Even before the day broke, sloganeering had started at Alanganallur, the epicenter of the jallikattu uprising in Tamil Nadu. By 5am, villagers were having their morning tea, stretching themselves for day 8 of the protest, which started on January 16.
It wasn’t an easy task to enter the village. The previous night, villagers had stalled 5 trucks stacked with sugarcane on their way to the National Cooperative Sugar Mills nearby, blocking the arterial road through the village from one side. On the other end of the village, the road was blocked by a human chain, with men and women squatting on the road refusing to allow vehicles through. Men were standing guard every few hundred metres, watching closely who was stepping in and out. The village of Alanganallur was sealed, and under watch.
Inside the village, protesters had blocked the way to the vaadivasal, the entrance to the arena where jallikattu is held every year. In spite of an ordinance by the state government legalising the sport, the protesters stood strong, stating that only a ‘permanent solution’ – a central legislation amending the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act – will convince them to drop the protests.
And it was this struggle of the state government, to convince people that the ordinance issued by them on January 21 is about as ‘permanent’ as it can get now, that defined the day at Alanganallur.
Acceptance creeping in
“I returned only at 4am on Sunday morning,” laments 34-year-old Prabhu, an AIADMK councillor and member of the village’s jallikattu organizing committee. “We were at the IG’s office all night, and there was a lot of pressure on us to conduct jallikattu. But we told the police that we cannot take a decision without the protesters’ consent.”
Prabhu explains that the movement might not have become so defiant if the government had spoken to the protesters at the beginning. “On January 17, they arrested 180 people. We pleaded with them not to do so. But they didn’t listen. And then thousands of people landed here. Even on January 21, the District Collector spoke only to us and then announced that jallikattu will happen. He didn’t speak to protesters.”
At the village, the movement has gone beyond any one person’s control, and beyond the village itself. “Every person is a leader here. There are students from outside and local villagers, and all of them gathered to support us when we needed them. Now we alone cannot decide,” he says.
The acceptance, that this is the best the government can do now, seems to be creeping into his mind. “What more can the government do? I am not sure. But it is not in our hands now,” he says, “Even if we, as jallikattu organizers, want to hold it now, we cannot.”
The women in the village are particularly in support of the protests going on.
Of Valour and Caste
“We don’t trust the government. What if the Supreme Court stays the order tomorrow?” asks Saraswathi, “And how can we have it all of a sudden? It takes time to set things up.”
What makes her defiance even more intriguing is that she lost her brother-in-law to jallikattu 11 years ago. R Senthilkumar was only 19 years old then, a valorous young man. At the Alanganallur jallikattu in 2005, a bull rammed into him at the arena, killing him.
“He was a veeran, he will be our hero forever,” she says. She lost her own family member to the sport. Not only does she want the ban revoked, she is also seeking a permanent solution to that. Why? “Because that is who we are. For us, jallikattu is the veera vilayatu (game of valour). We are proud to have lost him in the battlefield for Tamil pride,” she says, proudly showing off an old picture of Senthilkumar with Kamal Haasan in his Virumaandi get-up.
A much-touted criticism of jallikattu is its casteist nature. From Dalit activists to politicians, many have pointed out that their communities are either excluded or discriminated against, at the arenas.
Prabhu shakes his head vehemently when asked about this, and readily walks us to the house of 58-year-old Selvam, a Pallar (Dalit) farmer.
“I have been breeding bulls since I was 15,” Selvam says, with a calm and gentle smile,” and I also participated in jallikattu. At the Alanganallur arena, there is no caste discrimination. Muslims also participate. That is the one day here when everyone forgets caste and religion,” he asserts.
Selvam says that his family has been breeding Nattu Maadu bulls since his grandfather’s time, and his father too was proud of the bulls. “I have two bulls now. Come what may, I will not sell them,” he says.
When asked what he thinks about Dalit leader Krishnaswamy’s stand against jallikattu, he says, “He does not say we are excluded, but only that we should be given the mudhal mariyadhai (first respect), which is fine. But why do we have to ban jallikattu for that?” he asks. “The bull is like my son. Whatever caste issues, imposing the ban is to kill my son.”
VCK General Secretary D Ravikumar however says that it is only in a few places like Alanganallur that Dalits are allowed to participate. “In several other parts of TN, Dalits are not allowed,” he says, adding that he is however against the ban, especially on account of caste discrimination, since a ban cannot solve the problem.
“And it is an issue of the cultural capital of the communities, accrued over a long time. We have to respect that,” he says.
Trust deficit, beyond jallikattu
For the Tamil Nadu government, convincing the protesters to give up, remains a challenge. It is also evident that the child-like adamancy of the protesters breeds from their overall frustration and discontent.
About 5kms from Alanganallur is the village of Kondiyampatti. Around noon, Madurai Collector K Veera Raghava Rao arrives there to try and speak to the protesters, on his way to the vaadivasal. He is stopped at a huge blockade in Kondiyampatti. Even as he tries to explain the government’s position, people gherao him and bring his attention to other issues they face, from alcoholism to bad roads.
At Kondiyampatti, the villagers refused to let his official vehicle through. So, he got down and walked. A group of women surrounded him and asked him to shut down a liquor shop in the village. “We are not able to even get our kids to study,” a woman complained.
Even as he tried to get on to his vehicle and leave, the villagers forced his convoy to take another route. “Go by this route and see how bad the road is. You will know how we live,” a youngster screamed at him. Evidently, the road was a mess, and there were complaints of financial impropriety by the contractors.
Further down, he was held back at another village. Here too, he was scolded by an old man, “Do you even know this road existed? Have you come here, ever? Go away.”
It wasn’t just the love for jallikattu which forced people out onto the streets, it was their collective frustration, and need to assert their authority.
Just a kilometre from Alanganallur, he was stopped again. He now decided to return to his office, not being able to get to the vaadivasal, where the protests were only further intensifying.
Even as Hiphop Tamizha, a pop artist who played a role in popularizing the jallikattu issue, and jallikattu expert-activists like Kartikeya Sivasenapati and Rajasekaran asked people to back off and eschew their resistance, Alanganallur was only getting louder, the calls to continue the protest, stronger. As we leave the village in the evening, youngsters on bikes continue pouring in, vowing to fight for Tamil pride.