Anatomy of a protest

An on-ground account of the jallikattu agitation in Chennai that had the makings of a revolution but ended in a riot

Updated - January 28, 2017 08:42 pm IST

Published - January 28, 2017 04:30 pm IST

The sea of enthusiastic protesters on the Marina.

The sea of enthusiastic protesters on the Marina.

It was a hot afternoon in January. A man stood under the Mahatma Gandhi statue on Marina Beach in Chennai surrounded by about a hundred people. His voice was hoarse, the spectators had beads of sweat trickling down their faces, and excitement and expectancy filled the air. “Who is PETA to tell us anything?” he prompted. “What do they know about jallikattu?” The crowd erupted in applause. “Ban PETA!” they shouted in response.

Abisheak, 18, a student at the city’s Government Law College, agreed. He had by then been at the beach for three days and nights in a row. “My periappa had a bull in Thanjavur,” he said. “That bull was not badly treated. If PETA cared about animals, why don’t they say something about the camels in Rajasthan? Look at how Meghalaya protects its customs. Even the Constitution cannot touch those traditions. Why only attack jallikattu?”

About 50 metres from the speaker, a small carnival was unfolding. Children dressed in finery sucked on ice lollies while young women and men, mostly dressed in black, waved flags. From the centre of this sea of people blared ‘Vande Mataram’, the A.R. Rahman version, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. On the beach, the fight for the bull-taming sport had morphed into an act of patriotism.

On the road behind me that hugs the shoreline, traffic moved slowly. Young men stood atop vehicles and yelled “ Jallikattu vennum ! (We want jallikattu!)” as they threw bottles of water into the crowd. Bulls stared down from flags: they are the new symbols of Tamil culture. Posters on the other side of the road asked: ‘Why not ban Coke and Pepsi?’

Protesters pelted stones when the police attempted to take back Marina Beach last Monday.

Protesters pelted stones when the police attempted to take back Marina Beach last Monday.


About halfway down Beach Road is Vivekananda House, done up not so long ago in a spurt of cultural energy. Aptly enough, it was the epicentre of the protest. Speakers took the mike in turns. People sat enthralled as they spoke of changes in agricultural patterns, the importance of tradition, and the difference between milk from native and foreign cattle. Everyone held up a colourful poster of some kind, often not connected to jallikattu at all. One called for a fresh look at the Cauvery dispute, another decried the Prime Minister, a third raked up the Tamil Eelam, and a fourth simply said ‘ban politicians’. South Indian actor Trisha, who played a character named Jessie in a Tamil film, also earned wrath because she had been a campaigner for PETA. Posters mocked, ‘We don’t want either Jessie or Jersey’. Like Trisha, the imported Jersey cow, Tamil Nadu’s new poster animal of all things Western, had unwittingly fallen out of favour.

If PETA cared about animals, why don’t they say something about the camels in Rajasthan? Look at how Meghalaya protects its customs — Abisheak, law student

The sands of the Marina had attracted thousands, mostly through social media, and the place had remade itself into a sort of giant Hyde Park and soapboxes were galore. Patriotism, Tamil pride and culture, calls against Western aerated drinks, calls for seceding from India, anger against politicians, anger against activists, fishing in Sri Lankan waters — everyone with a cause or even half a cause had coalesced around jallikattu.


Sunday, January 22, was the sixth day of what had now turned into an unprecedented protest movement across Tamil Nadu. The previous evening, the Tamil Nadu governor had promulgated an ordinance allowing the sport to continue. It could have been seen as a great victory and a craven surrender by the government but protesters did not think so. I went there, hoping to catch the after-party, but jubilance was not the prevailing mood.

Black continued to be the dominant colour on the beach. A bunch of girls sat eating lunch on the sand. “We will not move from here until a ‘permanent solution’ is reached,” they said. “Why can’t the Chief Minister come and speak to us?”

It was probably the turning point. The harmless voices that refused to leave had soon become the frayed edges of temper that started to show up by Sunday evening. And then on, it was a short and swift spiral downward. Who set off the violence? We will probably never know, but the kindling was very much there. Protesters were still protesting. Said one, “Tamil civilisation is the oldest. We have traditions that go back centuries. Who are these people to tell us what civilisation is?” It had become a matter of pride, and all arguments were being used to support jallikattu. Muthu, 30, a blogger at Madras Central, said: “So many of our native breeds have disappeared. The nattu kozhi (country hen) is gone. We breed German Shepherds while native dogs roam stray on the streets. Jallikattu is a way of preserving at least the native breeds of cattle.”

Among the casualties was animal rights organisation PETA. Protesters heatedly accused the organisation of being foreign, urban, anti-Tamil, anti-heritage. ‘Ban PETA’ was the rallying cry. Animal rights activists refused to comment; they said they had been getting death threats. Niranjan Shanmuganathan, 30, a volunteer with PETA for 13 years, was one of the few to talk. “PETA is 100% Indian,” he said. “PETA West is a separate entity and has no control over PETA India.” It has volunteers from across the country, including thousands of Tamils, so to say that PETA is anti-Tamil is “plain silly”, he said.

Face off, as the romance between the State and the protesters soured.

Face off, as the romance between the State and the protesters soured.


“We went to court because jallikattu is about animal rights and human wrongs. It’s silly to say ‘ban PETA’. We can’t be banning every petitioner. And to all those who ask about elephants in temples and camels in the desert, PETA is fighting those practices too,” he said.

Did he expect the protest to gain such momentum? “I don’t think anyone did,” said Shanmuganathan. “I think Tamil Nadu has seen a lot over the past two years — floods, cyclone, death of a chief minister, water problems... It all came together at this protest.”

That sense of pent-up anger being unleashed was evident everywhere. Yet, for seven days, it was kept on leash. In an extraordinary show of restraint, the massive gathering stayed peaceful.

Equally, the government did not discourage the gathering and by allowing it gave implicit support. Tamil culture has always been the bedrock of Tamil Nadu politics, so it was unsurprising that the massive State-wide, student-led agitations used culture as their rallying cry — something Tamil political parties have always done. But when its own political weapon was used against it, the government looked helpless.

The ordinance, the government imagined, would free the Marina again. But it did not. Rapidly, the romance between the State and the protesters soured. For seven days, protesters had shared their food with the policemen, some constables had come in mufti to raise slogans for jallikattu, bonhomie and mutual trust was everywhere. It all ended when the police demanded the beach back for Republic Day.


Last Tuesday, at 1:00 p.m., the air was hot and clammy when I walked towards Nadukuppam, a village near the beach. The police were everywhere, roads blocked at every turn.

The harmless voices that refused to leave had soon become the frayed edges of temper that started to show up by Sunday evening.

The previous day, the picnic protest had turned into a battle. Police station and vehicles were burnt, stones pelted, tear gas fired, people lathi-charged. The government and the people had turned enemies.

Nadukuppam wore a deserted look. The evidence of conflict was overwhelming: glass pieces, stones, an old green door, wrenched off, lay on the road. Babu, 55, an autorickshaw owner, blamed the police. “They came and beat everyone up. They even entered our houses and pulled people out to beat them up,” he alleged.

Down the road, a car stood half-burnt under a poster of M.G.R. and Jayalalithaa. Next to it, a charred auto lay on its head. The air had an uneasy calm. A vegetable seller said the police lathi-charged the women too. “See?” She displayed her bruised arm. “Come here,” she summoned a weedy young boy, who said he worked in a printing press as he showed me his bandaged knees and the stitches on his scalp. “Look what they’ve done to him. This would have never happened under Amma. It wouldn’t have happened even under the DMK. We’ve never seen such brutality in our lives,” she said.

Further down, a fish market had been burnt down and charred fish lay in half-burnt baskets. “The protesters were peaceful,” the residents chorused, “it was the cops”. Ayodhyakuppam had the same story to tell. The police, in turn, denied the allegations. Police Commissioner S. George claimed the videos were morphed. Anti-social elements instigated the violence, he said, forcing the police to react.

Why didn’t the protesters leave when the ordinance was promulgated and before others ‘hijacked’ the protest? A young college student stared at me. “How do we know what the government is saying is true?”

Shahith Ahmed, a student whose home is in Tenkasi in Tirunelveli, had been part of the protest on most days. He was very unhappy. “I was not there yesterday. I know some people were trying to instigate violence. My friends told me,” he said. And was he happy now that the Bill had been passed? “Not at all, this is avamaanam (disgrace). How can we celebrate when we have got such a bad name because of some people?”

Muthu agreed: “I keep wondering if we at the protest gave space to these anti-social elements? All kinds of questions now come to mind.”


The churn is obvious. Social media continues to simmer, the injured nurse their wounds, protesters examine their conscience, the police are under the scanner for allegations of gross violation of norms, and jallikattu has once again entered the Supreme Court.

As I write this, a strained peace has descended on Marina Beach. It’s a day before Republic Day. The last hundred-odd protesters have been finally packed off and mounds of trash are being cleared away. Flower pots are being hauled in and masts being erected. The sands and the road are being spruced up for the parade, for the annual celebration of the nation’s becoming a republic.

That it would end this way was perhaps inevitable. Tamil pride, for which the protesters fought, swelled, rose to a peak, and rode high for well over a week. But finally it also took a fall.

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