Kambala
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition by PETA questioning the ordinance legalising kambala and asking that the ban the sport be reinstated.

Ontikere in Moodbidri may have worn a look of festive celebration on November 11 and 12, as the traditional bull racing sport kambala returned to the region after its ban in November 2016. But the issue is still hanging fire in the Supreme Court, as questions of animal cruelty remain undecided.

Thousands gathered at the slush race tracks in the Dakshina Kannada village to watch nearly 150 pairs of buffaloes brought in from various parts of Udupi, Dakshina Kannada and Kasaragod districts run in the first races since the ban was suspended.

The ban was imposed by the Karnataka High Court in November 2016, following a public interest litigation filed by the animal rights group PETA. In July this year, the ban was lifted after the President assented to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Karnataka Amendment) Ordinance of 2017, which excludes kambala from the list of activities considered as practices involving animal cruelty.

Kambala at Ontikere in Moodbidri on November 12 || Photograph Courtesy: Dayanand Kukkaje

However, just days after the Moodbidri event, the SC pulled up the Karnataka government, asking how it could pass an ordinance unbanning kambala, when the President had sent back a Bill passed by the state Legislature to the same effect. On Monday, the Karnataka government submitted an affidavit to the court stating that, "there is no legal infirmity in the promulgation of the Ordinance".

What is kambala?

Kambala is a traditional slush-track buffalo race held mainly in the Dakshina Kannada district between November and March. In these races, a pair of buffaloes tied to a plough run in parallel slush tracks, with a farmer controlling them while balancing on the plough.

A pair of buffaloes tied to a plough is followed by a farmer who runs behind them || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

The origins of kambala are disputed. One origin legend claims that the sport originated some 800 years ago in the farming community of Karnataka as part of a festival dedicated to Lord Kadri Manjunatha, an incarnation of Lord Shiva. It was celebrated as a tribute to the gods, and to obtain the blessing of a good harvest, and the winner of the buffalo race was rewarded with a coconut among other things.

Another belief traces the origin of the sport to the Hoysala kings, who wished to gauge whether buffaloes could be trained as war animals. The tradition was later carried on by the feudal lords of the region and eventually continued by ordinary people.

While it is often claimed that kambala has a universal cultural appeal in the region, critics have often pointed out that the sport carries strong caste overtones. While the Bunts and the Jains are mostly organisers of the events, Dalits and others belonging to ‘lesser’ castes are resigned to jobs like taking care of buffalos.

Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

How the animal cruelty controversy continues

For some years now, the sport has courted criticism from animal rights activists including PETA, which started a movement to ban the sport. In 2014, the sport was outlawed based on the Supreme Court judgement that made Jallikattu, a bull taming sport in neighboring Tamil Nadu, illegal.

Kambala organisers sought to keep this sport out of the ban by differentiating bull taming from buffalo racing. And kambala races continued to occur sparingly as there was no clear-cut law banning Kambala, before the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) took up the issue at the Karnataka High Court.

Kambala organisers emphasised the hoary traditions and strong love for animals behind the sport || Photograph Courtesy: Sampat Shetty

A stay order was imposed on kambala even as widespread protests erupted in January 2017 with thousands turning out with buffalos in Moodbidri demanding a repeal of the ban. Much like the jallikattu protesters in TN, the protesting buffalo owners and workers emphasised the hoary traditions and strong love for animals behind the sport.

In July, the President of India approved an ordinance passed by the state government and Kambala was legalised once again with a few changes in the rules.

In keeping with the new rules, organisers of the Moodbidri event placed restrictions on the racers controlling the animals, including allowing them to whip buffaloes only three times in self-defence. The organisers even disqualified two racers for violating this rule, later allowing them to race without a whip in hand.

Photograph Courtesy: Dayanand Kukkaje

However, these measures did not convince PETA, which has gone back to the Supreme Court claiming documented proof  of animal cruelty in Kambala. Among the violations that PETA has alleged are that animals were beaten with wooden sticks, their tails pulled, and that they were dragged by their nose ropes.

The uncertainty surrounding the sport has not stopped buffalo owners from drawing up a schedule of Kambala races all the way up until March next year.

A bill was passed in the winter session of the Karnataka Assembly in Belagavi earlier today which seeks to legalise Kambala races. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Karnataka Second Amendment) Bill 2017, seeks to replace the Ordinance that was promulgated in July with the President’s approval.

With the Supreme Court set to hear the kambala matter again on Friday, it still remains to be seen whether the sport continues further.