How ultimate frisbee is blurring ethnic divides in India’s Assam

More than 4,000 players pursue the sport in 100 villages of Chirang district, which has a long history of armed rebellion and instability.

Players enjoy a game of ultimate frisbee in Rowmari, Chirang district, Assam [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

Chirang, Assam, India – Swmkwr Brahma doesn’t talk much, but when someone says “frisbee”, his eyes light up and he breaks into an animated conversation about the non-contact sport that has taken Assam’s Chirang district by storm.

The 23-year-old started playing “ultimate” (ultimate frisbee) when the sport – with its spinning flying discs and fast-paced team play – was first introduced in Chirang in 2015.

Six years on, Brahma now coaches children and there are more than 4,000 ultimate players in and around the 100 villages of Chirang, including Brahma’s village, Aiechara.

Chirang holds a record of sorts, he claims. “So many players from just one place.”

Players of Chirang pose with their frisbees after a game of ultimate [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

Even the Ultimate Players Association of India (UPAI) was surprised at the sheer magnitude of the players from Chirang.

Former UPAI president Manickam  Narayanan says he never expected to see so many children coming to learn a sport originating in the US and considered “obscure” in India.

“It was my first tryst with players from villages. While I trained the youngsters, I too learned a lot from them,” Narayanan told Al Jazeera.

Before Chirang, he had worked in 20 cities both as a player and a mentor. But the enthusiasm in Chirang, he says, was infectious.

Rwmwi Basumatary, left, with Manickam Narayanan during the latter’s visit to Chirang in 2017 [Handout via Al Jazeera]

So, what is so special about ultimate frisbee?

“The sport has given us a sense of comfort and peace. Not too many people in India know about frisbee, just like they don’t care about us,” Brahma told Al Jazeera.

Yearning for peace

The Bodoland Territorial Region of Assam, of which Chirang is a part, has a long history of armed rebellion and instability. The region – with a mixed population of the Indigenous Bodos, Assamese, Gorkhas, Bengali-speaking Muslims and tea tribes – has witnessed ethnic unrest in 1996, 1998 and 2014, as well as religious violence in 2012.

When ultimate frisbee entered the scene, children and youths from all the groups lapped it up. But can a sport bind everyone together?

“It is difficult to say that but ultimate has given us a platform to play, communicate and resolve our differences better,” says Brahma.

Like many others of his generation, Brahma has grown up surrounded by violence. He still shudders to talk about what happened to his father, Angkw Brahma, 17 years ago when was brutally beaten by security forces while he was out in the forest with his cattle.

“The army men suspected him to be a militant. As he couldn’t speak Hindi and they didn’t understand Bodo, he was physically tortured for hours in the woods. The incident left him bedridden for several months,” says Swmkwr, who was just six then.

Swmkwr Brahma, right, stands next to his father Angkw Brahma, on the red chair, in front of their house in Aiechara [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

“I still remember when my father came home limping, barely able to stand or speak.”

Now 60, Angkw Brahma no longer goes to the forests alone and works mostly in his small backyard.

What happened to him is not unique, for decades, villagers have paid a heavy price for the armed confrontations between local rebels and India’s security forces.

That is why Swmkwr and others believe frisbee is the perfect sport for the region.

Flying discs and dreams

Most of Chirang’s villages, like Sumblibari, are deep inside thick forests and lack infrastructure connectivity. Yet Sumblibari has regularly hosted ultimate games since it was introduced by an NGO, The Ant (Action Northeast Trust).

Travel to Sumblibari is over a maze of potholes that stretch for about 15km (9 miles) of road from the district headquarters Kajalgaon. Then, one has to cross the Nangalbhanga River by boat to Joypur.

Passengers have to wait about 20-30 minutes to board the one country-made boat – crewed by two boatmen and a ticket collector – to cross the river.

The country-made boat over the Nangalbhanga is a lifeline for villagers in Sumblibari and adjoining areas [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

From Joypur to Sumblibari, a distance of 10km (6 miles), one has to either walk or bank on the kindness of some stranger with a two-wheeler for a lift down the narrow road.

Once in Sumblibari, the laughter and banter of youngsters enjoying their game of ultimate make the whole journey worthwhile. This scene is played out in different villages of Chirang almost every afternoon.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, players from various villages, some of which can only be reached by crossing rivers like the Aie, Nangalbhanga and Lankar on boats, are making sure their game does not suffer.

It is this dedication that helped two teams from here play at the 2018 regional competition in the western state of Gujarat, and the 2020 nationals in Karnataka.

The frisbee revolution in Chirang has already received international attention.

During his 2018 visit to Chirang, Daniel Rule, coach and sports administrator from Australia, said he was “immediately impressed by the skill developed by the local players”.

Rule, who has participated in 14 ultimate frisbee world championships, spent several days in Chirang to train the rural youths after he was invited by the NGO, The Ant.

Children of Thuribari village learning to play ultimate frisbee [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

Fresh from Olympic glory – thanks to Lovlina Borgohain’s boxing bronze – Assam is hoping to script a new history with frisbee, which may possibly make it to the 2028 Olympic Games.

“Ultimate frisbee has brought out the talent and inherent goodness in our youths,” says Japet Nazary, a community leader from Sumblibari.

In neighbouring Thuribari village, Pungbili Basumatary, a 19-year-old college student, devotes most of her mornings to training children in frisbee.

Pungbili and Sonali Ray, 17, became Chirang’s “star players” after they made it to the national team, which was to take part in the junior world championships in Sweden in July 2020.

However, the coronavirus outbreak stopped the girls from going.

“Yes, everybody calls us stars now,” she laughs.

Pungbili Basumatary, right, with her parents in their Thuribari house [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

Pungbili says she and others worry about their futures in the impoverished region. “We don’t have anything here. No hospital, no college,” she says.

It is 30km (18 miles) from Thuribari to reach a hospital and the number of school and college dropouts from the area is very high as parents cannot afford to send their wards to towns and cities.

Pungbili herself covers a distance of 25km (15 miles) daily to attend college in Bengtol village.

Under such tough conditions, she says it is the game of frisbee that has given a sense of purpose to the youngsters. Some 160 youths from the Thuribari area play ultimate frisbee.

Why ultimate, not any other game?

According to Pungbili, children here love sports, especially football, but the “spirit score” in frisbee has proved to be a game-changer for the players.

Chirang players taking a few moments to discuss their game [Maitreyee Boruah/Al Jazeera]

Ultimate relies upon a “spirit score” or “spirit of the game” that puts the onus for fair play on every player. It is calculated on five parameters – knowledge of the rules and use, fouls and body contact (not allowed), fair-mindedness, positive attitude and self-control (both emotional and physical), and communication.

“This score has inculcated healthy competition and respect among the players both on and off the field,” says Rwmwi Basumatary of The Ant.

Ultimate frisbee has no referees and the spirit score (on a scale of one to four) is given by the opponents. It is a mixed-gender sport with equal numbers of male and female players in each team.

“Following the same spirit, teams (20 members each) in Chirang have two genders, three religions, three villages, three castes and four languages,” says Kwmdwh Basumatary from Sumblibari village. Kwmdwh has earlier played at the nationals.

According to him, the rules and components of ultimate have helped blur the divide between warring groups. “There was a lot of hatred and suspicion among different communities. Frisbee is breaking those walls, one game at a time,” says Kwmdwh.

Source: Al Jazeera