With Tamil Nadu elections coming up, both Congress and BJP are eager to make gains in the state; the common approach seems to be a showering of appreciation for Tamil culture. Jalikattu has taken up significant space in both campaigns, which is not surprising owing to the sheer fervour with which protests were carried out in the state when the sport was threatened legally in 2017. The sport’s connections to the Tamil festival of Pongal and long-lasting embeddedness among bull rearers and traders in rural Tamil Nadu, make it a contentious site, used by political parties to extend proclamations of appreciation and solidarity to Tamils. Currently, the BJP is allied with the ruling AIADMK party and Congress with the opposition party DMK.
On January 14th, Rahul Gandhi visited Madurai and attended a Jallikattu event, at which he had stated to reporters that Tamil culture is essential for the future of India. In addition, he called out the BJP for attempting to suppress this culture. His statement received backlash, however, with many citing reminders of how the ban on the sport was supported by the UPA Government. In addition, it was the work of Jairam Ramesh, Environmental Minister under the UPA regime, that allowed for the ban on performing animals, to take place. In addition, in its 2016 manifesto, the Congress party promised the ban of the sport if it were to come to power in the state.
While the BJP has been contributing to the criticism towards Rahul Gandhi and Congress in their moves to take up the sport, they forget their own hypocrisies. For one, a party member and former Union Environmental Minister, Menaka Gandhi, was vocally against Jallikattu and launched criticism against the sport numerous times. In addition, BJP was mostly indifferent to the sport and its legal troubles, up until the protests in 2017. During protests led by Tamil people against the successive bans on the sport, a strong anti-BJP and anti-Hindutva assertion was present, with slogans against Modi being common in the protests. The party then started to align with the cause of lifting the ban.
It is important to locate the different reasons for why Jalikattu is particularly adopted as a symbol of allegiance to Tamil people by these parties, in the upcoming election. For Congress, it is convenient that Jalikkattu has significant ties to Pongal, which is a harvest festival. Rahul Gandhi’s support of farmers agitation taking place in many parts of the country is an important part of the Congress image, and so the appreciation of a harvest festival becomes a key site of projection of a pro-farmer Congress. For BJP, the anti-Tamil, and ‘Hindi-party’ image is something it is desperate to shake off; it has done this over time by taking up images of Tamil god Murugan, carrying out tours of Murugan temples, and now focusing on Jallikattu. Juxtaposing this with its recent move to institute Hindi as a compulsory language in all schools, the hypocrisy becomes evident.
Legal Battles and Agitations:
In 2007, the Animal Welfare Board of India and animal rights group, PETA petitioned to the Supreme court to ban Jallikattu and all bullock cart races. The Tamil Nadu Government in 2009, avoided such a ban by passing a law that allows for the sport, which was signed by the Governor. In 2011 however, the UPA government listed bull training and exhibition as banned. The Supreme Court in 2017, banned the sport in a ruling on the 2011 petition. What followed was large-scale protests all over the state, as a response to the attack on Tamil cultural practice and history. The result was an Ordinance passed by the state government, amending the central law, allowing for the sport to be carried out.
While the state government has legalised the current Jallikattu events, the legality of the matter is still to be decided by the Supreme Court, where the case is pending. The state’s Ordinance was yet again challenged by PETA, which cited the move as unconstitutional, thus leading to its current pending status.
A key reason for why it is easy for parties to take up Jallikattu just as easily as they opposed it, could be because it is primarily a sport practised by Thevar castes, who make up a dominant caste in the state. They also have significant political clout, with the majority of the ruling party, AIADMK composed of members of the caste. This “official patronage” reveals the Brahmanical foundations of these parties, wherein the name of solidarity to the Dravidian culture, solidarity is only extended to dominant caste agitations and assertions.