Tamil Nadu Politics and Bullfighting (Jallikattu)

This is one of the reflections I wrote on a 10-day school trip to Tamil Nadu in February, organized by University of Göttingen.

We traveled to Tamil Nadu during a very crucial time in its political history. The key figure of the Dravidian ruling party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Jayalalithaa, recently died. The party was founded on a charismatic leader and former film star, M. G. Ramachandran. He successfully projected “himself as a Hero, as the true Tamil man” in films and campaigns alike. During campaign seasons, many imitations and plays of him are enacted before meetings of AIADMK officials and voters. Jayalalithaa similarly used her charm and chaste feminine image to her electoral benefit. She survived many probes into allegations of corruption since 1996, and has expelled some members from the party to distance herself from the allegations.

Yet the issue of corruption continued to overshadow the consequent debates over political succession after her death. In early February of 2017, the AIADMK declared that Jayalalithaa’s close aide and confidante Sasikala Natarajan would become her successor. The other contender, who was the acting Chief Minister since October 2016, O Panneerselvam, resigned. However, Sasikala was convicted of corruption just prior to our group’s arrival in Tamil Nadu on February 14. She cannot hold public office for the next six years. Edappadi K Palaniswami, another politician from her faction in AIADMK, swore in as the Chief Minister on February 6. Since the change was very sudden, I saw a lot of advertisements in villages portraying Jayalalithaa posing with Sasikala. As of March during the writing of this report, the two factions of AIADMK are still battling over rules and regulations regarding campaigns, e.g., the right to use the party symbol of two leaves. The dust has yet to settle. Based on my understanding, Sasikala’s inability to govern was more due to her failures in the factional contest rather than corruption per se.

Intense action, with Police in Beige uniforms watching over the grounds. Photo taken by author

Overall I heard very little about the dramatic events within AIADMK from the people we had met over the ten day. We did not meet anyone through the excursion with explicit ties to the party. Thus the understanding of the factional split has been mostly based on news reports. However, the trip was filled with discussions and firsthand experience of politics of a different sort. For example, in a village of the Madurai district, we had the golden opportunity to witness traditional Tamil bull fighting (jallikattu) in action on February 17th. This event has a history of more than two thousand years and has been popularized through Tamil cinema. Personally, the brief glimpses of the village jallikattu had the largest participation of people in a grassroots event I have seen in my four visits in India. The air was also charged with exuberant energy. The policemen welcomed us to come to the fore and engaged in the event as spectators, waving at the bull with their lathis with excitement, while also maintaining order. Most attendees and spectators were men, with a handful of women peering behind the fences. It occurs every year during the harvest festival Pongal and the hero who tames the bull is often portrayed in cinema as a masculine hero and appealing to women. The trope of women falling in love with the bull tamer is as old as Tamil Sangam literature. While injuries are inevitable, participants and spectators alike consider taming the bull a matter of honor. While there usually are prizes for the successful tamers, more rewards of the social nature are also at stake.

Advertisement board for Jallikattu. 

Advertisement board for Jallikattu. Notice Ambedkar on the right side of the board. Photo taken by author

Jallikattu was never a static event. While at some points, most people involved were agricultural workers, other points in time landlords also vigorously engaged in the event as organizers. In an 1893 Tamil novel, the landlord skinned “alive his bull that lost in Jallikattu.” The event has recently reached the height of national political debate due to allegations of animal cruelty and threat to public safety. The use of bulls in this event was contested by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010 but still practiced under the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act No 27 of 2009. In 2014, India’s Supreme Court struck down the state law and banned it. Many people of Tamil Nadu saw it as an affront on Tamil identity and protested the ban in 2016 and 2017. In addition to Tamil nationalism, anti-Modi sentiment was high but underreported by the media. Most protestors were young people—“students, IT professionals, and activists—many of whom, as residents of urban areas, did not regularly witness or participate in Jallikattu.” Prof. Ayyathurai also pointed out during a discussion that he did not witness Jallikattu in action when he lived in his hometown of central Tamil Nadu. This point is interesting in analyzing the construction of Tamil identity through media rather than mere praxis.

Spectators leaving the grounds. Photo taken by author

Spectators. Photo taken by author

Caste is also a point of contention—certain Dalits find the activity to reinforce caste hegemonies. The village jallikattu we witnessed starred the lower-caste group Thevar, who are dominant. They were the one of the major benefitting social groups of the politically foundational anti-Brahmin Self Respect movement. They are considered to favor the AIADMK party and vice versa. In addition to intense conflicts between Thevars and Pallars (a particular Dalit group) since the 1990s, social pressure also plays out in the form of a ban on Dalits from participating in jallikattu. “Dalits are often forced to do markedly less glamorous jobs like playing the melam (a percussion instrument) to set the tone, and take care of the bulls” during jallikattu and are not paid for it. Women are also rarely the center of this sport. Writer Uma Devi, whom we also met during the last event of our trip, pointed that she cannot fathom that the overtly macho sport should represent Tamil culture. Scholar G. A. Aloysius similarly points out that there are many forms of social dominance in his analysis of caste.

Still, the spectacle has interesting connotations for Dalit assertion as well, once have the opportunity to participate. Many Dalit scholars engage in interpreting bull fighting, including some of our trip guides at the Madurai University. As histories of Hinduism shows, one cannot ignore that ownership of rituals is contested and Dalits have the potential to (re)claim certain events. One news narrative that relegates all Dalits who identify as Hindus or participate in Hindu rituals to be pawns of Hindutva significantly neglects Dalit agency.

On a broader point, University of Göttingen’s anthropologist Nate Roberts has argued in a book review that Tamil identity allows for lower caste organization. “In the historical context of modern Tamil Nadu, ‘Tamil’ refers not merely to a particular linguistic identity, but equally to the universal progressive values—anti-caste, feminist, pro-poor, democratic, and humanist—that Dravidian leaders, following the lead of early Dalit leader Iyothee Thass, sought to characterize as inherent to Tamil Nadu’s authentic (pre-Aryan) culture.” Jallikattu could be a key part to this overarching ongoing research on Tamil identity and caste politics.


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