that those who eat meat or wear leather products are unqualified to express pain for the Jallikattu bull. This is nothing short of a deflection. One is uncomfortable with confronting the possible problem in one’s stand and immediately chooses to justify it by acts of cruelty committed by others. Another’s wrong does not make my wrong alright and it is simply absurd to argue in this fashion.
I will be honest and admit that I do eat meat and I have worn leather products too. My stance on Jallikattu, if anything, has exposed me to the obvious hypocrisy I’d harbour in ignoring the inconsistency between my lifestyle and my stance on this matter. I am undergoing a difficult process of self-reflection. It certainly is unsettling. But I’m committed to this effort and am genuinely grateful for this chance to progress in mind and heart.
Tamil culture is one of the most ancient and inspiring in the world. It has given us people like the legendary sage Thiruvalluvar. He manifested and gifted to the world the absolute pinnacle and sophistication of human thought. Tamil culture has also given the world Thanthai Periyar, the man who turned a fledgling nation towards its own conscience with the reminder that true freedom comes only when the most vulnerable and oppressed feel that the nation indeed is their own too. Those who come to my home state rarely leave without feeling its warmth.
This is why I am so proud to be a Tamilian. My community’s culture is far too rich and lofty to be assaulted by the events that have captured the past few days.
Lastly, I will submit that regardless of my views, a ban on Jallikattu is purely wrong. The law is an offspring of culture and it is strange and worrying to think that the law, on its own, can affect cultural reform.
Expressions like ‘equity’, ‘good conscience’ and ‘the rule of law’ – are these not born from culture? Surely the law did not descend from some objective heaven of justice. Our concept of justice itself – lovely as it is – is manmade, cooked and nurtured over the ages. For a practice that is understood to be centuries old and symbolic of a community’s identity, the law, should it seek to reform it, cannot work in isolation. If it does, like in the present case, it will be viewed as hostile to culture and against the sensitivities of a people.
This is not to say that the law must function in deference to culture. Certainly not. But the law must function in dialogue with culture. For a democratic republic to survive, respect for the rule of law is absolutely essential. Isn’t it difficult to feel respect for something that appears willfully oblivious or hostile to the cultural sensitivity of a community?
In the case of the Hindu Code Bills, years of dialogue and grassroots advocacy led by the likes of Swami Vivekananda, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lokmanya Tilak and Gandhi, to name a few, allowed the law to ‘officialise’ cultural progress during the infant years of our independence.
The LGBTQ movement in the U.S. is another example. The Supreme Court verdict legalising gay marriage wasn’t a legal victory alone. Thousands of brave activists and advocates across America and the world went straight to the grassroots, fell down on their knees and urged the mainstream to look beyond the barbed walls of orthodoxy and recognise the diversity in the human condition.
A groundswell of public awareness and sensitisation paved way for the Supreme Court to deliver its verdict such that it was accepted and respected across the country. Detractors in the public remained – and still do remain – but there is no disputing that the public conversation had taken a turn towards greater awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ concerns.
Conversation and advocacy must be coupled with legal enforcement. The former without the latter will be a toothless effort; the latter without the former will be an invitation towards anarchy.
Cultural reform can never be enforced. It can only be invoked by a people for themselves and unto themselves.
We are presented with a splendid opportunity to reflect, converse and move forward. What a tragedy it would be if this moment were to pass unheeded to.
This post was initially published on the author’s personal blog.