What Killed Punjab's Rural Olympics?

The Kila Raipur games, which were originally conceptualised to showcase the glory of Punjab, now serve as a reminder of the current reality of the state. Photo by Rajnish Katyal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
12 February, 2016

On the morning of 4 February 2016, I headed south from Ludhiana city, Punjab, towards the Grewal Stadium, the venue for the annual Kila Raipur games. The games, popularly known as the “rural Olympics,” are an annual three-day sports festival held in Punjab. They include sports such as racing and hockey and have produced some of the best known hockey players of the nation. The festival also includes events such as sword-fighting, bullock-cart races, and acrobatics, and a cultural program. The first Kila Raipur games were held in 1933. Since then, they have survived a world war and an era of militancy in the state.

Over the past couple of years, however, their sheen has diminished. During my journey to the festival, I found no signboards leading to the stadium. Upon reaching the venue, I noticed that many residents of Kila Raipur seemed unenthusiastic about the event. A group of villagers played cards at the village sathh—a platform under the peepul tree—as an announcement glorifying MRF, the tyre company sponsoring the event, played in the background. The attendance at the games peaked on the penultimate day, when the singer and actor Gurdas Mann came to promote his new film. The ground saw about two and a half thousand people, a far cry from the tens of thousands visitors who usually attended every year from across the country, and beyond. The games that were originally conceptualised to showcase the glory of Punjab now serve as a reminder of the current reality of the state. They have been reduced to a ground that is host to cow-centric national politics aided by a seemingly unjust court order, opportunistic political parties, and a tussle over land between the organisers and the village.

The most likely cause for the decreased popularity of the games is a 2014 Supreme Court ban on bullock-cart races, which enjoyed the highest attendance at the event. The 103-page judgement clubbed a number of pending high court cases and passed a nationwide ban on any events that include exhibition of or performances by bulls, in compliance with the sections 3 and 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The judgment discussed the anatomy of the bull, and stated that it found the animal unfit for racing. It does not specifically mention Punjab even once, nor does it contain any references to the bull races in Kila Raipur. It explicitly cites the Jallikattu event in Tamil Nadu and the bullock cart races in Maharashtra. Nevertheless, the Grewal Sports Association, the organising committee for the games, complied with the orders and dropped the races (the Jallikattu events were momentarily allowed by the central government earlier this year, following which the Supreme Court issued a stay on the government’s order, and upheld the ban). Since last year, the games have featured a horse race as a substitute. A week before the games were due to begin, for a day or so, the bull owners in Punjab protested the Supreme Court ban, but their voices fell on deaf ears.

“The court tied us down with Jallikattu. It is unfair,” said Jagjit Singh Jaggi, a bull owner. For seven years before the races were banned in 2014, Jaggi’s bull won a spot in the top three five times. “Just like among dogs we have strays, those with smelling prowess, and hunting packs, among bulls we have those which carry loads and those which run,” he explained. “Our bulls are Nagori, they are known for their agility.” The National Dairy Development Board seems to affirm Jaggi’s contention. On the Dairy Knowledge Portal, an informational initiative by the board, Nagori bulls are identified as a “famous trotting draught breed of India” generally appreciated for “fast draught activity.” The post notes that Nagori bulls are famous as trotters and are used in Rajasthan “in light iron-wheeled carts for quick transportation.” The famous bull races at Kila Raipur fit the description given: they are a race among bulls, with a light cart upon which the bull owner stands.

I brought this up with Manilal Valliyate, who works as the chief veterinarian with PETA, but he did not agree. “How can a bull be induced to run without fear or provocation?” he asked. “If the owners are doing that, they are being cruel to the animal. Can they get the bulls to run without sticks or whips, by just a tug at the noose or harness?”

“Yes, we can,” Jaggi countered, when I told him about Valliyate’s concern. He added that he would welcome any animal rights activists or journalists who wished to ascertain his claim, to his farm. “If you line up a few Nagoris, ready them in position to run, upon release of the harness, they compete with each other.” After speaking to Jaggi, I contacted various animal rights organisations in an attempt to find evidence of cruelty against bulls in the Kila Raipur games. My efforts did not yield any results.

Dr Kirti Dua, a senior veterinarian who works at the Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Ludhiana, averred that he had seen many bull owners spend more than Rs 500 per day in caring for their bulls. “Many of them may or may not remember their children and families, but they remain updated on how the bull is doing every half an hour,” he told me. Dua added that he had yet to come across an instance of owners sending their bulls for slaughter even in old age. In the event of a bull’s death, he had seen owners perform last rites, or host a langar for the village, a practice commonly followed in Punjab following the death of a family member. He conceded, however, that incidences of cruelty, such as steroid injections or using spiked clubs, were known to have occurred in the past. “But that was more from ignorance than from greed,” Dua said, before adding, “What the courts need to do is frame criteria to test the bulls. The whole reason for demonstrating the best bull is social recognition. Tell me which owner would risk his reputation?” “A blanket ban does not help at all,” he concluded, “In fact, it risks the pedigree of bulls, and breaks a tradition.”

While it is difficult to establish beyond doubt whether the animals are treated with kindness or cruelty, the politics of the ban on the bull race involves more than just animal rights. In 2012, a Gau Raksha Dal—an organisation that works for the protection of cows—registered a petition against the use of bulls in these games. The Punjab and Haryana high court combined the petition with two others, one by the Malwa Doaba Bulls Welfare Association and another by the Rural Hult Race and Welfare Association, both of which claimed that the Kila Raipur races did not constitute a violation of Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty act, as the races did not qualify as performance or exhibition. The court ruled in favour of the these two petitions and allowed the races. The presiding judge observed, “At the cost of repetition, it is observed that the Bulls, which are being used for the sports, are well looked after, well nourished and are not treated with any cruelty.” This order constituted a defeat of the right-wing voices, until the 2014 Supreme Court order.

When I asked Nikku Grewal—the spokesperson of the Grewal Sports Association— about why the association didn’t challenge the ban, he was candid. “Laziness. Just laziness,” he told me. “We thought the Malwa Doaba Bull Welfare Association will pursue the case, they thought we will do it. None of us did. Now, seeing the crowds dwindle we have learnt our lesson.”

Since the games used to pull in a lot of people and the state elections are due, political parties appeared to be interested in leveraging the games to their advantage. In the absence of bulls, Amarinder Singh of the Congress was slated to be a big draw, but he failed to show up. Posters of Adesh Pratap Singh Kairon of the ruling party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, adorned the front of the stadium. “It was a chance to involve the Aam Aadmi Party,” Grewal said. “After all, HS Phoolka”—a senior advocate and AAP member—“contested from Ludhiana and is a big gun. We could have used him to plead our case. But we didn’t. We are ourselves disappointed.”

The fraught politics over the use of bulls is not the only problem the GSA is facing. It is also locked in a battle for the land on which the games are held. In 1997, Surinder Singh Grewal, a retired senior army officer, filed a case in the local court. According to him, the GSA had wrongfully appropriated Kila Raipur village’s comman land in 1985 through the then District Development and Panchayat Officer. The land, he argued, had originally been given to them for the three days of the games, but they controlled it through the year. In a recent judgement, the local court upheld Surinder Singh’s petition. The hearing also revealed that the GSA had never been audited. The court ordered the association to give the land back to the village by 15 February 2016.

On the Kila Raipur grounds, the hockey matches dragged on interminably. Bullet, Ford, Lucy, Bravo and Computer—dogs participating in an event—chased the skin of a fake rabbit . The Nihangs showcased their skills with horses and sticks and in sword fights; young boys and girls raced the 100 and 400 meters; kabaddi players grappled with each other in front of a disinterested and interfering crowd. I looked for the bazigars—the iconic community known for their acrobatic skills. They were absent. Taekwondo had replaced them.

Outside the grounds, I spoke to Brij Lal, a stall owner who has been selling sugarcane juice at the games for over four decades. “A glass of juice used to be Rs 1, now it is Rs 20. Yet, I made more money then,” he told me. “It is all over here now.”

The games that usually began with a shout, bringing a whole clan of Grewals together and becoming a source of their common pride, might end with a whimper. The demise of this festival has been hastened by the politics of religion combined with the greed of, and infighting among the organisers. The disappointment resulting from this end, is shared by all of Punjab.