CHENNAI: Over the past one week, jallikattu became the focal point of political and social discourse. But did it manage to become a representative motif of the Tamil identity? Even as the protests raged across the State, a few dissenting voices, especially a section of Dalit intellectuals, pointed to the casteist underpinnings of jallikattu.
In fact, demands voiced in early 2000s to ban jallikattu were over the casteist tensions it wreaked in villages, since Dalit youth were hardly allowed to join the sport.
Would this massive support and the display of brotherhood during the six-day-long protest would put an end to the casteist divisions in holding the sport? Analysts and intellectuals say it would take more such movements to blur the casteist differences in the villages. A few of them remained sceptical of attempt to erasing the issue under the gloss of Tamil pride.
The history of Dalit struggle for participation in the jallikattu is at least three decades old. It started in the early post-liberalisation period of the 1990s, when the Dalit uprising started questioning the practise of untouchability. The protests mainly centred around the question of Dalit participation in temples, festivals, traditions and land ownership.
Justice Mohan Commission, appointed in 1997 to study the pattern of clashes between Dalits and Backward Castes, listed jallikattu as one of the main reasons. Dalit voices continued to fight for their rights in this sport. The struggle reached its peak in 2002 when Dalits at the famed Alanganallur village near Madurai refused to play ‘parai’ drums to incite the bull, if they were not given equal rights in participating in the event.
However, the caste Hindus just replaced the ‘parai’ drums with loudspeakers. This escalated the opposition for the jallikattu among Dalits further and in 2004, Puthiya Tamizhagam leader K Krishnaswamy sought a ban on the sport openly.
The recent protests have toned down the opposition of Dalit political leaders to jallikattu. Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of the largest Dalit party in Tamil Nadu, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, has already expressed solidarity for the jallikattu protests. “It was sickening to see some casteist forces questioning Dalit participation in the protest when they (Dalit) had no connection (to jallikattu),” Thirumavalavan told Express.
“This uprising (for jallikattu) is against the Central government, which has been continuously disrespecting Tamils over the Cauvery, fishermen and several other issues. Staying away from this citing caste discrimination will not help Dalits in merging with mainstream politics,” he says, citing his reason for the support.
Professor Ramu Manivannan of Political Sciences Department, University of Madras, said that the landed-caste with bulls can no longer establish control over the sport after such social and historic movements and once centrality of ownership gets removed, social changes happen.
However, some Dalit intellectuals are not ready to buy this narrative and say that these protests are the expression of dominant castes’ anger over temple festivals in many villages in Madurai and Nagapattinam being put on hold after a clash with Dalits.
Dalit researcher Anbuselvan from Puducherry said, “We never questioned the sport, but the authority established by certain caste groups based on the sport. Even if the ban was revoked, can there been an assurance that no atrocities will be perpetrated on Dalits during jallikattu?”
Media reports came out that even as protests were going on, Dalits were attacked at Singampunari in Sivaganga district while bulls were let loose. When Express questioned the local police officers, they denied such incidents and said no FIR was filed.
Anbuselvan added that it was not just allowing Dalits to enter inside the arena for the 10-15 minutes when bulls were let loose, but equal rights over various issues during the entire 12-day Pongal festival period.
Researchers point out to various references in Tamil films including Rajnikanth-starrer Murattukalai, Kamal Hassan’s Virumandi to support their arguments on caste Hindu’s dominance when it comes to jallikattu.
“Be it the people who made these films or who formed groups to fight against the ban, it was evident from their caste that it was always the tradition of a particular community,” Anbuselvan added.
“Though people of dominant castes might still conduct jallikattu, they can’t prevent the Dalit community from organising jallikattu,” said Manivannan.
However, Thirumavalavan lays stress on the need for the government to organise such events so that discrimination will get eliminated through similar protests in the longer run.