On a day when I had to use two modes of transport to get to my workplace six kilometres away, I really have to wonder if we are living in a satirical dimension of our world. For their sheer mind-boggling incongruity, the Jallikattu protests have to be described as post-Trump. Despite the protests supposedly being an inclusive Tamil movement and erasing the millennia of gender, caste and religious divides, they play up the same fears of majoritarian victimisation against an external threat (PETA! Supreme Court! Central Government!) that threatens to dilute some ‘integral’ part of our culture. In this case, a bull taming sport that most of the urban youth who have congregated on Marina Beach have seen only on the silver screen with Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan.
As a Tamilian who has been subject to endless social media posts and discussions with office colleagues about Jallikattu, my only reaction is complete befuddlement. Jallikattu does not matter to a large majority of our state. For us to suddenly become vociferous advocates for this tradition seems ridiculous. Cultures define and confine us, but they are also malleable. To claim that Jallikattu is an inexorable part of that culture is bogus. If our culture was only defined by Sangam literature, then there would be no place for our infectious Rajnikanth fandom. Support for Jallikattu does not make one more or less Tamil. So, let’s stop conflating it with Tamil culture.
More than anything the protests against Jallikattu are disappointing because we need to understand that our collective protests, advocacy and media outrage are a zero-sum game. This is the cause around which the youth of Tamil Nadu have mass mobilised themselves around. Not the death of Tara, the young transgender woman whose body was found burnt in a police compound. Not the grisly murder of Shankar, the young Dalit man hacked to death in full public for marrying a girl outside his caste. Not Swathi, the young Infosys employee who was horrifically stabbed to death.
Part of this positioning of Jallikattu as our cultural heirloom also involves whitewashing its unsavoury aspects, such as its associations with toxic masculinity or caste pride. One dubious repeated assertion is that women are safely taking part in the movement. Look how enlightened we are! Yet, it ignores the fact that misogyny has been at the core of almost all protests about Tamil culture in the past, whether it was Khushboo saying that men shouldn’t expect their wives to be virgins or the outcry over Perumal Murugan’s book over its depiction of a temple ritual where a woman gets impregnated by a stranger. Even as part of this recent jousting over Jallikattu, actress Trisha’s movie set was stormed by Jallikattu protesters, which led her to seek police protection. She was also forced off Twitter for having been part of PETA campaigns in the past. An image floated around which painted her as a woman of ‘loose morals’. Even Purva Joshipura, the CEO of PETA India has received rape threats on social media. An inclusive movement, this isn’t.
And despite the invoking of people like Abdul Kalam at the event, the Jallikattu protests also have the same tired arguments about supposed Muslim exceptionalism than they do about making a case for their own. If people support Jallikattu simply to prove a point about it being less barbaric than slaughter houses, then they can’t turn around and claim that the bulls are treated like family members.
It’s also galling to see people like Ravi Shankar and Jaggi Vasudev who supported the beef ban extend their support for Jallikattu. Jaggi Vasudev, a master of mental gymnastics, insists that cows must be treated gently but is all for a sport where bulls can get gored and maimed.
As someone who consumes meat with great relish, I probably don’t have the moral right to call for a Jallikattu ban. Yet, the ruckus over this sport is all the more disappointing because we have exhausted our political activism around an inconsequential issue. Yet, this shouldn’t be surprising. Our sense of Tamil pride has always been solidified by finding some external threat to it, in this case perceived central and North India indifference to Tamil demands. The only way to process this is to drink copious amounts of liquor (enough for a bull taking part in the event) and enjoy this for the piece of absurdist political theatre it is.