This is an activist's dream come true. How many protests some of us have organised and participated in, hoping that at least a hundred supporters would show up! I visited Marina a few times to see it to believe it.
What just happened right before our eyes indicates a shift of historical significance. I have seen many short-lived, adrenalin-driven, single-issue-focused mobilisations. But this time around there are clear signs of progress towards movement building. Students' overwhelming support to Karthikeyan Sivasenapathy's appeal to grow their support and involvement to address the larger agrarian crisis, is a clear evidence to me in this direction. But the peaceful, self organising, self disciplined protestors now need to get on to some critical self-reflection for the signs to translate into steps.
Need for nuanced understanding without quickly jumping onto either side
Essays by Nityanand Jayaraman and TM Krishna are a very good starting point. Like them, I too conditionally support the protest and stand by the protestors. But like both point out, for a constructive discourse to be framed, we need people to go beyond simplistic 'pro-' or 'anti-' stand-taking. Both camps need to acknowledge and reflect on the so many nuanced and complex issues involved. Krish Ashok's essay on this is a must read for serious consideration and contemplation.
Need to start connecting the dots and understanding the big picture (to jallikkatu supporters)
I repeatedly heard this line by the campaigners “This is only one of the issues. There are a lot of other issues to fight for. We'll get to them one by one.” The fact is that every one of the issues is connected to each other. We need to start looking at them not as independent threads, but as a tapestry that is actually telling us a story. In order to build a movement, we need to start working towards building a larger life-affirming narrative, which in turn requires a lot of personal and collective groundwork to be done.
Need to learn to continuously enquire
In my years of involvement with social causes, every time I felt like I had arrived at “the final understanding of the problem” and said 'This is it! I finally know!', I was shown that there was more to it than I had seen and understood. A living and growing movement needs to stand on firm ground, but remain open to new narratives, and integrating those that make sense into its own.
Learning to dialogue is extremely critical for this endeavor. In all the people's movements and organisations I've been part of over the past two decades, dialogues were practically non-existent. But there are wonderful tools that we now have with us to help us understand “the other” and build bridges, without further antagonising and polarising. We need to learn to use them. Here are a few pointers for now.
Need to take the courage to be more vulnerable and acknowledge our own shadows
I am a strong supporter of the animal rights movement, and my own activist journey began as a member of PFA and PETA way back in the nineties. However, holding on to a narrow single-issue focus taken out of larger socio-cultural and ecological contexts, coupled with their self-righteousness became less and less appealing to me, and eventually became the very reason I moved away from these organisations.
I take pride in my Tamil roots. But what we are left with today in its name is a mix of all sorts of desirable and undesirable beliefs and practices. Practices steeped in casteism and chauvinism are as much a part of Tamil culture as are those inspired by high ideals like respect for nature. The little I have seen of Jallikattu (only on the screen), and given that we are living in times when machismo is highly celebrated by urban and rural male folk alike, I find it almost impossible to imagine them 'embracing their bulls as if they were their lovers', even if this might have been the case centuries, or even decades ago. Read Vinod's open letter to Jallikattu protestors for a larger sampler of our shadows as a culture.
Now, the life-thwarting belief-systems of both these groups would be the shadows of the groups. Recognising and acknowledging their respective shadows (critically and compassionately at the same time) is an essential step towards creating the condition for movement building for both.
Need for 'invitational activism' (to animal rights activists)
Imposing a ban on a practice within a community we are alien to, is not only not on, but also counterproductive.
A community typically initiates a certain practice in response to a certain specific need located in time and place. This then becomes 'tradition' over a period of time. If as outsiders to these traditions we would like to question them, then we need to first try to understand the cultural context where it originated, acknowledge and integrate that into our critical narrative and then share it, appealing to the members of the community to participate in a dialogue. If there is a sound logic and a heartfelt invitation, then the sincere ones from within the community are likely to accept our invitation. It is then possible to identify allies from among the members who'd agree that there is an issue to be looked at in the first place, along with whom we could try and frame an internal discourse. When this grows in strength, then the people will naturally make amends and reinvent their 'tradition'. This needs to be carried out with a lot of integrity all the way through, without yielding in to the temptation to manipulate processes and outcomes.
Need for co-existence: PETA and Jallikattu supporters
PETA as an organisation has a wider agenda of care for animals, and I conditionally subscribe to it. (If there is clear evidence that they've completely sold their souls to corporate interests, which I am yet to see, I'm open to reconsidering this.) Tamilians need that voice to throw light on their culture's shadows, which I don't see them sufficiently owning up to. Instead of showing PETA the door, the Tamil people need to listen to their deeper concerns, learn to draw clear boundaries with them, and invite them to engage with them more respectfully. PETA needs more education on how to broaden their vision and nuance their contextual understanding of issues and upgrade their modes of engagement and intervention. PETA needs reform too.
Quite contrary to the current dominant belief that it's one or the other, I feel both actually need each other for each other's growth. And for a meaningful advancement of each other's vision.
LOCAL GOVERNANCE & DECISION-MAKING
And finally, and most importantly, why are we limited by the discourse framed by and seeking sanction from the Supreme Court, either for or against? In an immediate sense, we may be bound by these legislative processes. But ideally, decisions such as these need to be enabled at the level of the village. Ideally, every village should be empowered to hold its own Gram Sabha and pass its own verdict on Jallikattu, as for any other issue concerning the community. If we could simultaneously hold this vision and work towards it as well, then we are talking about real empowerment. This is the only way we can build a healthy society where multiple views and experiments are allowed to co-exist respectfully. This will help do two things.
a. Enable diversity which is important for resilience.
b. Have more immediate feedback mechanisms built in for immediate and local self-correction.
When communities feel safe to experiment with what they have locally decided, they are also bound to be more open to be constructively challenged and engaged with.