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Jallikattu protests: Was the students' 'movement' in Tamil Nadu hijacked?

What began as a small group — around 50 protesters at the Marina Beach in Chennai, on 17th January — swelled by evening to around 5,000 people. The initial 50 blocked the Beach Road, the route used by the Tamil Nadu chief minister, other ministers and high court judges to reach the secretariat at Fort St George. They wanted to meet the CM to present their demands.

Instead, Tamil Nadu’s head of state O Panneerselvam (OPS) evaded the route. Soon, the number of protesters began increasing and demanding that OPS promise to help them conduct Jallikattu, a popular bull-taming sport usually held only in four districts of the state – Madurai, Trichy, Theni and Dindigul.

By the next day, the crowd grew to 10,000 — mostly students who were bunking college and coming onto the streets in protest. The protesters demanded that Tamil pride, suddenly linked with Jallikattu, be restored. The last time the state government, police and residents of Chennai had seen a tidal wave of protesters was in 2013, when demonstrators demanded a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council against Sri Lanka for the genocide of Tamils.

The call for action spread rapidly through social media and WhatsApp. Student unions across India displayed their solidarity with the cause. And Tamils across the world responded. The diaspora conducted protests in front of the Indian embassies in their respective countries. Students, whose numbers rose to over a lakh in the week that ensued, made sure that the protests were largely peaceful, helped regulate traffic, picked up garbage from the beach and slept overnight on the beach’s shores.

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The protests were puzzlingly methodical below the surface: Food supplies, water packets, biscuits, tea and coffee were in constant supply. No one went hungry at the beach during the protest. For the protesters who decided to camp overnight on the sands, tents and blankets were made available. Many activists and members of the film fraternity pitched in with supplies.

Still, the underlying fact of keen organisation left many puzzled. On January 23, as the Chennai city police began to disperse protesting crowds, those who staunchly stood on the beach in defiance managed to get food supplies by boat, provided by fishermen.

The state and the Centre eventually buckled under pressure. The Tamil Nadu government issued an ordinance that amended the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act on 22nd January. The ordinance was, the previous day, drafted and approved by the Centre, as well as by the President of India. On the evening of 23rd January, the ordinance was introduced as a bill in the Tamil Nadu assembly and was unanimously passed.

But despite this major victory, the mood at Marina Beach was ugly on January 23. As protesters refused to disperse and began pelting the police with stones, a chase ensued. They demanded that they wanted a ‘permanent law’ as opposed to an ordinance. On that morning, police across Tamil Nadu clamped down on protesters after issuing a warning and giving sufficient time for all the students to leave. Those who remained bore the brunt of police force in the violence.

One group of protesters ran inside the Parthasarathy Temple close to the beach and rolled a Sintex water tank towards the police. A car was set on fire. Mob frenzy was at its peak as protesters set fire to vehicles at will. Unverified videos of policemen damaging vehicles and setting fire to an auto rickshaw too began doing the rounds on social media. The city commissioner of police, S George, denied any use of force, saying those videos were morphed, at a press meet on January 23.

Around midnight, police had to fire blanks in the air in the heart of the city to disperse rowdy elements. According to the Chennai police, over 50 people were injured, 40 police personnel wounded and 400 police vehicles and a police station torched. 

While students came out to protest due to social media, a strong network was and is still operating behind the scenes, each with individual interests, according to police. By 20th January, senior police officials had begun murmuring about “anti-social elements” and “fringe groups”.

“This is too organised,” said one senior police official at the time. “There are people making arrangements for food and water in a very systematic manner. In the beginning, there were only a small group of people belonging to fundamentalist Islamic groups. I saw them on the first day. There are students here now, but there is a group of people working quietly behind the scenes, and this includes extreme Left wing groups and the pro-Tamil groups,” he said.

These suspicions were further confirmed by January 21. Speaking to Hindustan Times, one of the key protesters for Jallikattu, Tirupur-based Karthikeyan Sivasenapathy, managing trustee of the Senapathy Kangeyam Cattle Research Foundation, said that genuine student protests had been hijacked by fringe elements. “By the evening of 22nd January, most of the students had left,” claimed Sivasenapathy.

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“Most villagers and students in Madurai left for home by the morning of 23rd January,” said another senior police officer. “What followed was a crackdown on the combined strength of members of extreme Left-wing outfits, communal outfits, members of some political parties and pro-Tamil outfits. In fact, we have only recently received intelligence that many of these groups met in Coimbatore at least three months ago to plan a situation like this,” he said. Three police officers confirmed this separately to this reporter.

“There are vested interest groups acting through anti-social elements and these are causing violence,” claimed police commissioner S George at a press meet. Stating that “anti-social elements and anti-national elements” had “infiltrated” the protests, George said the police had no choice but to use force to dispel the crowd. He did not elaborate on who these groups were.

Demonstrators hold a ‘Rail Roko’ protest against Jallikattu ban at the Chennai Egmore railway station in Chennai. (Reuters Photo)

Sources within the bureaucracy also say that these intelligence inputs did not reach the chief minister. Due to a deepening power struggle between AIADMK general secretary VK Sasikala and CM OPS, the intelligence inputs are reportedly going to Sasikala, bypassing Panneerselvam. Chennai, as a result, witnessed violence like never before.

Hijacking a protest?

Sivasenapathy, along with rapper Adhi (of Hiphop Tamizha) and P Rajasekhar of the Jallikattu Peravai (Movement), has for the past 10 years been at the forefront of those demanding that the sport be allowed and laws be amended. “The movement started in a big way in 2012 in Madurai,” said Sivasenapathy. “A stakeholders meeting was held. We saw lot of people there talking about Tamil pride and culture and we explained the science behind it. My job was more about creating awareness. We worked with institutions like TISS. Slowly it started gaining attention of the youth,” he said.

By January 2016, the movement demanding Jallikattu had garnered a lot of attention, especially through social media. By June 2016, a music video composed and released by Adhi, linking Jallikattu with Tamil pride went viral, with over six million views on YouTube. 

“Adhi’s music video was not just about Tamil pride but also about organic farming and native breeds,” said Sivasenapathy. “All political parties in Tamil Nadu failed to see the huge resentment among the people, and Jallikattu caught their imagination. People are fed up with the system and the leaders,” he said.

With the Supreme Court upholding the ban on the sport in November 2016 and again refusing to announce its verdict before Pongal (usually on 14th January), tempers flared. 

As protests continued, the team of three who appeared to be the “leaders” of the movement were called by the state and Centre for talks on how to resolve the situation. Sivasenapathy, Rajasekar and Adhi were flown to Delhi where they met with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Rajnath Singh and other officials on January 20. A draft ordinance was quickly prepared and the Centre, the President and the Tamil Nadu governor approved and signed it by January 21. The decks were cleared for Jallikattu, at least for this year.

A change in mood

Sivasenapathy claims that when he returned to Marina Beach on January 21 to deliver the good news to protesters that they had won the battle, the mood was palpably different. “I was concerned. Women were sitting with 3-month-old babies and feeding them on the beach. I wanted to wrap this up and leave since the government had agreed to our demands. After I told the protesters what had taken place in Delhi, they all shouted in chorus – Anna neenga sollunga Anna, naanga enna pannanum (Brother, you tell us what we should do now). I said let us give them time until March 31 to make the ordinance on amendment to PCA Act into law. We will postpone the protests until then,” he said.

But he was unable to convince the crowd. Immediately after, a variety of people took the mike from Sivasenapathy, who was whisked away to safety by the police.

Police remove a demonstrator from Marina Beach. (Reuters Photo)

Thirumurugan Gandhi of the May 17 movement, a small organisation championing a separate Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, now addressed the crowd. “This protest is not just for the single demand for Jallikattu, but about the excesses of the state and Central governments. No one was able to do anything about it all this while. Students are joining this protest to express their opposition to such authoritarian actions.” Gandhi was not available for comment despite multiple attempts to reach him.

Gandhi went on to attack the NDA, and the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) government in the state. “The state and Centre are working together to bring in anti-people schemes like the Neutrino project and the methane gas scheme in the Delta areas. If Neutrino project is implemented, the final sufferers will be the people and the farmers. They will commit suicide. Students must give voice for all this too,” he urged students to continue their protests.

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An alarmed Sivasenapathy and Adhi then held a press conference on January 22, distancing themselves from the protests, alleging that “vested interests” had entered what was a movement by students. “The victory belongs to students alone,” said Adhi. “There are some other organisations that have wormed their way into these protests. Traffic is being regulated by youngsters, garbage is being collected by youngsters and food is being provided by them. But small gangs of people from outside are coming in vehicles — one group is saying Muslims are being targeted, another group says Hindus are being targeted and then they clash. One gang is raising the national flag, another gang is saying ban Pepsi and Coke and pouring it on the ground. If such things continue, the protest will lose its core demand. The good things achieved by the students will get spoilt by the bad things being done by some others,” he warned.

Another senior police official who did not want to be named said that anti-Modi slogans and anti-PETA slogans were being injected into the protests by these groups.

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Take for instance the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political front for the Popular Front of India (PFI), an organisation with its roots in Keralathat has taken extremist and communal turns on various social issues. SDPI cadre was part of the protests from the very first day, ensuring that food supply continued throughout the week-long action. “The Centre has full rights and powers to ensure that Jallikattu happens,” said Syed Ibrahim Gani of the SDPI in Chennai. “The BJP leaders here and at the national level all speak different things. What is their stand?” Gani also said that blankets, clothes and food were provided by the organisation and its affiliates. “All Islamic organisations supplied food. It is part of our religion and concept,” he said.

When asked for his reaction about the police’s allegations that fringe elements had hijacked the students’ protests, Gani preferred to remain silent.

Students protesting at Marina Beach in Chennai. (V Srinivasulu/HT Photo)

Another small group that attempted to push their agenda into the protests, without identifying themselves, was the Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (TPDK), an atheist, pro-Tamil and pro-Eelam group that is a breakaway faction from the parent Dravidar Kazhagam, the mother organisation of the DMK. “Jallikattu is a sport which is carried out by the dominant castes and we do not support that. But these protests are for demanding the rights of people. We are very happy that the protesters have condemned the state and Centre over this issue, because we feel that they will now come out again over other issues. The support that the protests got from the people was due to the fact that it was without an identity. We helped by organising food for the protesters,” Kovai K Ramakrishnan, president of the TPDK claimed.

In Madurai’s Alanganallur, where the main Jallikattu event is held, the village committee decided on January 22 to hold Jallikattu on 1st February. This was met with anger by protesters in Madurai. Through the evening of January 22 and into the wee hours of January 23, the district administration and police held talks with protesters, convincing them to go home as their demands had been met.

In Thamukkam Maidan (Madurai), where students had gathered in protest, assistant commissioner of police Murugesan made an announcement. “There are people among you who have petrol bombs, sticks, stones and weapons with them. We have identified them. We appeal to all the students to leave and go home. Police will take action against the miscreants,” he warned.

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Retired Justice Hari Paranthaman, who explained the details of the ordinance to protesting students at the Marina Beach on January 23, scoffed at the ‘conspiracy theories’ being circulated. “In my view, the police have to justify their actions for lathi charge and other excesses that they have committed,” said Paranthaman. “So they say these type of elements have come in, to justify their action. There may have been some [anti-social] elements, but not the whole crowd. The ordinance brought about by the government is a very good one, but they kept the contents a secret. If they had made the ordinance public, they [state government] could have taken credit for it. Instead, they took the advice of bureaucrats and police to send away the protesters. As a result, suspicions arose,” he said.

But the reality, which Chennaiites point to, is that violence and vandalism was perpetrated on a scale never seen before in the usually peaceful coastal city. It seems that the battle was won by the students, but their war was lost by some others.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

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Jallikattu protests: Was the students' 'movement' in Tamil Nadu hijacked?