During the week-long demonstration by over 50,000 jallikattu supporters on Marina Beach in Chennai that started on January 17, the crowds demanded the revocation of a 2014 Supreme Court ban on the bull-taming sport and instead sought one on the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or Peta. They accused the non-profit of seeking to eliminate Tamil culture and traditional practices by declaring the sport as cruel towards bulls.

While there was nothing surprising about the “Save jallikattu” and “Ban Peta” slogans on the beach, mixed in with these was what appeared to be an entirely unrelated demand: to ban the companies producing Coca-Cola and Pepsi in Tamil Nadu.

“We don’t need these foreign companies in our country,” some in the crowd said, holding up placards and posters demanding a ban on these corporations. This video shows several young people angrily smashing bottles of popular soft drinks on a Coimbatore street.

Consequently, on Tuesday, two of the state’s biggest trade associations – the Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangangalin Peramaipu and Tamil Nadu Traders Federation – asked their members to stop selling soft drinks made by multinational corporations from March 1.

“During the recent protest by students demanding conduct of jallikattu, youngsters sought a ban on these soft drinks as they draw our groundwater and take the profits outside the country,” Tamil Nadu Vanigar Sangangalin Peramaipu president AM Vikramraja told The Hindu. “Encouraged by that, we are taking this campaign forward.”

But why and how does jallikattu have anything to do with Coke or Pepsi?

No more foreign products

The sudden demand to ban the soft drink majors in Tamil Nadu is key to the fact that the jallikattu protests went beyond the traditional sport and became a platform for the people to bring up issues that have been bothering the state for many years. Some of the other demands they raised were for a solution to the age-old Cauvery river dispute – a festering water-sharing row with neighbouring Karnataka that saw violent protests last year – and for the freedom of fishermen captured by Sri Lankan marine troops. Some even wanted Tamil to be made an official language. In this jumble of cries seeking to preserve Tamil identity and culture, the protests against Coca-Cola and Pepsi did not seem all that misplaced.

Far from the crowds on Marina Beach, social media was flooded with messages that said Peta was funded by multinationals such as the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, and that these companies had an eye on the Indian dairy market. Banning jallikattu was seen as a way of depleting native breeds of cattle and acquiring a larger market share. Jallikattu supporters said these breeds of cattle could be preserved only by keeping the sport alive, especially since their use as farm animals had already been made redundant by the advent of tractors.

“Coca Cola has their own plans of bringing in their own milk products in India,” said Syed Hassan, a social worker who was part of the Marina Beach protest from the day it started. “They are sponsors for Peta. They even hold some annual events together.”

A demonstartion against Pepsi and Coca-Cola on Marina Beach. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Last week, in an interview with Scroll.in, a Peta volunteer said the non-governmental organisation was not funded by any multinational corporation, nor did it promote the interest of any dairy company. He also said Peta India was completely independent of Peta USA.

But the jallikattu supporters are not ready to believe that.

“Coca-Cola Company wants to bring in their business and replace the market here,” said Arapurani, one of the protestors on Marina Beach, on Sunday. “We are a huge milk consuming market and they are trying to utilise this. We are not going to give them that space. We don’t want any foreign products. Why did we send out the British in the first place? We did not want it because they made us buy foreign goods and taxed us for them. The same thing is happening now.”

“We will grow whatever we want in this state and have this state’s milk,” Arapurani added, stressing on consuming only locally produced goods. “We will grow our paddy and eat it. We do not want Coco-Cola, Pepsi or jersey cows here.”

A few students protesting on the beach held up posters that read “Do not let our farmers’ struggles be wasted on Pepsi and Coke,” and “Culture is a part of us, the corporate that tries to interfere will be beaten”.

Posters against Pepsi and Coke on Marina Beach. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

River of contention

Apart from linking Coca-Cola and Pepsi to Peta and condemning them as the face of multinational corporations in the state, the protestors accused the companies of setting up manufacturing plants alongside rivers and using up gallons of water. They said this had deprived farmers of water to irrigate their fields, resulting in failed crops.

“The Thamirabarani river has been sucked dry because of these companies,” said R Bhaskaran, an electrician, at the protest on Sunday. “We don’t need them here.”

This river is the only source of water for farmers in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts. For over a decade now, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been sourcing water from it, reportedly leaving very little for the people, even for drinking purposes.