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Listen closely to the voices at Marina for the story beyond Jallikattu, ‘Tamil pride’

It is tempting to dismiss the protests as an emotional response triggered by cultural pride as the political establishment has done.

Written by Amrith Lal |
January 23, 2017 12:00:03 am
Jallikattu, Jallikattu protests, marina beach jallikattu, Marina Beach protests, Jallikattu ban, Jallikattu deaths, Jallikattu events, Tamil Nadu Jallikattu, O Panneerselvam, Jallikattu agitation, Marina Beach protests, India news, Indian Express news The very acceptability of the massive Marina beach protests to the political establishment in Tamil Nadu blunts the edge of the politics that drives it. PTI

The sands of Marina, sandwiched between the Bay of Bengal and the colonial-era Indo-Saracenic buildings, are far removed from the dry lands of central and southern Tamil Nadu, where Jallikattu, the bull-taming sport, is held in the weeks after Pongal.

Early last week, when the demands to allow Jallikattu during Pongal failed to move the Supreme Court, young men and women started gathering on the beach to mark their protest. According to reports, what started as a trickle on Tuesday morning became a large crowd of a few thousands overnight. Driven by social media, the leaderless, inchoate gathering of young men and women, drawn from across castes and classes, including students and young professionals, became a massive mobilisation of the kind the state hadn’t witnessed in recent years.

Though the opposition, especially the DMK, had staged protests against the ban on Jallikattu, the Marina crowd refused to let politicians address them. The political establishment was indulgent, almost itching to join the protests, and blamed the ban on the Centre, which, they said, was ignorant and insensitive to Tamil culture and values. Jallikattu, a sport of the peasantry restricted to certain parts of the state, was transformed into a symbol of Tamil pride. Soon, support started pouring in from Tamils outside the state and the diaspora. By the weekend, the protests had become a political articulation of the Tamil nation’s angst against a perceived suppression of its cultural identity.

It is tempting to dismiss the protests as an emotional response triggered by cultural pride as the political establishment has done. The nature of the protests — the absence of any organisation, leadership or even a clear programme of action — allows such an interpretation to go uncontested. However, listen to the distinct voices that constitute the noise, it becomes clear that the Jallikattu protest has become a lightning rod for a slew of complaints, concerns and worries that seem to bother the youth in the state. Farm distress, drought, lack of rural employment and opportunities, impoverishment of peasants and small farmers have all found resonance in the Marina movement. Clearly, the protests seem to reflect the social turmoil, especially in non-urban Tamil Nadu, that the political establishment seems either unaware of, or is insensitive about.

Tamil Nadu is the third largest urbanised state, behind Goa and Kerala, in the country. According to the 2011 Census, over 48.5% of its population lives in urban areas, up from 34% in 1991. The share of agriculture in the state’s income is now just 7%, but 35% of the population continues to be dependent on agriculture for their living. The pattern of urbanisation and industralisation of Tamil Nadu is such that a large part of the rural population is also dependent on the urban economy, especially on sectors such as construction.

A large section of the youth in urban areas, from students to industrial and service-sector workers, are first-generation immigrants, points out M Vijayabaskar, an economist with the Madras Institute of Development Studies. This is a population living away from rural Tamil Nadu, but still not integrated with urban life. They are acutely aware of the social churn transforming their villages and towns, having also been forced to migrate for the same reason. They are also angry that the social and political elite in the state are insensitive to their concerns. The political expression of their disenchantment with the establishment, in the absence of political agency, often takes the form of a cultural argument.

In an essay in Seminar, economists A R Vasavi and Vijayabaskar wrote about “non-agrarian capital finding its way into the rural, but less as investment in agriculture and more in land markets seeking speculative gains”. The impact of this process is reflected in a host of environmental issues, which have become the trigger for many localised protests in Tamil Nadu. While mainstream political parties are firmly entrenched on the side of those involved in the unregulated extraction of natural resources from rural areas, for instance, sand from river beds and quarries, the smaller groups sensitive to the crisis in development seem to lack organisational and ideological and material resources to force a new political vision.

Meanwhile, parties that claim to represent peasant interests, for instance the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the party of Vanniyars, an OBC group, are falling back on caste-based mobilisations to regain ground. Uncomfortable with the structural changes in the rural economy, especially the marginal gains made by Dalits through education and new urban jobs, these mobilisations have limited their political agenda to preserving caste hegemony in the countryside rather than offer any inclusive plan to combat rural distress. The scepticism shown by Dalit politicians and intellectuals to the projection of Jallikattu as a symbol of Tamil culture is largely because of this regressive character of peasant politics, largely driven by OBC-dominated political groups, in recent years.

The articulation of culture as a political argument is a legacy of the Dravidian Movement. Though the debates on Tamil identity predate the Dravidian Movement, the latter made linguistic identity a crucial aspect of its politics. Mass mobilisations, such as the anti-Hindi agitations, the earliest of which was in the 1930s, ensured that Tamil identity, which was defined as in opposition to an Aryan/Brahmin/Sanskrit self, became the idiom of politics in the state. The focus on culture, of course, helped to build a secular Tamil identity that subsumed communal divisions, but it was also used by those in office to evade hard questions on caste oppression and economic inequalities.

Over the years, this identity politics has become a trope for the political mainstream to shift the burden of their failures on to external actors. For instance, the failure of successive government in preventing the destruction of river basins and water sources by the likes of the sand mafia, in addition to faulty state policies, is consumed by the battle with neighbouring Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery water.

The Jallikattu protests also seem to be captured by this “predictably Tamil idiom” of identity politics, as social historian V Geeta puts it. This also explains why all authorities seem to be supporting it. The very acceptability of the protest to the political establishment, reminiscent of the Cauvery and pro-Eelam agitations, blunts the edge of the politics that drives it. It may flag issues — farm distress, for instance — but cannot expose the culpability of the state and the political establishment. The challenge before the youth in Marina and elsewhere is to transform the energy of the street into political action with a transformative political agenda.

The death of Jayalalithaa and the retreat of DMK stalwart M Karunanidhi from active politics have opened up the political space in Tamil Nadu. However, the Marina movement will need to go beyond the familiar idiom of cultural assertion and identity to influence the future course of Tamil politics. Or else, it risks being captured by the establishment.

amrith.lal@expressindia.com

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