The Jallikattu issue and Tamil insecurity

The Jallikattu ban may be the final blow that moved Tamil males to assert their manhood after they were left prostrate during the iron-fisted rule of former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

G Krishnan

Are the protests in Tamil Nadu demanding an end to the Jallikattu ban a reflection of deep-rooted helplessness among its people, especially men?

For several days now, thousands of students have poured out onto the streets—some spontaneously, some probably politically instigated—demanding a Central government ordinance permitting the race, a move that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reluctant in public to pursue as the matter is before the Supreme Court.

Film stars Rajnikanth—widely seen as the BJP’s choice for chief minister in the 2019 state elections—and Kamal Haasan have joined the protests on the Marina Beach in Chennai; singer AR Rahman has gone on a dawn-to-dusk fast; several film stars, sports personalities including cricketer Ravichandran Ashwin and chess maestro Viswanathan Anand and politicians have expressed their support.

Jallikattu has been played only in small pockets of rural Tamil Nadu, mostly around Madurai. Most Tamils had only a passing interest in it and looked at it as an odd rural sport. All these have been changed gradually with the power of cinema and more recently of social media.

In one Tamil movie, Morattu Kaalai (Rogue Bull), actor Rajnikanth, a village youth, twirls his moustache after a local leader announces a prize of 5 acres of land and the hand of his sister in marriage to anyone who can tame his bull in the annual Jallikattu race. Tourism and travel promotions in print and online media have also been full of Jallikattu images.

Taming the bull was seen as a symbol of bravery and Tamil pride. The idea also found an echo in ‘taming’ of the village belle, a recurrent theme in Tamil cinema—the belle, like the animal, is wild and needs to be subjugated and kept in control.

Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Tamilians in Kolkata demonstrate in support of banned Jallikattu on January 19

The glamour of Jallikattu also ties into caste identities. Jallikattu is played mostly by the OBCs as a way of establishing their caste pride and keeping out the Dalits, who only watch the game. Of these OBCs, the Thevars dominate western Tamil Nadu and now account for the largest majority of the MLAs in the state.

Historical records show that the sport was practised as early as 2,500 years ago—although in a less violent manner than now. In ancient times, the person who tamed the bull would get to marry the daughter of the village chief and also get the bag of coins called jillu or sillu that was tied (kattu) on the horns of the racing bull. The prize was just betel leaves and bananas.

But in recent years, refrigerators, television sets, cash have all become part of the bounty, and the prize-givers flaunt their power to dole out favours. While the winner doesn’t get to marry the village belle, he is hailed as a hero in his area, at least briefly.

In the past 10 years or so, the Tamil male may have especially felt the need to assert his manhood. Under the iron-fisted rule of J Jayalalithaa, male ministers of the state government have become invisible and literally prone, always prostrating themselves at her feet. The press was gagged and hundreds of defamation suits were filed to silence their voices. Protesters ended up in jail, opposition was crushed and few could do anything about it.

The glamour of Jallikattu also ties into caste identities. Jallikattu is played mostly by the OBCs as a way of establishing their caste pride and keeping out the Dalits, who only watch the game

This symbolic emasculation of men gladdened the hearts of women, who flocked to Jayalalithaa’s meetings and worshipped her as Shakti, the all-powerful, in the benevolent avatar as ‘Amma’.

The hospitalisation of Jayalalithaa last September and the near-total clampdown on information about her health fuelled numerous rumours. A sense of frustration spread among the people as Sasikala Natarajan rose to the top position, trampling on many capable males in the cabinet.

Numerous other issues have fuelled anger. Karnataka openly defied the judgement of the Supreme Court on sharing of the Cauvery waters with Tamil Nadu and nothing could be done about it. The Modi government turned people into paupers. Cyclone Vardah howled through northern Tamil Nadu, ripping out trees and leaving the land naked.

The Jallikattu ban was the last blow to the Tamils, and their anger bubbled over. It was a symbolic suppression by PETA, represented in their minds by Pamela Anderson and PETA’s India head, shown in morphed pictures smoking a cigar and holding a glass of liquor in her hand to symbolise some kind of contradiction to a perceived Tamil tradition.

Sadly, political parties have tried to outdo each other in issuing declarations of Tamil pride and appealing to the Centre, instead of defusing tensions. Although many of the supporters of Jallikattu say they are concerned about farmers, the real issues of drought and increasing poverty of small farmers are lost in the dust that has been stirred up.

(The views expressed in the article are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of National Herald)

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Published: 20 Jan 2017, 7:30 PM