How a mass protest handled badly


Ramaswami Sampath

Ramaswami Sampath

CHENNAI: What would have been an unprecedented and admirable way of agitating for a cause that was witnessed on the Marina Beach here last week over the issue of revoking the ban on ‘Jallikattu’, the traditional bull-taming game of Tamil Nadu, was marred by alleged police excesses on the protesters and consequent violence by anti-social elements all over the State.

It all started well on January 17 when the youth of the congregated on the beach and conducted their protest in a peaceful manner. They took care not to allow the ever eager politicians and other vested interests to hijack the movement. The awe-inspiring agitation made people outside the State stand up and cheer the remarkable manner with which it was conducted. For this, the protesting youth received accolades from all quarters, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for their dignified conduct. Former Rajya Sabha member Tarun Vijay, a Tamil-loving Uttarkhand leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and former Supreme Court Judge Markendey Katju also extended their support to ‘jallikattu’.  The agitators received the full backing of the film fraternity, including Rajnikanth, Kamal Hassan, Pawan Kalyan, Mahesh Babu and Nayantara.  Sports celebrities like chess grand master Viswanathan Anand, Test cricketers Virender Sehwag and R. Aswin and boxer Vijender also applauded the youth. The cine people held a silent protest and Oscar Award winner AR Rahman went on a token fast.

With such a groundswell of public support to the cause, Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam dashed to Delhi to persuade Modi to intervene in a positive manner. A sympathetic Prime Minister enabled a conclave of the officials of the Union Law, Home and Environment ministries and a consensus was evolved to take the ordinance route to permit the game. Accordingly, Governor Ch. Vidyasagar Rao promulgated the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Tamil Nadu) Amendment Ordinance, 2017, on Saturday, “considering the sentiments of Tamils and to protect their cultural right and having regard to the grave and volatile situation prevailing in the State and in the best interest of maintaining law and order”. It stipulated strict conditions for the conduct of the game to safeguard against any possible cruelty to bulls. The ordinance which was tabled in the Legislative Assembly on Monday was unanimously passed by the House.

Saturday’s ordinance should, in the normal course, have pacified the protesters to call off the agitation. But that was not to be. The protest was continued for the seventh day on Sunday, with the agitators terming the ordinance a ‘temporary sop’ and declaring that they would call it off only after a permanent lifting of the ban imposed by the Supreme Court in its verdict on the petition of the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 2014 and the subsequent dismissal by the apex court in 2016 of the appeal filed by the State Government against the original judgment.

In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, the police appealed to the agitators to disperse stating that their objective had been achieved by the issuance of the ordinance. The protesters were adamant in their stand and refused to vacate the area whereupon the police had to forcibly evict them. The agitators ran helter-skelter, but regrouped on the waterfront threatening to drown should the police persist in applying force. The news of this stand-off spread like wild fire all over the State and there was violent reaction in many places resulting in arson. The Ice House police station in the city bore the brunt of the attack with its vehicles burnt down by a mob. There were allegations showing some video clippings of policemen burning motorbikes and autorickshaws. The violent incidents continued on Monday with the pelting of stones at policemen. The issue went to the High Court on Monday which instructed the Director-General of Police to ensure the safety of peaceful protesters, while making it clear that the police were at liberty to take action against miscreants.

Sensing the danger of the stand-off getting more violent, City Police Commissioner S. George personally met the protesters and cautioned them that their continuance of the agitation was encouraging anti-social elements to enter the arena and cause more harm. The involvement of anti-social elements was perceptible by the waving of separatist placards, raising of slogans against the Prime Minister and threatening to insult the national flag. Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan also made an appeal for ending the agitation.

Former High Court Judge Hariparanthaman took the initiative of convincing the youth against prolonging the agitation by explaining the salient features of the ordinance to the youth on Monday evening. He said that the Centre’s approval of the ordinance would safeguard the amendment made to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. He felt that the government should have made public the ordinance, particularly to the protesters, but it chose to conduct the ‘jallikattu’. Justice Paranthaman favoured the placing of the amended Act under Schedule 9 of the Constitution so that it could be protected from court intervention. The protesters then withdrew the agitation.

Impartial observers agree with the view of MK Stalin, DMK’s working president, that Panneerselvam must have met the agitators in person with the ordinance copy, instead of rushing to flag off ‘Jallikattu’ in Alanganallur in Madurai district, where the hostile crowd of protesters did not allow him to enter the village.

In a related development, the Centre on Tuesday sought to withdraw its January 7, 2016, notification re-introducing bulls as ‘performing animals’ in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. An affidavit to this effect has been placed before the apex court.

How could the youth achieve such a massive show of strength? This has been made possible by the social media network which has been active for over two weeks before the start of the protest, appealing to the youth to uphold the ‘Tamil pride’. The whole issue went viral on various net platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, leading to this massive congregation of students, IT professionals and women on Marina Beach.

What is ‘Jallikattu’? It is an annual feature in rural Tamil Nadu during the Pongal festival. The third day of the festival is reserved for livestock with a view to thanking them for their service in farm operations. Bulls and cows would be decorated with garlands and their horns painted in attractive colours. In Sangam literature, this game is referred to as ‘Eru Thazhuvudhal’ (hugging the bulls). Over centuries, it got transformed into a bull fight of sorts, practised in countries like Spain. In the ‘Bhagavatham’ it is mentioned that Krishna fought seven bulls to win the hand of his lady love Radha.

Whatever be the cultural background, it cannot be denied that the game mostly ends up in casualties and occasional fatalities. There were three deaths and injuries to many during the ‘Jallikattu’ conducted in some places on Sunday and Monday.

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