Haryana‘s Olympics

Siddharth Saxena and Ajay Sura | August 4, 2012

Gagan Narang‘s bronze medal – India‘s only London Olympic podium finish at the time of writing – has sent everyone back home into a tizzy. As congratulatory messages poured in, Ajay Maken, India’s proactive Sports Minister offered Narang a post in the Sports Authority of India, equivalent to an IAS-rank. The Hyderabad-based Narang also got a bonanza from an unlikely source. Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda promptly dished out Rs 1 crore from his state kitty to the shooter. The CM lost no time in staking claim on the portly Narang and his achievement once it was pointed out that Narang’s grandparents belong to a village called Shimla, Gulshan in Haryana’s Panipat district. Narang was even born there. The block – Baboli – was promptly identified. Reason enough. On that train of thought, the Hooda administration may well be focusing on the other Hyderabadi with a medal hope this Olympics.

Shuttler Saina Nehwal bowed out to world No 1 Yihan Wang of China in the fight for a place in the women’s singles final. The no-nonsense 22-year-old has always claimed she belongs to the Deccan city having grown up and learnt her craft there. But Hooda will be more interested in the fact that she was born into a Jat family to the most mild-mannered of parents in Dhindar in Haryana’s Hisar district.

Narang and Nehwal aside, our current Olympic contingent’s Haryana connection is a strong one. Nearly 20 of the 81 Indian athletes in London are from Haryana or have roots in Haryana. The tiny state has the largest representation of all Indian states at the Olympics. Nearly 60 per cent of India’s medals at the Commonwealth Games in the Capital two years ago came from Haryana’s sportsmen – or players as they are called in their local lingo. Haryana, alongside its dark and forbidding avatar as perceived by the country, is actually proving to be a wonderful nursery for Indian sports. The landlocked, primarily agricultural – and vegetarian – state is throwing up winners by the dozen.

Narang and Nehwal’s may not be obvious but there’s no ambiguity on the Haryana identity of the others. Bhiwani boy Vijender Singh squeezed out a single-point win over US boxer Terrel Gausha to be one win away from a certain medal, and more largesse from the Hooda kitty.

The handsome son of a Haryana Roadways driver, Vijender is Haryana’s poster-boy, unapologetic about his strong local twang and proud to sport it whenever he gets a public forum. Vijender effortlessly plugs Haryana in the national eye, not just in his boxing, but also by his confident and easy-going posturing.

Many accuse Hooda of trying to gain political mileage, piggybacking on Haryana sportsmen in an election year. Others, however, claim there is a genuine sports lover behind the politician and understanding the nation-building attributes of sport, he has drawn up ambitious long-reaching state-run programmes (See The State of Sports).

Haryana is an intriguing paradox. The story of the Bhiwani Boxing Club has been well-documented over the past four years. But it is the rise of strong-willed women athletes that may have the potential to create an impact in a society where the khap panchayat writ seems to hold greater sway than the law of the land. In a state with horrific female foeticide levels, successful women athletes possibly can swing perceptions where no amount of awareness, counselling or ‘development’ can.

Of course, there still are groups of elders who continue to frown upon women taking up sport (see box). But the emergence of towering personalities like Krishna Poonia, a discus thrower with a mean arm, a judoka-first in Garima Chaudhary, Geeta Phogat, the first Indian woman wrestler at the Olympics, is pushing limits: there’s hope that things could be looking up for Haryana’s women.

It’s not been easy for the fathers of these girls who fought against the odds to train their daughters. Maha Singh, Krishna’s father, recounts how he faced the wrath of his family as well as his village’s chiefs when his daughter practised on the village road in tight sports slacks. In Agroha, a nondescript village in Hisar district, Maha Singh lost his wife when Krishna was just nine, but he raised her without bothering about what people said. “Today I am being called by these khaps along with my daughter to honour us. Certainly the glory and glamour attached to sports has changed the entire perception, ” he says.
Says local woman activist Ritu Jaglan: “Earlier, a girl was thought just a matter of honour. The outside world was not for them as parents had a lot of apprehensions about their security. Now, all that is changing. ”

Ritu, a pioneering 26-year-old English graduate from Kurukshetra University, who took on the task of training women to speak up at khap panchayats, feels sport can help change the mindset towards women. “Most importantly, girls are increasingly realising their own importance in society. That is the most crucial transformation. People too are realising that women can do well, ” she says.

Take the case of Gyanna Devi. The sprightly 82-year-old – Geeta Phoghat’s grandmother – today is chuffed that her granddaughter is in a foreign country competing against the best in the world. In a lighter vein, she also claims to have imparted wrestling tips to Geeta before she left for London, but it was an entirely different story a decade ago. “When Babita was born, she slapped her forehead and exclaimed, ‘Lo, ek aur aa gayee’, ” says a Phogat family insider. That Babita, like Geeta, went on to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal in Delhi two years ago scarcely hides the fact that their father, Mahaveer, first fought battles of equality with his own mother before he could muster the courage to take on the villagers.

In those two years, since the CWG medals, there has been a rise in khap-related crimes. These may be unrelated, but you cannot ignore the ironic coincidence.

“These khaps exist, these social decision-making groups have been in our society for generations now. Even I follow them. If, among a group of five men, one commits a mistake, we sit him down and explain that what he’s doing is wrong. Hum aisa koi kaam na karen ki mere khap ki badnaami ho, ya mere kaam ki badnaami ho, ” says Mahaveer.

Then he adds: “I have arranged a match for Geeta, but if our plans are to participate in the next Olympics too (Rio 2016), marriage can wait. ”

There is another simpler reason for the greater acceptance of sports: It helps you get a job. Take the case of talented teenaged boxer Sumit Sangwan, unlucky to bow out in the first round in London, due to some dodgy refereeing. The idea to take up boxing came when the family in Sekhpura Sohna realised that they could not afford to raise two sons on the produce of their land alone. An enterprising uncle recognised a latent spark in Sumit and took him to a boxing academy in Delhi. Older brother Amit had to forgo his nascent boxing dreams. There was room and money for only one. While they still till the land, parents Surender and Anita realise there’s a better opportunity in the making.
But let’s hear it from the spunkiest daughter of Haryana. “Bhai, main poori tarah se Haryana ki hoon, ” announces Karnam Malleswari. Originally from a coastal village near Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, Malleswari married into a Jat family in 1999. In Sydney 2000, the lifter won bronze, to date India’s only woman Olympic medallist.

“The promise of jobs for sportsmen by the Haryana government is a great incentive, ” says Malleswari. “They must be lauded for inculcating a sporting culture in the state. You can see small stadiums sprouting all across the state. Coaches are being employed either in short-term capacities or a permanent basis, ” she points out.

“The idea that sports can be a source of livelihood is a great motivator. And that is also helping change mindsets towards sports in Haryana too. Parents are beginning to understand this, ” she says.
But Malleswari didn’t have to face any opposition from her parents in Andhra when she began. “We never had such a culture where our parents thought of our interest in a sport as awkward or as something which brought dishonour. ”

Malleswari’s Olympic bronze medal at the turn of the century, in fact, went a long way in changing the mindset towards women in sports. “There has been a sea-change in the sports culture in the country on the whole, ” she says.

Whether the rise of sportswomen in Haryana is helping change the attitude of the state’s men towards them is still a matter of debate. “I am in no position to explain what really happens in the rural interiors of Haryana, but I feel kaafi awareness aa gayi hai, ” Malleswari says, adding “Itna bhed-bhav nahi hai. ”

Earlier the main worry of parents was who would marry their daughters who wrestled or lifted barbells. Today, like Geeta Phogat’s mother proudly says, ‘ab toh ladkon ki line lag jayegi’.

(With inputs from Sukhbir Siwach)