Editor's note: This is a two-part series on Kambala, the controversial buffalo slush track race in Karnataka that has witnessed court battles, resistance from villagers, protest from animal rights activists, much on the lines of Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court is likely to decide on its fate on Friday (17 November).
Mangaluru: While the buffalo-racing sport popular in coastal Karnataka is mired in controversy, owing to allegations of cruelty against animals, it has had an unexpected positive outcome in a village bereft of development. Kambala, as the sport is called, has helped Eedu village in Udupi district crawl out of the Naxals' grip.
Eedu, a village with a population of about 7,500 in Udupi's Karkala town, was witness to the encounter of two Naxalites – Parvati and Halima – in 2003. In the next decade, until the state's Anti-Naxal Force formed headquarters at Karkala in 2012, Eedu saw much interference by Naxalites. In 2005, Saketh Rajan and his associate Shivalingu were killed by the police in Menasinahadya, just a few kilometres from Eedu. The Naxalite group led by Vikram Gowda too kept visiting the village till 2009.
The residents of this village have seen gun-toting men wander, ask for food and money, and lure youngsters into their militia group during this time. Praveen, a resident of Eedu, claims Naxalites had camped next to his house on many occasions. "We had to supply them grains, water, spices and even our poultry. In turn, the Naxalites used to give our children free career advice and lectures on Maoism," he remarked.
Hence, Eedu, which had been celebrating Kambala for the last three decades in a subdued manner, found itself losing interest in it. "Kambala took a backseat due to the Naxal fear," said Vijaykumar, general secretary of the district Kambala committee.
In 2009, the people of Nuralbettu and Eedu undertook an organised effort to diminish the influence of Naxals on the youngsters. Night-patrolling was done by young men to give a sense of security to the area. Various indoor games and sports tournaments were held. The village even tried to entice young people towards Yakshagana (a traditional theatre form) and Taala Maddale (an ancient form of performance dialogue or debate). It is here that they saw the potential that the "culturally important event" Kambala had in solving their problem.
"To prevent youth from falling for Naxal theories, the district Kambala committee, including representatives from Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Kasargod districts, empowered me to hold the event with a renewed vigour," said Vijaykumar.
The event saw an influx of Kambala enthusiasts into Eedu from Mangaluru, Udupi, Uppinangady, Puttur, Moodbidri, Kundapura, Kasargod and Uttara Kannada. He said the exposure the youth in the village received in the process boosted their confidence and some even developed their businesses using these new contacts. "They do not trust any other ideology, but focus on the development of their families, village and themselves," he said.
After Eedu became a major Kambala site in the state, the path to development opened up, said K Puroshottam, president of the Eedu grama panchayat. The gram panchayat is much more active now and has taken up several village development work, including providing piped water and street-lighting. "Various government facilities are now reaching the village. Now and then, politicians also visit along with the district officials," he said.
The betting angle
Though Kambala has served the village well, the escalation of cost in organising the event and maintaining and transporting animals added a new dimension to the events in Eedu – betting, among both the young and the old.
Money started playing a dominant role pretty soon. Sheena Shetty, a local Kambala organiser in Karkala, said it is difficult to believe there was no betting involved in these races. But he justified the social evil by saying the youth are economically empowering themselves with betting by taking up self-employment projects. "They became more confident of themselves. Betting helped them reject the Naxal ideology."
Though some residents revealed that betting did take place, a senior police officer said they never received or filed any complaints in this regard. Elders in the village, too, deny there has been any money-spinning using Kambala in Eedu, but they vouch for the impetus that the event has given them to come out of the dark shadows of Naxalism.
"Our people are now free from intimidation from external forces. I am sure there are few guns in the village, apart from those with the police. We can now counter any threat from Naxals," a village elder said.
The Kambala committee has been cautious since the Supreme Court declared a ban on the event in 2014. It has not hosted Kambala in Eedu for the last three years.
But former gram panchayat member Ashok Shetty acknowledges the reforms that it brought to the village. "I am sure Eedu and Nuralbettu will not hit the headlines for the wrong reasons anymore," he said.
If the folk sport escapes the legal tangle it is currently mired in, the proponents of Kambala intend to introduce welfare measures such as insurance for the jockeys and animals and develop a funding mechanism for the event.
"Kambala is a high-speed event where the man and the animal synergise their energy to sprint through the 100-metre slush track. Athletic jockeys command the buffalo bulls to cross the finish line while competing on a double track, much like a drag race, recording times as quick as 14 seconds. While it seems that the race is all about the animal, men who command them run barefoot on a track filled with mud and water, risking their lives and limbs," said the owner of a Kambala training academy in Dakshina Kannada district, Gunapal Kadamba.
His academy has proposed to provide insurance cover to jockeys to secure them against the risks of the sport. While the academy is working as a catalyst in the process, a decision in this regard has to be taken by the district Kambala committee.
The author is a Mangaluru based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. He tweets @mraghuram12
Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 11:36 AM