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.