The harsh afternoon sun beat down upon the Tidel Park bus stop in South Chennai on Thursday, but the crowd gathered there, comprising mostly people working in the Information Technology firms that dot the area, were undeterred. As the crowd gradually swelled, sloganeering intensified in support of jallikattu, the bull-taming sport organised in Tamil Nadu villages during the harvest festival of Pongal.

Starting Tuesday evening, masses of Chennai’s youth – school and college students as well as working professionals – took to the streets to protest against the Supreme Court’s 2014 ban on jallikattu.

While thousands gathered at Chennai’s Marina Beach, which is centrally located, employees of Information Technology firms, who work in shifts, gathered to protest near their offices. Thus, Tidel Park, one of Asia’s largest information technology centres, has also become a protest hub.

Over these past few days, the protesters have being shouting several slogans:

“Azhikathai azhikathai Tamil verathai azhikathai”
Don’t wipe out, Don’t wipe out the Tamil tradition

“Nattu maadai azhikathai”
Don’t wipe out the native bull

“Tamil na suma va, IT ka suma va?”
Do you think we Tamilians are nothing? We IT employees are nothing?

There is a widespread anger at the role of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, widely known as PETA, for its efforts in bringing about the ban. In 2011, PETA filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act, 2009, which led to the apex court striking down the Act as unconstitutional.

Jallikattu supporters outside Tidel Park. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

At the Tidel Park protest there were cries that PETA be banned instead for promoting the interests of western corporations. The argument here is that jallikattu helps to protect native breeds of cattle, and that the ban on the sport is a conspiracy by foreign powers to wipe out such breeds. PETA, however, refutes these allegations.

Outside various offices across the city, employees stood with placards shouting,

“PETA down down, PETA down down, we want jallikattu, mudunja malli kattu!”
We want jallikattu, if you can – hug the bull!

White-collar workers protest

Jallikattu is popular in certain village districts of Tamil Nadu. Thus many of the white-collar workers protesting in support of the sport have never actually participated in it, or even watched it.

However, the idea that the protestors are upholding Tamil culture, and fighting for the people of Tamil Nadu that is being built up through posts on social media seemed to have pushed many city-bred Tamilians to join the demonstrations on the street.

“I did not even know much about jallikattu before the protest,” said R Balaji, an employee from HCL Solutions. “Only after I visited the Marina Beach yesterday did I learn about the game. Only then I knew it was an ancient traditional sport over 2,000 years old.”

Jallikattu’s supporters say that the sport is mentioned in classical Tamil literature as “eru tazhuvuthal” or hugging the bull.

Support from other states

It wasn’t just Tamilians who were protesting.

R Goutham, an employee of Cognizant Technology Solutions, who is originally from Andhra Pradesh, moved to Chennai less than a year ago, but he was also out to show his support for jallikattu.

“It is a tradition,” he said. “I don’t think any government or Supreme Court has any right to ban that. They are just playing the game for a day. That’s healthy. Even we in Andhra Pradesh have jallikattu but I don’t think it is banned.”

At Marina Beach, another Information Technology employee, originally from Karnataka who identified himself as Vinod Khanna, vociferously demanded that Tamilians be given their rights.

“We youngsters are fighting for our rights throughout the country,” he said. “Now we are fighting for the farmers of Alanganallur to allow them to play jallikattu!”

Alanganallur, in Madurai, is the most famous of jalikattu venues.

(Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

‘Jallikattu is in our roots’

At the Tidel Park gathering, the typical response to the question “why are you supporting jallikattu?” elicited standard phrases as answers.

They included:

“We want to protect the native breed of cattle.”

”We want to preserve Tamil Nadu culture.”

”Our farmers want jallikattu.”

A more aggressive reply was: “Tamil Nadu is being cheated.”

Some protestors showed a deeper connection with the sport.

“Most of the people in IT companies are from small villages in Tamil Nadu, which is why many of us feel so strongly about it,” said Ashok Kumar, who works at Scope Technologies. His native village is near Namakkal in central Tamil Nadu.

Leading the crowd in sloganeering was Pandi Kumar, a technician at one of the many IT companies in the Tidel Park complex. Apart from participating in the protest since the beginning of the week, Kumar worked the night shift the previous day just so that he could spend the day protesting outside Tidel Park on Thursday.

Kumar comes from Sravayil village near Karaikudi, where jallikattu was actively organised every year until the ban in 2014.

“The bull does not get hurt at all, although we have a chance of getting hurt,” said Kumar. “We treat bulls like our children and take great care of them.”

While many participants in the gathering, like Kumar, were actively shouting slogans, a significant number of participants stood quietly in the back row of the crowd, observing the melee.

One of the young men at the back was D Kandasubramaniam, a team leader at Websticks Design, a software firm in Tidel Park. He was strongly in support of jallikattu.

A close connection

“I come from a farming background,” said Kandasubramaniam, whose native village is Keeranur near Tiruchirapalli in southern Tamil Nadu. “My father and grandfather were both farmers, and I too plan to take it up after some years of work.”

Kandasubramaniam said that he was participating in a protest for the first time in his life. He said that his entire family had encouraged him to join his colleagues in the protest, adding that this was also the first time in six years of working at Tidel Park that he had seen so many people gather to protest for a cause.

Kandasubramaniam said that he related to jallikattu at a personal level.

“I have watched jallikattu many times but I haven’t played,” he said. “My grandfather had a bull that used to participate in the sport. The bull was very majestic and you would love it when you see it.”

Kandasubramaniam said that in his native village, which is also well-known for conducting the sport, the bull was treated like a God. The participants would pray to the bull, conduct a pooja [prayer] and only then start the game.

“But now, the residents of my village are extremely upset,” he said. “Over the past few years many of them have sold their bulls.”