This was prime national news this month. A continuous six-day protest was staged on Chennai’s Marina beach by several thousand students and educated young men and women demanding that Tamil Nadu allow jallikattu, a sort of bull-taming sport. That sport was played in parts of the State’s rural areas but remained banned by the Supreme Court on legal grounds. Parallel agitations by youngsters at other towns in Tamil Nadu strengthened the clamour for the sport. The State and Central governments yielded, and Tamil Nadu brought in a new law at express speed which removed the court-imposed ban on jallikattu.
Here I am not on the merits of permitting or banning jallikattu. Hooligans mingling with the protesters and spreading violence, post success, at Chennai should be tackled separately by the police. As to the legal worth of the new Tamil Nadu law, the Supreme Court will decide. Let us look at other things. First, the backdrop.
Protesters at the Marina kept swelling from day one, reaching 30,000 or even more at its peak by different estimates. Despite their number, they were not unruly. They helped regulate traffic on the beach road and themselves cleaned their surroundings all those days. The unpolitical stance of the Marina activists drew more protesters at Chennai and elsewhere, made many people sympathise with them and forced politicians to shy away from them. Also, with an emotional tang among lots of Tamils, the jallikattu issue put a glow to their fight.
There is a general euphoria that the victorious uprising for jallikattu is a well-deserved snub on India’s corrupt and self-indulgent political class, marking a special moment for democracy. That is true, but not all the way. Equally true are a few allied things.
Tamil Nadu’s massive agitation was possible because the State government allowed protesters to gather in big numbers without legal permission at the Marina and elsewhere and grow to unmanageable sizes. The AIADMK which rules the State feared that if the government moved to stop and scatter the crowds the Opposition would term it a police excess and steal the support of all asking for jallikattu. So the government kept quiet and let the problem become bigger, until it woke up late, worked hectically and changed a statute through executive orders to permit jallikattu, with Central government support.
Outwardly, every political party including the AIADMK has given credit to the Marina fighters. That was because no part of the glory goes to a rival political party. But no party in power and no government should be overawed and subdued publicly, with protesters breaking the law and breathing down its neck to get their demands met.
If the youth congregating at the Marina had been evacuated when they were in a few hundreds, Tamil Nadu would not have faced an overly giant and dominating protest later. If a growing gigantic agitation like this – in breach of the law regulating protests at a public place – is justified as democracy in action, Karnataka activists could do it in Bengaluru demanding changes in the inter-State river water law, so Karnataka may control the Cauvery river and deny Tamil Nadu its due share of the river water. It is good to remember: Democracy does not mean getting every freedom for the people. It means people surrendering a few of their freedoms to the State in exchange for more valuable freedoms.
True, the Marina experience may help the young participants stay determined for anything worthy in their future lives, and many of them may discover their leadership qualities. A majority of them would not have seen a jallikattu before, and a good number of them might not have sighted a bull earlier – but still they will have these personal gains. At the other side, their large assembly and victory are a side-effect of the phoney and combative democracy played by political parties in Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere too. If major opposition parties in the State will not enjoy and exploit every bad moment, and illegal challenge of authority, faced by a ruling party – here imagine any party in power and any party in the Opposition – the government could have stalled the agitation, began without legal permission, at its early stage. If an issue is so overwhelmingly important, touching the hearts and minds of the people of the entire State – that was the impression created by the jallikattu agitators – the way forward is protesting at legally permitted venues without violating regulatory laws or electing a government that helps make the desired law. The Marina spectacle is a right group of people setting a wrong precedent.
How did the Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011 go off in the US? It lasted from 17th September to 15th November of that year, much longer than the Marina agitation, though with lesser crowds. Organisers of Occupy Wall Street were considering three locations in New York City to stage it. The police learnt about their plans and fenced off two of them which were public spaces, and so the protesters assembled at the third alternative venue, Zuccotti Park which was private property. New York City does not allow use of amplified sound unless a permission is issued. The protesters had no such permission and so could not use loudspeakers at Zuccotti Park. Speakers had to rely on their vocal chords to make speeches which were repeated word for word by voice helpers standing a little away from the speakers, which were again repeated by more voice helpers stationed further down, to let the widespread listeners hear. Finally, when the owners of Zuccotti Park issued notice to the protesters to leave, policemen in riot gear started removing the protesters, arresting 200 persons in that process. In democratic India, can you imagine protesters following the law this much while doing a public protest against a government?
No bandhs or forced train stoppages happened in New York City during the eight-week protest it witnessed, while they happened like normal events in Tamil Nadu during Chennai’s one-week agitation at a grabbed public space. As Occupy Wall Street ended, the Mayor’s office in NYC released a statement which included this: “No right is absolute and with every right comes responsibilities. The First Amendment gives every New Yorker the right to speak out – but it does not give anyone the right to sleep in a park or otherwise take it over to the exclusion of others – nor does it permit anyone in our society to live outside the law.”
During the Marina protest, did we hear comparable words from Tamil Nadu chief minister or from leaders of any political party in India? No, but our laws and the US laws will be the same for the Marina scene. Then, is our democracy staying fit or trembling? The young, earnest, unpolitical Marina protesters have something to introspect.
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Copyright © R. Veera Raghavan 2017