A year ago, protests demanding conduct of #jallikattu dominated Tamil Nadu. Behind these protests, some forces were at work with their own objectives. Who were these and what did they do?
Almost a year ago, at this point of time, Tamil Nadu witnessed protests demanding conduct of jallikattu. The protests began on a subdued note, much like opponents probing one another in any sport. On 8 January, things changed like Virendra Sehwag’s onslaught against an unfortunate bowler in a One-day cricket match. Processions from various parts of Chennai to Marina Beach that day drew huge crowds – a response that the organisers of the protests never expected. (The number of those who took part was put in the excess of 50,000). The whole scenario in Tamil Nadu changed after that with passions running high and the whole affair ending up in tears and blood on 23 January.
So, what happened? The 8 January response to a call for processions towards Marina Beach from various parts of the city resulted in similar processions being held in other parts of the state the next few days. For someone in Madurai, it became a prestigious issue when he/she saw such a huge response to the protest in Chennai. “When guys in Chennai, seen as meek ones, can organise such a huge protest, why shouldn’t we?” was the general feeling in southern Tamil Nadu. People in other parts of the state called for similar protests, drawing a passionate response. In Coimbatore, the protest drew a record crowd of nearly one lakh. This was on the surface, as one saw. Beneath something else was happening, though. Those efforts were aimed at creating a permanent rift between the state and the rest of the country. A separatist agenda, too, was followed. But thanks to vigilant forces, these attempts were foiled.
Three forces worked overtime to set their own agendas and derail the jallikattu protests. They were: May 17 organisation, Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamath (TNTJ) and political forces that would gain from unrest in Tamil Nadu. May 17 is an organisation that favours a separate Tamil Eelam nation. It gets its name from the day – May 17 – that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed. TNTJ, which shot into limelight with its Anti-Shirk Conference in Trichy opposing idol worship, claims to be a non-political organisation preaching “true Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims” and is involved in social activities.
Seeing the success of the 8 January rally at the Marina Beach, these three organisations knew in which direction the issue was headed. One of the pioneers of jallikattu protests said that until 8 January, May 17 and its leader Thirumurugan Gandhi never took interest in the movement to restore the bull fights. Once the Marina Beach procession drew the never-before-like-this response, Gandhi and his organisation began to take part in all protests across Tamil Nadu. Overnight, the organisation’s volunteers planted its cadre in each and every protest in the state.
When a protest was organised at Avaniapuram near Madurai, some of May 17 cadre insisted on unleashing the bulls. However, the locals there opposed the move. On 15 January, when protests were planned at Palamedu, a nearby town, Gandhi and his May 17 cadre swung into action preparing well ahead. The evening before the protests could be held, 250 people, including women covering themselves from head to toe, descended on Palamedu. Women made up nearly one-third of the 250 and they went from house to house, insisting that women in the village should take part in the protests. These 250 refused to leave the place of protest when the locals wanted to withdraw and police issued a warning. A peculiar development took place at Palamedu, where Maheswari Marimuthu, popularly known as Biker Maheswari for riding a motorcycle across Tamil Nadu demanding conduct of jallikattu, took part. When Maheswari called up one of the jallikattu organisers and told him of the decision to continue the protests, she was advised to leave the place immediately as things had gone out of hand. As she was talking on her mobile phone, she was forced to cut the call by the protesting group there and calls to her were never attended again!
On 16 January, police granted permission to Tamil film music director-cum-actor Hip Hop Tamizha to hold a demonstration at Alanganallur. At that event, probably, the unity among those who pioneered the jallikattu protests broke. One of the jallikattu protest pioneers who had then been claiming that he never took part in protests and processions, joined the Hip Hop Tamizha event. When questioned by his friends, the pioneer had no response. The friends claimed that he was influenced by his desire to reap political advantage from the party he was sympathising with.
Many of the Muslims who took part in the protests didn’t represent any organisation or any local mosque. There was this case of a group of Muslims belonging to TNTJ which took part in the protests at Alanganallur near Madurai. A member of the group had complained to the jallikattu organisers that he was badly beaten up by police at Alanganallur. A surprising fact was that this person had always criticised and derided jallikattu until then. When questioned, he confessed that 30-40 of TNTJ members from Coimbatore had gone to Alanganallur. TNTJ then issued a directive to its followers to rush its volunteers in vehicles from every district to the site of the massive protest at Marina Beach. These volunteers merged into the crowd and stayed there until the end. Some of them initiated the violence by torching the Ice House Police Station, while about 2,000 of the volunteers were those who threatened to drown themselves in the sea before police beat them up and drove them out.
When the jallikattu organisers went to New Delhi to hold talks with the central government and returned to Chennai on 20 January, they were not allowed to end the protests. The organisers, barring the one who nursed political ambitions, wanted to end the protests since the central and state governments had come forward with amendments to help conduct the bull fights. But organisations like May 17 and TNTJ began to add their own wishlists. Some wanted loan waiver for farmers, others listed ONGC withdrawal from Neduvasal, a few wanted People for Animals declared illegal in Tamil Nadu and so on. Their claim for prolonging the protest was that Tamil Nadu would never get such an opportunity again. When one of the organisers addressed the crowd at Marina Beach and told them of the developments in New Delhi, he was not allowed to say anything more, particularly the request to end the protests. The public address system was switched off once he gave details of the talks in New Delhi. Thirumurugan Gandhi and Tamil film director Gauthaman then took charge of the situation with their hand-picked men.
On the other hand, there were two set of political forces that tried to take advantage of the situation. One wanted the O Panneerselvam government to be seen in poor light, unable to control the state’s law and order situation. That would have set the stage for another person to take control of the government with Panneerselvam being sidelined. The other tried to consolidate people, who were sympathetic towards it and probably force the Centre to dismiss the then state government.
Finally, the organisers addressed a separate press conference in Chennai on 21 January, declaring that they had achieved their objective and didn’t want the protests to continue. However, the protests at Marina Beach continued until the police crackdown on 23 January. Police were forced to act after a section of the protesters torched Ice House Police Station. Chased by the police, some of them ran to a nearby colony and took refuge in houses where women confronted the cops. January 23 witnessed more protests with surprise demonstrations on major roads holding up traffic in various parts of Chennai. It led to total chaos in the city. But with Marina Beach cleared of the protesters, people of Tamil Nadu woke up to a new morning on 24 January, not knowing what had hit them and how! An investigation was ordered into the 23 January violence by a commission headed by Justice S Rajeshwaran, retired judge of the Madras High Court, soon after. The probe continues and more details on who did what during the jallikattu protests will be available once the investigations are complete.
If May 17, TNTJ and the political forces had won the day on 23 January … it’s a spine-chilling thought!