The Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the new piece of legislation passed recently by the Tamil Nadu Assembly may have been a relief for jallikattu supporters, but it came with the reminder to the State government “that maintaining law and order situation is its prime duty”. The hundreds of youth who had taken to peaceful protest for the cause were nowhere to be seen in this moment of celebration nor was social media awash with a new set of memes.
It is said that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Listing out the number of times students have protested, we seem to have learnt nothing from history, and there seems to be every possibility that these will recur in the future.
In picking out verses to support jallikattu, scholars suffer from selective amnesia. The most prevalent theme of Sangam literature is on the connections we have with nature. Sangam poetry is replete with references to how our fortunes are inextricably intertwined with nature. Among the many things it speaks about, such as music, art, dance, drama, emotions and food, games form one small facet of culture; jallikattu occupies an even smaller part and found support mostly from the pastoral regions. On the other hand, boat racing was for the coastal regions.
Those who look to literature for support also look at it from a contradictorily western perspective — older is better and safer. If culture is what defined the Sangam period, then we have really missed the point. Tamil has had a continuously evolving literary tradition beyond Sangam poetry which was discovered only a few hundred years ago. Culture is also made up of bhakti poetry that came after that, where poets used stories from the epics but not the Sanskrit alphabet. In a history of more than 2,000 years, focussing on one “sport” where a terrified animal is set upon by groups of men — which is also not how it was played in the past — doesn’t seem to explain why so many young passionate individuals took to the streets with courage and conviction, and in a non-violent way.
What could have been the driving force in the protests? If we don’t view history as a series of protests but as behaviours exhibited to fulfil basic needs, we get a different perspective. What has happened has happened, and the time and energy spent must not go in vain. It will not if we actually act on the needs because protests, like sharing social media posts, are strategies to fulfil needs.
In a way, people are not very different from the bull that we see in video clips. As humans, we may articulate it far better, but we are just living beings with needs. We have an imagination but our needs are the same, and these predict ours as well as the bull’s behaviour. Our fundamental needs are to ensure physical safety, which we experience most strongly in our gut; emotional safety, which we experience most strongly in our heart; and intellectual safety or the need for identity, which we experience most strongly in our head. When these needs are not met, we have corresponding fears. We then try to adopt various strategies to meet these needs and allay our fears.
Inspiration from inscriptions
There are more than 50,000 temple inscriptions in Tamil Nadu which have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with administration and legal issues across the last 2,000 years. If we look at them as a source and in turn look at how these needs were met, we may yet be able to work on needs that were unfulfilled which made hundreds of youth take to the streets. The current trend towards centralisation of power, for example within the ruling party, between districts and Chennai, and even between States and the Centre is alien to Tamil culture, if we use a 1,000-year-old past as a reference point. This has robbed people, especially youth searching for jobs in a State that has seen little government-driven employment, of their need for an identity and security. This is what resulted in the ripple that became a wave.
If only such display of power had been utilised when, for example, there was an oil spill off the coast of Chennai. Policymakers must stop residing in Tamil history for their glory and instead reference it to see what needs they can meet if they look at governance patterns of the past.
Pradeep Chakravarthy, who is based in Chennai, runs a heritage tour company and does management consultancy in behaviour change