The harvest festival of Pongal is always a time to celebrate all across Tamil Nadu wherein the festivities attached to the glorious occasion transcends religion, caste and creed. Everyone will be in a joyous mood to pay their thanksgiving to the farmers; the bulls and reserve a day to meet with close ones. The city will practically be closed for three days - a sort of ‘standstill’, since all will go to their respective villages to celebrate Pongal with their family members, courtesy the benefit of extended holidays for all.
This year also it was a standstill, not just an ordinary sense. It will probably go deep down in the history of the nation, as the entire Tamil fraternity stood up for restoring their traditional game of ‘Jalikattu’, without which the festival of Pongal has no real significance. The silent storm of the student community raised their protest in Alanganallur initially, which snowballed into an unprecedented large scale protest by the entire society all across the state with a sea of humanity standing behind the students and the youth in their fight for Jallikattu.
Social Action of a New Order:
The protest that shook the state of Tamilnadu sent vibrations all across the Tamil speaking community even beyond our country, which resulted in a very positive support from one and all. It was no different in Madurai, which was the spark that resulted in a fire of protest to spread to all corners within no time. The magnetic force that the students managed to generate out of their network and steadfast commitment to stand united till concrete action was seen in black and white was the hallmark of the protest. I must confess this magnetic force could never leave me alone, as I was emotionally bonded with the students for their honest and clear commitment to have their tradition preserved.
As a Social Work Professional, I was oriented to the concept of ‘Social Action’, but honestly what I witnessed in Madurai was something beyond the text book and average practice methods. It was a Social Action of a New Order, which was definitely once in a lifetime chance to witness such a huge response to a voluntary call for protest that was totally self driven without affiliation to any association, caste or religious groups or political parties. It was of the Students, by the students and the youth, for the Society.
I wanted to document the action by capturing some photographs of the protest, especially during the nights, so that I could have something unique to preserve. I had one of the significant moments of social consciousness played in front of my eyes, which seemed to be a clear case of History of the State in the new era. As I walked through the protest area three nights with my camera (Thursday – 19th Jan, Friday -20th Jan and Saturday- 21st Jan), more than the pictures that I my camera captured, it was my heart that absorbed all the emotions that rented the air with valor and courage.
Human Thunder at Thamukam:
The larger than life size protest was unfolding at Thamukkam, the arterial road in the city which is synonymous with many political and social occurrences of the past. I was thrilled to be admist a sea of Humanity with their vociferous slogans, songs and anthems that captured the attention of the protesters. It was no ordinary protest and it needed a super human effort larger than the self to keep the spirits of the volunteers sustained to be heard. Every one synchronized their shouts to form a human thunder at Thamukkam and we could feel the air reverberating with shouts of solidarity that was intended to reach the persons who mattered most to bring back Jallikattu to them.
It was heartbreaking to hear loud shouts from the protesters who never cared for their vocal chords, but wanted to have their traditional umbilical cord preserved with the following slogans …“Meesiya Murku da……Peta vai Viratu da”; “Jal …Jal Jalikattu – Vaa Vaa Mallukattu”; “Tamilan Da…Thanmana Singamada”; “Thadai Sei….Thadai Sei….Peta vai Thadai Sei”; “Vaadi Vasal Thiranthal than….Nangal Veedu Vaasal Poovom”.
The entire place resembled like a new community of likeminded people who never wanted a home to sleep, nor their own favourite food to eat or the best costume to dress. All were sitting on the road, which they would have never imagined even in their wildest dream. But all this suffering and sacrifice was for a social cause, only that was utmost in their minds. I could not only see Students, it was filled with ladies, many with their entire family members, youth, working professionals, media persons, radio jockeys, rotary members, traders, hawkers, businessmen, educationists, folk artists, musicians and every possible vocation on earth. What was striking was the participation of children even during the nights.
The sound that erupted from the protesters created ripples which stretched from one corner of the road to the other, in the process energizing everyone who braved the biting cold and sleepy nights. To keep them fit, volunteers prepared and served hot food items like mixed rice, iddlies, dosas, which would beat the best of restaurants. There were mini vans stationed at vintage points to prepare hot Oothappams in the middle of the night to keep the protesters going strong. Coffee, Tea, Milk along with biscuits was abundant and it was like a manifold community wedding of many eating at one place with plates in their hands.
I was admiring a young husband and wife who prepared ‘sukku malli coffee’ and served it hot for the cheer leaders so that they could thunder with power. With every passing minute the night seemed to be long and sweet, no one felt a trace of sleep …..May be because the Thunder at Thamukkam was growing bigger and louder.
Taking on a speeding Train:
The protest at Madurai reached a different level hitting the national headlines, when the youth in Sellur braved themselves to run on the railway track on the bridge of river Vaigai to stop the Coimbatore – Madurai Passenger on its tracks bringing the entire southern railway operations to a grinding halt.
I have lived in the railway colony and I know pretty well what it takes to stop a train, and what would be the impact of such an eventuality on the status of the Indian Railway network. The protesters wanted to intensify their stir by hitting the national headlines, which they successfully did. Along with the youth, it were the women around that area who bravely ran on the tracks to stop the train, naturally the videos of the train stoppage went viral. The news of the stoppage of the train in Madurai spread like wild fire and many more incidents followed suit all across the state.
I was particular to visit the spot and take some photos, so I took on a difficult route to reach the river Vaigai along with my friend SR.Kannan around 2.00am early on Friday morning 19th Jan 2017. It was a sight to behold , since I found teenagers and youth all over the railway tracks sleeping across it boldly and seated all over the engine, which was running till then, hoping that it would be released soon. But that was never to happen, since it remained stopped for five days, something which has never happened before in any part of India.
The train stoppage was a severe blow to the administrators, as they found now way to negotiate with the protesters to end the real life drama on the tracks and to rescue the train. Consequently Madurai remained cut off from the Rail network of the Nation. The commitment of the Youth in wanting to see a tangible and dependable solution for their protest was very evident with them only relenting to release the train on Monday, still with much resistance and a mild latti charge down the river.
Resoluteness even in Rains:
The high impact night for me personally was Saturday night when the crowd grew stringer and bolder, even to the extent of braving the rains. It was raining cats and dogs at Thamukkam, and there no signs of withdrawal of the protest. The people were literally drenched and had no change over clothes, nor any towel to wipe them dry. I guess they preferred to remain wet and shiver in the rains, so that the news of their sufferings could send shivers down to the state, which it eventually did.
The significance of this whole protest was the art of managing any situation with the available resource by the students and youth, ably supported by generous people. Huge flex banners were brought to the ground and the youth held them over the heads, while the ladies who were seated beneath it switched on their mobile phones to keep the place illuminated. This certainly brought not only relief to the suffering students, but honestly tears to my eyes. I mean it!
Imagine the parents who get over protective when their children, particularly young ones gets wet in the rains and comes home drenched. The immediate response would be to wipe them dry and change their clothes so that they are not affected by the rains. It does not stop there; they are then cuddled in a warm blanket and offered some warm food to eat, to keep them warm.
But in Thamukkam, the women along with their children were seated in the rains with little or no warm clothes. The only saving grace was some umbrellas that kept changing hands and the flex banner that was held up by the students. Care was taken by a few volunteers to sweep the floor to drain out the rain water that was stagnant. One can easily take a cue of disaster management tips from the youth for their appropriate reflexes which seemed so smooth to the eyes and soothing to the soul.
Memories for Eternity:
The show of strength as one may be free to call, the protest by the students, independent of any affiliation would definitely be written in ‘Golden Letters with Bold Fonts’ in the history book of Tamilnadu, if not for the entire nation.
No one can fancy the fact that thousands of young people in vulnerable age groups with volatile emotions can be grafted for an ethically and morally well sounded protest, displaying a high degree of self control of social behavior. The manner in which they managed to draw in common people of all segments was the standout highlight, more importantly they never let anyone take advantage of their power till they had their way in getting an ordinance passed revoking the traditional sport of Jalikattu.
I am sure when the youth of the present generation teach their children about history of Jalikattu or that of Social Action, they would hold their heads high and say with pride..”I was part of that”. I will not hold myself for any consideration in saying with contentment, that “I too was part of it”, as I would be one among the fortunate and lucky ones to have witnessed history in its making.
These three days refuse to fade away from my memory, and I will seriously not try, even to a very tiny extent to forget it…..could I?
- Nicholas Francis