To Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, the pro-jallikattu Tamil protestors are porukkis (thugs) and elis (rats) funded by the Church and non-governmental organisations. The good gentleman has sternly warned the protestors over Twitter that the Central government will not hesitate to use force to quell the protests if required. And as he has done many times in the past, he has also threatened to impose Article 356, or President’s rule, in Tamil Nadu should the law and order situation deteriorate. That he has been endlessly trolled by his critics in response is a different story.

On the other side (or maybe it is the same side, albeit with a different shade), there are academics like Krishna Ananth, who say that the protests are orchestrated by Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Ananth also wants the Centre to invoke Article 356 in the state as the Tamil mobs are similar to the rioters of the 1984 anti-Sikh clashes and the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat. Incidentally, this political commentator, had argued that “dissent is essential for a democracy” when the fracas at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, over the organisation of an event to commemorate Parliament terror attack convict Afzal Guru by a section of students, was on around this time last year.

The porukkis, mobs, elis on the streets of Tamil Nadu – and in countries like Canada, Britain and Australia – follow a different logic of and for mobilisation though. There has been no reported case of violence and the protests have involved a very diverse set of individuals and groups. Women, children, Christians, Muslims, labour unions, farmers, information technology professionals, students, lawyers and activists have taken to the streets to support the bull-taming sport. If jallikattu was a mere ritual of a particular caste in southern Tamil Nadu, what would explain Tamils in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and second-generation diaspora Tamils in London demonstrating for the same?

There is something beyond just an “invention of tradition” to achieve a national commonality at operation here – what is happening is an intervention of tradition as part of a counter-hegemonic resistance.

Rise of Tamil youth

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano defines culture as “all the collective symbols of identity and memory: the testimonies of what we are, the prophesies of imagination, the denunciation of what prevents us from being”. Jallikattu, from being an event of specific location, has now gained significance not just as a marker of Tamil identity, but also of Tamil resistance to a Hindi-Hindu-centric government’s cultural imperialism. Through networking, debates on social media, and grassroots mobilisation, youngsters who are not affiliated to political parties are taking the lead in organising protests.

The root of this style of activism is in recent times. At no point of time in history has Tamil youth activism in Tamil Nadu been so politically charged and conceptually clear as in the years succeeding the genocide in Sri Lanka in May 2009. In early 2013, this new generation of activists, skilled in their use of social media for political purposes, generated tremors in Tamil Nadu with their massive demonstrations in favour of Tamil Eelam – a proposed independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka – and against the United States-sponsored resolution in Geneva that bailed out Sri Lanka. The heat generated by the youth in Tamil Nadu, besides inspiring diaspora youth to stage similar protests, also compelled the state government to pass resolutions calling for a referendum among the Tamils in Sri Lanka. An informed group of youth activists, who viewed liberation struggles in the paradigm of global justice rather than through the lens of cult figures or on sectarian lines, emerged in this period. This explains the jallikattu protestors, on several occasions, instructing actors and mainstream political parties to stay away from them.

Downside of mass activism

Of course, there is no denying that there were lumpen casteist and misogynist elements during the pro-jallikattu protests. And there are also those fringe elements who want to return to a pristine utopian Tamil past of honour and valour. While being unconditionally critical of them, we also cannot expect a mass protest of the type we witness now in Tamil Nadu to have only politically conscious and sensible individuals in the forefront.

The Arab Spring – a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions that spread across West Asia in 2011 – involved a diverse group of participants. There were anarcha-feminists and also the Islamist forerunners to the Islamic State terror group on the streets, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and elsewhere. A mass protest and uprising can never be made by disciplined individuals alone. To give another example, in the wake of violent demonstrations against the killing of blacks by policemen in the American city of Ferguson since August 2014, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argued that such irrational outbursts of violence are inevitable in a struggle for justice.

A sustainable success of a protest lies in how soon a mass activism enables the formation of intellectuals, leaders and cadre who are theoretically deep and practically suave. While few Dalit critics have raised legitimate grievances against the tradition of jallikattu as such, this historically significant event where a particular tradition intervenes in the service of something larger, that has mobilised Tamils across barriers, has more cause for optimism than cynicism. And one can also hope that the activists will be self-introspective towards the notion of tradition in as much as they are resolute in using tradition as a weapon against a cultural imperialism of the Centre.

Karthick Ram Manoharan is senior lecturer at the School of Development, Azim Premji University.