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Loosening the shackles of the Union

 Garga Chatterjee |  2017-01-22 16:03:00.0

Loosening the shackles of the Union

All over Tamil Nadu, tens of thousands of people, largely not under any political party banner, have assembled in protest. The most widely broadcasted protests are from Marina beach. That massive protest at Marina beach is actually very small compared to ones happening in other parts of Tamil Nadu including Madurai, Erode, Salem, and Coimbatore. And it is not only big cities but small towns and villages, where these protests are taking place – thus uniting Tamil Nadu in its demand - "We want Jallikattu" - which is both a cultural and a political demand. Thousands of people had assembled from last night in protests, but "national media" didn't live-telecast this since this was not Delhi and hence didn't matter to the "nation". As the day progressed on January 18, young people from all walks of life spilt onto the streets, from students to IT professionals to farmers, including many, many women. As we speak, this has become too big for "national media" to ignore, and since this is not Kashmir from where independent media and telecom connectivity can be cut out at will, "national media" wants to explain to the "rest of India", why are the Tamils are angry and why they are protesting? While they ask this, they are quick to add that the protests are apolitical. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The protests are not partisan but are intensely political – uniting the entire Tamil polity in a united voice. More things unite Kashmir and Kanyakumari than the Delhi establishment would like to admit.

In its limited vision, the non-Tamil media is likening this to Tahrir Square of Cairo. If they had more local grounding and less of imagination that is inspired by Anglo-American talking points, they would have reached back into the not so distant Tamil past. They could have looked carefully at the site the protesters chose. The Marina beach is not an ordinary spot. It houses the memorial of C.N.Annadurai, the giant of Tamil politics, the biggest votary of Tamil pride who staunchly opposed Hindi imposition, and one of the fathers of federalism in the Indian Union. If they had tried to understand Tamil Nadu from the Tamil standpoint and not from the Delhi standpoint, they would have found that the present protests, in their spontaneity, intensity, and popularity come close to the anti-Hindi imposition protests of 1965 when Union government tried to forcibly shove Hindi down the throats of non-Hindi citizens of the Indian Union. While protests happened in various states, Tamils took the lead. The response from New Delhi was swift, and central forces killed nearly 400 Tamil protesters that year. In 1967, the Congress was voted out and never again has any Delhi-headquartered party ever held power in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu branches of Delhi-headquartered parties failed miserably in 1965 and are failing miserably now in representing the Tamil sentiment for their priorities are ideologies are decided elsewhere, without an eye for Tamil interest. Since 1967, Tamils have politically opted for their own representatives and not Tamil agents of Delhi interests. It is because Tamil Nadu stood up against Hindi imposition that all non-Hindi states have been able to protect their cultural and linguistic turf against homogenisation ordered from Delhi, that is designed to benefit a particular ethnolinguistic group that holds enormous sway on power in Delhi. Even today, with the Jallikattu protests, Tamils have opened the space for the rest of us to assert our cultural rights against the whims and fancies of the Union government agencies about animals and humans that imagine the Indian Union as a bloated form of the NCR. The way the Tamil protesters have criticised the Union government on the ground show that they understand this political dynamic very well.

The massive presence of women for a "male sport" shows that this issue goes beyond the particulars of Jallikattu and stems from something bigger and wider. This has been joined by Non-Resident Tamils around the world (in USA, Ireland, Mexico, Thailand, South Korea, Ukraine, Russia, Malaysia, and elsewhere) as well as the Tamil social media space where unlike in NOIDA, Whatsapp messages about bovine animals are being used to unite people and not dividing them. The Jallikattu protests show that against the cosmo-liberal stereotype of "Indian young people", there are young people, millions of them, to whom roots matter, identity matters, culture matters and they do not aspire to lose their Tamil-ness to make the cut in the Delhi-Mumbai idea of Indianness. These are the people, who know English very well but have chosen to respond in Tamil to Delhi media questions posed to them in English. If this appears odd, remember the number of times Delhi-based English media carries responses in Hindi without any translation. Try to think why that is not considered odd when a majority of the citizens of the Indian Union do not understand Hindi.

In the protests, a recurring theme is that the Tamil interests have been marginalised in the Indian Union. Tamil culture is much older than the Indian Union and all its institutions, and self-respect is a very important part of that culture. The situation now that Tamil Nadu doesn't have control over its own maritime trade, foreign relations, or for that matter most aspects of Tamil internal affairs is hardly two centuries old. The Tamil political memory and historical consciousness goes far beyond that and is a living thing that influences politics of here and now. Thus, whenever the Union government has destroyed state rights, the Tamils have been at the forefront of protesting it – a strain of politics that has recently widened to include of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, who has been regularly voicing concerns about the destruction of the federal structure. Tamils gave up their autonomous rights over their land, resources and people when they signed up for the Indian Union. Any giving up of rights have to come with concomitant compensatory benefits. That has not happened. While Tamil Nadu generates an enormous amount of revenue, much of that is siphoned off by the Union government through its constitutional powers and the discriminatory schemes of Delhi, it gets much less money (so-called "central funds" which originate from resources based in states) than the amount that Delhi makes from resources in Tamil Nadu. In short, Tamil Nadu's resources are used to subsidise Union government schemes outside Tamil Nadu. During the Eelam Tamil genocide, the Union government explicitly sided with the Sri Lankan government, thus making clear that Tamil Nadu's sentiments matter little to Delhi even when it comes to the genocide of Tamils elsewhere. Thus it is only natural that many Tamils have a feeling that they are getting cheated in this deal called the Indian Union.

At this juncture, it doesn't help when the so-called "national opinion" brands make fun of Tamils as irrational or barbarous people who love to be cruel to their animals. If at all, it is quite duplicitous, since Delhi doesn't mind the revenue that is extracted from Tamil Nadu while using its institutions like the Animal Welfare Board of India to undercut Tamil cultural practices. That is the tragedy of a centralised administration where bureaucrats from high female foeticide states get to decide the women's rights policies of socially progressive states like Tamil Nadu. Whether Jallikattu is right or wrong, should it be discontinued or continued or continued with modifications, is an out and out Tamil affair. That the Animal Welfare Board of India, which doesn't exactly reflect Tamil opinion, gets to decide on this shows how Tamils are infantilised as being incapable of deciding their own affairs, including their cultural practices or for that matter, animal welfare issues. This stems from the two long lists called the Union and Concurrent lists of the Constitution of India that gives almost unfettered right to distant people from Union government agencies over the lives and issues of people of various states. It is this false federalism, in which state rights have been completely disrespected, are the source of most of the problems and solutions to this are achievable within the ambit of the Indian constitution by large scale move of subjects from Union and Concurrent lists to the State list in keeping with the federal democratic spirit of the Cabinet Mission plan of 1946, to which most elected lawmakers of the time agreed, only to turn their back on it after 1947. Yes, reforms are needed, and they can take many shapes. The ambit of the Supreme Court can be limited to Union and concurrent list subjects with state-based apex courts becoming the highest authority on state subjects. This along with a move of most subjects to the State list can realise the full federal democratic potential of the Union of India. Otherwise, such deep-rooted political grievances promote alienation and make their presence felt in some way or the other, in not so palatable ways.

The defence of Jallikattu on the basis of practice and culture has been likened to the defence of Sati. That so many have learnt to make this Sati argument instinctively, in fact, has a long past in British imperial pedagogy's imprint of brown colonised lands. As my friend Ritinkar Das Bhaumik said, "We should stop drawing parallels to Sati. We already have one group that sees an analogy between cattle and women. We don't need others." While deciding to hang Afzal Guru, in spite of many grounds for reasonable doubt about the case, the Supreme Court of India said, "The collective conscience of the society will be satisfied only if the death penalty is awarded to Afzal Guru." If "collective conscience" of the society has already been admitted by the Supreme Court to be a decider in handing out judgements, what prevents it from listening to the "collective conscience" of Tamils regarding Jallikattu that is on display in the protests all over their land today?

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Garga Chatterjee

Garga Chatterjee

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