Jallikattu stir: Cultural identity or chauvinism?
A stunning aspect of the movement against the Jallikattu ban is how a predominantly rural issue gained the active support of urban sections of the state.
A stunning aspect of the movement against the Jallikattu ban is how a predominantly rural issue gained the active support of urban sections of the state. The ban is seen as an assault on Tamil culture by those who did not understand the socio-economic tapestry of rural life in Tamil Nadu. There was a conscious decision to keep the protest apolitical with parties being politely asked to host their own protests.
The death of Jayalalithaa and the hospitalisation of DMK patriarch Karunanidhi has left a huge political vacuum in the state. With public anger rising, a new political consensus has emerged with every political party supporting Jallikattu. But the protestors are not convinced. The state government is seen as having failed to stand up for Tamil culture. The centre is perceived as being indifferent to the cause. A few angry voices suggest that the ban isan imposition by the central government to trample on the culture of the state.
There are attempts by fringe Tamil separatist groups to hijack the agenda. They see the Indian State as trying to homogenise the nation, thrusting its culture on Tamil Nadu. They position it as a choice between the Tamil and Indian identities which are opposed to each other. But this has been strongly resisted by the protestors who have kept the movement firmly apolitical. Prominent voices have spoken out saying that this is not a fight against the Indian State but for preserving culture. But the possibility of a sense of alienation being created cannot be ruled out.
About 60 years ago, another urban student-led movement rocked the state. People took to the street in protest against Hindi becoming a compulsory subject in schools. This too was seen as an assault on Tamil culture and an imposition of Hindi by the Centre. One of the finest moments in Indian politics came when the Centre agreed to continuing the official use of English with Hindi, reaffirming Indian Pluralism.
The anti-Hindi movement upset the conventional political order of the day and propelled a young DMK to power. With this emerged the Dravidian political consensus that constructed a Tamil identity with separatist overtones. It has taken decades for a generation to emerge that does not see its Tamil identity in conflict with the Indian Identity.
These protests are warning signs that this is not merely a cultural issue or a brief political one – it may bring about a new political discourse in Tamil Nadu which sharpens the contours of a Tamil identity distinct from and seen as opposed to the Indian one. This can happen in multiple ways. The most plausible outcome is for existing political parties to take a stronger, more strident stance based on a Dravidian identity and the othering of the Centre.
A possibility that cannot be ruled out is the rise of new parties or the mainstreaming of fringe parties that espouse a chauvinistic Tamil Identity and Tamil Pride. Our recent history in Kashmir and Mizoram have shown the perils of a regional identity that sees itself in conflict to the national one. So far, the common protester has shown remarkable clarity in focussing on culture and not letting the agenda be hijacked.
People across India have shown solidarity, participating in protests and posting in social media, warming hearts across the state. The Centre’s support for the ordinance as well as the Bill passed by Tamil Nadu should reassure people that India is guided by its civilizational values of consensus and plurality. Hopefully, steps like these should foreclose the possibilities of a rise in cultural chauvinism. (Writer is is a Research Associate with Vision India Foundation)
By Shyam Krishnakumar