What it was like for me to cover Jallikattu protests at Marina Beach

Akshita Nandagopal
Akshita NandagopalJan 24, 2017 | 18:27

What it was like for me to cover Jallikattu protests at Marina Beach

I'm your run-of-the-mill, half-breed Chennaiite, who's lived in the city for 15 years. I've grown up in Chennai and habituated to the same predictable people. So when I went to Marina Beach to cover the Jallikattu protests, I was expecting a bunch of out-of-control youngsters who had found a new hobby. What I found instead were hundreds of passionate Tamizhans beginning a revolution.

For six days they sat peacefully — reiterating their demand in the most democratic way. There were no violence, no stampedes, no clashes — only a sea of youngsters who wanted their voice to be heard. Six days when they created history in our country.

On Day 1, I simply refused to believe that there was no leader — every protester I spoke to would gesture at the crowd and say we're the leaders. Even actor Aari who didn't move from the spot for a minute, told me to introduce him as a volunteer and a Tamizhan, not a celebrity.

Youngsters protest against the ban on jallikattu, at Marina Beach in Chennai on Sunday. (Credit: PTI Photo) 

And it was these volunteers who were the heroes of the movement. If you had visited the Marina, you would know exactly what I'm talking about. From water to snacks and even throat lozenges, volunteers ensured that nobody suffered in the sweltering beach heat. Hot Idiyappam or Pongal was served for breakfast, blankets were provided in the night and restrooms were set up for women nearby.

As a female journalist, I've instinctively learnt to fight my way through mobs. I was all set to shove my way past this excited crowd one night when the volunteers came to my rescue. They formed a human chain around me and escorted me out, helped me cross the road and ensured I got to my car safely. And no, they had no idea I was a journalist either.

Another day, I was stuck in traffic, struggling to get out of the Marina Beach road, lost my cool and shouted at one of the volunteers (yes, I know I'm a horrible person). The volunteer, in return, smiling and handing me some water, said: "I'm sorry Ma'am. We will clear this out soon."

I thought I was seeing history in the making — where the people showed the administration how to get things done.

Until all hell broke loose, I was in Madurai when my phone started buzzing with messages about Marina Beach being cleared and protesters evicted. I knew this would happen. My mind went back to all those times I asked the protesters how long they'd continue their protests and if it was sensible to prolong their stir when the government had promised action.

A few hours later, I landed in Chennai — traffic everywhere. My cameraperson and I took an MRTS train from the airport to Chennai Fort, after a bunch of very helpful Chennaiites counselled us on the best way to get to the Marina. We then reached our station only to find barricades all around us.

In the scorching Chennai heat, we walked for miles with every policeman shooing us away — a very different behaviour from last time I was there (when the cops were so considerate). We finally reached Royapettah and I couldn't believe my eyes.

The city that I grew up, the city that never made me feel unsafe, my home was on fire. Angry mobs and agitated cops squared off — hurling stones and bottles, lathi-charging and arsoning. All of that seemed like a nightmare.

A couple of reports later, I realised that this wasn't the city I knew. Locals were targeting us, scolding us for siding with the police — the cops looked at us with contempt claiming we were showing them in a bad light. My colleagues were facing the same backlash, journalists were stuck in the crossfire.

By evening, things only deteriorated. It was no longer a fight for Jallikattu — it was a full-blown battle between locals and cops.

I was losing hope. All around me, people were resorting to violence even as school children watched in horror from their school vans.

For the first time in my life, I realised it wasn't safe for me to go home. My office put me up in a hotel and I went to sleep praying that my city would be restored to its previous calm. I woke up on January 24 to the comforting sound of honking. Comforting because it indicated normalcy. I looked out the window and was reminded again why this city is called Singara Chennai — hate and violence are never a part of the Thamizhans' DNA.

We've witnessed Chennai burn... like never before. We've also witnessed Chennai rise... like never before. It's up to us as to what we want to remember.

Last updated: January 25, 2017 | 11:30
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