Preservation of Social Identity through Social Media Platforms: Jallikattu Protests
Political Use of Social Media
Jallikattu is a traditional bull-taming sport that is part of the harvest festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu. Although the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA) outlaws animal cruelty, traditional sports like jallikattu are allowed by laws established by the state legislative body, such as the 2009 Tamil Nadu law. In 2011, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) along with Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) challenged Jallikattu Act No 27, on the grounds that it conflicted with the Indian federal law. After 3 years in court, PETA and AWBI won the case, but on 7 January 2016 the government of India once again removed bulls from the list of banned performing animals. After constant banning and unbanning, the Supreme Court issued a stay order on 12 January 2016, effectively banning jallikattu. However, in preparation for the 2017 harvest festival season, on 8 January 2017, a considerable number of apolitical youth groups began protesting the jallikattu ban. They used social media as a unifying tool to bring together people with shared social identity to coordinate multiple protests, and successfully managed to legalize the sport on 23 January 2017 when the state government passed a bill to amend PCAA.
Martin van Zomeren and Russell Spears, in Metaphors of Protest: A Classification of Motivations for Collective Action, emphasize metaphors of social functionalism that determine individual and group-based collective action. Through the lens of this paper, we can classify these leaderless youth groups as intuitive politicians who share social identity. Zomeren and Spears define social identity as “that part of an individual’s self concept which derives from… knowledge of… membership of social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership (qtd in Tajfel, 1978)”, and is considered as uniting source of pride and esteem. Social identity is an important tool for collective action, which the authors describe as “a group member engages in collective action strategies anytime that he or she is acting as a representative of the group and the action is directed at improving the conditions of the entire group (qtd by Wright, Taylor, & Moghaddam, 1990)”. These group of individuals with diverse political mindsets are motivated to achieve the same goal of finding a permanent solution to lift ban on jallikattu.
Intuitive politicians deeply care about the accountability concerns as they are aware of the people in power who can oppose or stop the social change. Looking into the jallikattu movement through the lens of Zomeren and Spears work we can identify the youth groups as politicians who care about the jallikattu movement and have an understanding that the state and federal government has the ultimate power to support their movements by lifting the ban or stopping them altogether. Intuitive politicians are also aware how their behavior can make an impact on others who have the ability to influence social change. The members of youth groups used social media to influence other individuals who share a common goal to engage in collective action.
Zomeren and Spears state that a social identity becomes important to collective action when it becomes politicized. In a similar way, although the members of different youth groups are relatively powerless individuals, with the use of social media they bring together people with politicized identities to become a powerful entity with collective influence that can challenge those in power. Their social identities became politicized when they had shared grievances — inability to participate in jallikattu and threat to their identity; identified the opposition — government and the ban established by them; and understanding the system at large. When they had enough people who shared similar sentiments and passion for the cause, they communicated their anger and readiness to protest against the government.
Facebook, in particular, has been an important tool for them to make their politicized identity gain traction. They used hashtags like #WedoJallikattu, #ISupportJallikattu, #AmendPCA, #JusticeforJalikattu to bring together people with a shared goal to create an collective impact and influence others who have been following the movement. Every development from the heart of the movement was widely shared on all social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. They were able to sensationalize the protest through the use of images. Images are a powerful tool in a political movement, as they are photographic evidences that can capture raw emotions and action on the ground. One such iconic image was that of the youngsters flashing their mobile phone flashlights at night, that was broadcasted by most major news outlets. Live updates of the protest were not only shared domestically, but also by the expat community in other parts of Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East.
More important, people considered this ban a threat to their culture and identity, and shared this concern. Soon enough, hashtag ‘saving our jallikattu culture’ began trending all over Facebook. The members of this pro-jallikattu movement strategically identified their audience and acted collectively to achieve a certain social change. During the protests, protesters were heard saying “I am proud of being a Tamilzhan. I am proud of being an Indian, but not at the cost of my Tamil identity” (Quartz 2017). This narrative ties into the preservation of their social identity that goes back to 1960s and 70s when the central government declared Hindi language as the language, resulting in a major backlash from Tamil people. Tamil people considered it to be Hindu propaganda and a threat to their strong sense of identification as Tamilians. It is interesting to observe how people came together onto the streets to fight for their social identity.
Furthermore, social media posts further sensationalized jallikattu ban as a threat to their culture and heritage urging in more people to join their protests. After viewing the content on social media, more people joined the protests, including people who are not from Tamil Nadu, but share the Tamilian identity. This reflects with Zomeren and Spears’ statement that “identification with a social movement organization is more important to collective action than identification with the disadvantaged group, because the former is politicized form of identity”. Furthermore, people part of the pro-jallikattu movement, just like intuitive politicians, were also aware that in order to receive support from other people, they will have to take the fight to the public sphere in order to make it a visible process, which is reiterated by Zomeren and Spears when they elaborate that “people with politicized identity are more self-conscious about the societal power struggle that is fought in the public arena, and hence their identity has collective action as its raison d’etre”.
Interestingly, the telecommunications services in Tamil Nadu are ranked very highly; it is considered to be well ahead of most other parts of the country as reported by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Tamil Nadu is ranked second in the country in the number of people with access to internet, with over 27 million internet subscriptions. In addition, it also has the second best wireless telecom service in the country. Hashtags like #JusticeForJallikattu have been tweeted over a million times during the duration of these protests. While the pro-jallikattu movement is one of its kind social media movements in India, a part of the credit for the success of this movement also goes to the excellent public telecom infrastructure established by the government that facilitated in organization of a massive movement.
To make the situation more intense, the government started arresting protesters in different cities of Tamil Nadu. The first reported incident of arrest was on 16 January 2017 when the villagers of Alanganallur protesting in a place where jallikattu sport was held practiced jallikattu in defiance of the ban. Around 200 people were arrested in Madurai that day. In support of the people arrested, the students started gathering in centrally located Marina beach, and soon huge crowds of people started gathering in many other cities in Tamil Nadu to protest against the ban and in support the ones that were arrested. By 20 January 2017, these intuitive politicians gathered enough momentum to successfully pressure the government into drafting an ordinance that would lift the jallikattu ban. Marina Beach, the center stage of jallikattu movement was peacefully occupied by around 20 lakh peaceful protestors. Local services shut down their business in support of the movement as more and more people all around India joined the protest in lifting the ban.
On 23 January 2017, the government of Tamil Nadu faced conservative’s dilemma of whether or not to arrest the protestors at Marina beach who refused to leave the beach. Early morning, the police started forceful evictions, manhandling people and using batons on them. Several video clips of this incident were shared on social media that infuriated people, leading to further protests taking over major streets and burning police stations. In another incident, video of policemen setting vehicles on fire went viral on social media adding to the anger of the people. By the end of the day, protests were either forcefully shut down by the police or protesters voluntarily evacuated. After a discussion with the state authorities where the students were assured an ordinance to lift the jallikattu ban would be lifted, they called off the protests until February 1. A few days later, the state legislature passed an ordinance lifting the ban allowing jallikattu. However, since the legalisation is passed by the state government, jallikattu could still be banned if the case is taken to the Supreme Court.
The pro-jallikattu movement in Tamil Nadu was undoubtedly one of its kind social media movements that took place in India. It is fascinating to observe how a few unsynchronized youth groups used social media to facilitate coordination, spread real time information via platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, to challenge a powerful political entity to lift the ban on jallikattu. Social media was also used as an important tool to bring together people who are not necessarily Tamilians, but share a social (Tamilian) identity. This essay analyzed pro-jallikattu movement through the lens provided of Zomeren and Spears’ work Metaphors of Protest: A Classification of Motivations for Collective Action, that identified the participants of the movement as intuitive politicians to understand collective action. We concluded by elaborating on different incidents that took place during the protests to have a better understanding of jallikattu movement, and the appropriate use of social media in this protest further proves the success of the movement.
Zomeren, Martijn Van, and Russell Spears. “Metaphors of Protest: A Classification of Motivations for Collective Action.” Journal of Social Issues 65.4 (2009): 661–79. Web.