India: Farmer protests hit by repression in Tamil Nadu

February 6, 2017
Chennai, January 19.

Farmers, fisherfolk and students across the Indian state of Tamil Nadu have been protesting since January 16 to protect the region’s tradition of Jallikattu (bull taming).

Usually conducted in January during Pongal (harvest) festival, it creates economic gains for farmers across the state of 70.5 million people.

Jallikattu is a 2000-year-old cultural practice in Tamil Nadu, where youth seek to hold on to the hump of a bull as a display of courage. There is evidence of this sport in the ancient literature and in sculptures across the temples in Tamil Nadu.

The 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Supreme Court directives on the treatment of animals have been taken seriously by the stakeholders. The act also has a mechanism to supervise and inspect the upkeep of the animals to ensure the animals are not subjected to cruel treatment.

In 2011, the environment ministry added bulls to its 1991 ruling banning the training and exhibition of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs. Protesters across Tamil Nadu have demanded the lifting of the ban on Jallikattu.

Last year, the ministry modified its earlier ruling and declared the sport could continue. This directly contravened a court order and was duly challenged by animal welfare organisations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Subsequently, a stay order was issued by the court.

The arrest of 200 youths protesting in Alanganallur village in Tamil Nadu on January 16 proved a catalyst. In the state capital of Chennai, a spontaneous crowd of Jallikattu supporters rose to 6000-strong by the next day.

Several vehicles owned by the poor, especially motorbikes, were damaged by police. The intensity and attacks on the protests led to a police station being set alight in Chennai.

Police used tear gas and baton charges on January 16 to disperse thousands of demonstrators who had occupied Chennai’s Marina Beach for six days to demand the legalisation of Jallikattu festivals. Fishing boats displaying black flags were stopped as they tried to resupply the protesters with food and water by sea.

The largely peaceful mass movement, although leaderless, spread across Tamil Nadu on January 18. An estimated 400,000 people gathered in at least 100 locations. The protests were organised mainly through social media.

The demands made by the protesters include lifting the ban on Jallikattu, banning PETA and relief for drought-affected Tamil Nadu farmers. Though the protest started in support of Jallikattu, it spread to supporting other farmers’ issues and the banning of Coke, Pepsi and KFC.

PETA is supported by the Coca Cola, Pepsi and KFC companies. These companies are well known for usurping water supplies through corrupt means while people remain desperate for drinking water. Farmers also suffer from a lack of water available for irrigation.

The demands raised ranged from a call for banning these companies in Tamil Nadu and opposing the privatisation of education to increased support for farmers and fisherfolk.

At a time when toll franchises are being compensated by the government for the loss of toll fares, farmers are ignored. Many farmers have committed suicide due to financial loss resulting from a lack of water and a lack of financial support from the government.

As a result of these protests, politicians in Tamil Nadu were forced to pass an emergency order allowing bull-taming festivals to resume. All students who were arrested have been released without charge.

In Melbourne, a protest organised by a group called Tamil Lives Matter was held at the State Library against the use of state-sponsored violence against students, fisherfolk and farmers. Several speakers condemned the attacks by police.

Merk Muggadayao from the Party of the Labouring Masses in the Philippines, told the Melbourne rally the banning of cultural practices are moves towards denying people, including indigenous people, their identity.

The situation in Tamil Nadu remains tense while the issue is being hotly discussed across communities and political forces.

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