Sports As A Great Unifying Force In India
A deeply-fragmented Indian society owes a lot to sports and cinema for giving it a sense of unity. The actors and sportspersons, belonging to different castes, religions, speaking different languages are the best example of country’s famed slogan of unity in diversity.
Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, world chess champion Viswanathan Anand, country’s only individual Olympic Gold medalist Abhinav Bindra, world number five shuttler Saina Nehwal, Olympic bronze medalist boxer Vijinder Singh, flying queen PT Usha, and former world champion wrestler Sushil Kumar have done the country of over hundred billion people proud and brought closer many of its political leaders and parties. It is interesting to note that sports in India have been a middle and lower middle-class phenomenon. Before and immediately after Independence, some former maharajas or royal families used to show some interest in sports but that patronage vanished with passage of time.
Very few industrialists or politicians (with some exceptions) showed any involvement or interest in sports in the formative years of independent India and in a long list of illustrious sportspersons, who have done country proud since 1947, about 70 per cent belong to lower or middle strata of the society. But these very people united the country. They gave their best in tiring conditions without much economic support. They cut across all barriers and when they won anything in the international arena every Indian felt proud. In these circumstances sports have achieved, what no other sector of the society has achieved, without quota system. Sportspersons from humble background rose to become national icon overcoming all hurdles.
Sports in the process have been a biggest leveler. In our caste-ridden and class-conscious society these athletes proved several leading theoreticians wrong who opined that rigid caste and class would never allow bright people from these strata to compete with upper caste and rich people.
Kasabha Jadhav, a lowly-ranked army man, won India’s first individual medal, a bronze, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Milkha Singh, a havaldar in army, became legendary “flying Sikh”. PT Usha coming from a humble background became a much loved household name. Archer Limba Ram, a stone-cutter from a village in Rajasthan, represented the country in the Olympics (1988) and Asian Games. Manipur Girl Mary Kom hogged the limelight when she won the world title for unprecedented five times (including a hat trick).
Players from the north-east and tribal areas have done country proud without quota system. Midfielder Talimeran Aao from Nagaland was the vice captain of 1948 Olympic Indian football team. Gorkha boxer Padam Bahadur Mal won the gold in the lightweight in 1962 Asiad. Dinko Singh won Gold in 1998 Bangkok Asiad. Defender Dilip Tirkey and midfielder, Prabodh Tirkey have led Indian hockey team with distinction.
Manipur weightlifter Kunjarani Devi, Sanamacha Chanu and Sydney Olympic bronze medalist Karnam Malleswari have led the unheralded women brigade into this sport, which provided them with job, money and recognition in society.
Caddie-turned-professional Shiv Shankar Prasad Chowrasia earned the distinction of winning the biggest-ever pay cheque on Indian soil (Rs 1.5 crore) when he claimed the Indian Master Golf in Delhi in 2008. Most of the caddies coming from poor background have struck it very rich in the domestic circuit.
MS Dhoni coming from a lower middle class family in Jamshedpur is now toast of the nation and most-expensive cricket player in the country. Irfan and Yusuf Pathan, sons of a maulvi (religious preacher), are now amongst the richest cricketers of the country and same is the case with several other players coming from backward areas who have struck gold.
A remarkable feature of the Indian sports is that it is secular to the core. There may have been instances of regionalism but seldom communalism. Few months after Independence, Indian football team for 1948 London Olympics included four Muslim players—Taj Mohammed, SM Kaiser, SA Basheer and M Ahmed Khan—a remarkable feat in itself. In early sixties after Nari Contracter (a Parsi) got injured in West Indies, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi became the youngest captain of the Indian cricket team, and at present Indian, hockey, cricket, football teams have more than half of the players who carry minority tag but are there on their own performance. Indian performance on world arena in the early years after Independence have to be seen the context of its social, political, cultural and religious milieu.
It was unsung lowly ranked army man Kasabha Jadhav who earned India its first Individual medal in 1952 Olympics. Tenzing Norgay put the country on world’s (adventure) sporting map six years after Independence, as he along with Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand climbed the 8,848-metre tall Mount Everest on May 29, 1953.
Besides being an undisputed hockey champion, India was a power to reckon with in football. It won gold at the 1951 and ‘62 Asiads, and made it to the Olympic football semifinals in Melbourne 1956. In 1957 India emerged World Polo Champion as they won the title in Deauville, France. The country produced an Individual World Champion soon after with Wilson Lionel Garton Jones becoming the first Indian to win the World Amateur Billiards Championship in 1958 in Calcutta (he regained the title again in 1964 in New Zealand).
In 1960 Rome Olympics, runner Milkha Singh broke the world record, with a timing of 45.6 seconds in 400 metres, but missed the medal by a whisker. Two other Indian athletes—hurdler Gurbachan Singh Randhawa and middle-distance runner Sriram Singh—performed creditably in 1964 and 1976 Olympics respectively. Randhawa finished fifth in 110m hurdles in 14 sec while Sriram took seventh place in 800m with a time of 1:45.77 seconds. It remained the Asian record for 17 years and is still a national record. Shooter Karni Singh strode like Colossus on the range winning four Gold medals at the Oslo World Shooting Championship in 1961. Tennis star Ramanathan Krishnan twice made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon Championship in 1960 and 1961, losing to eventual champions in Neale Fraser and Rod Laver respectively.
Krishnan’s legacy nurtured and was taken ahead by Vijay Amritraj who won the first major title for India when he claimed the Volvo Grand Prix at Bretton Woods, US, in 1973. In Davis Cup, India thrice reached the final, but lost to Australia (1966) and Sweden (1987) and in 1974 they demonstrated its deep commitment to anti-apartheid policy and refused to play South Africa.
If Tenzing Norgay touched the skies, a doctor from Bengal ruled the oceans in late fifties and sixties. Mihir Kumar Sen was the first Indian to cross the English Channel in 1958 and the first Asian to cross the difficult Straits of Gibraltar, between Spain and Tangier.
PG “Biloo” Sethi created a sort of history as he became the first Indian amateur to win the Indian Open Golf Championship in 1965 at Delhi.
Hockey team, which won Five Golds, a Silver and two Bronzes in Olympic Games, also claimed the World Cup as Ajit Pal Singh-led side piped Pakistan 2-1 in the final in Kuala Lumpur in 1975. But after that it has been a story of decline and decay of the game, with the exception of 1998 Bangkok Asiad Gold. Indian hockey team’s failure to qualify for the 2008 Olympiad came as a big shock.
Indian hockey still has a long way to going before it catches up towards the world standards. The title win in Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) was touted as a revival of the game in the country but in less than a month, the so-called champions were brought down to earth when they were thrashed by Australia in a nine-a-side tournament and later in the test series. However more shocking was India’s inability to win the Champions Challenge tournament. It has now got a lifeline as Olympic qualifying tournament is going to be held in Delhi next February and buffs are keeping their fingers crossed about the national team’s chances.
Archery is another discipline which has shattered many a class barrier. Limba Ram is a fine example. Coming from a very humble background, he represented India in Olympics and now is a national coach. Among the present lot of archers—Deepika Kumari (Jharkhand,) Laishram Bombayala Devi (Manipur), Chekrovolu Swuro (Nagaland), who have already qualified for the London Olympics, represent the economically-lowest strata of our society. But their talent has been recognised and they have moved up the ladder by determination and hard work. 2008 Beijing Olympiad turned out to be a major watershed for Indian sports. For the first time country won three medals—a Gold and two Bronzes in individual events. Shooter Abhinav Bindra became the toast of the nation for his golden performance. His achievement was considered so big that when Chinese Prime Minister met Dr Manmohan Singh at the United Nations later that year, he presented the Indian Premier with a framed photo of Bindra receiving the Gold Medal. Vijender and Sushil earned a Bronze each and both were loaded with job promotions and cash. The Indians did remarkably well in Delhi Commonwealth Games followed by Guangzhou Asiad.
I have not mentioned much about cricket, because that sports is in a different league altogether. It is a not an Olympic sport and is played between 10 and 12 countries. But in India it evokes very strong passions amongst the masses. The mass hysteria Dhoni’s team generated after it won the 2011 World Cup was unprecedented. It turned whole of India into a big party. So much has been written about cricket and the players, their achievements and failures, that any more comments on them will be a mere repetition. But here again despite the glamour and the riches, it also attracts talented youngsters from lower middle class. Cricket’s new format T20 led to Indian Premier League (IPL), which has also sprouted a new generation of nouve rich players who may never represent the country but are envy of their (lower) middle class neighbours because the money they have earned.
Most of the cricket, who play Ranji Trophy and also IPL (but have not represented the country), are multi-millionaire and this economic disparity between them and other sportspersons is quite annoying.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is the richest cricket body in the cricketing world and it virtually runs the world cricket. “We have a long way to go,” said Indian Olympic Association (IOA) acting president Vijay Kumar Malhotra. “Though our performance in the Beijing Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games has been very good. We cannot sit on these laurels but have to constantly keep improving,” says Prof Malhotra and admits that sports have been a great unifying factor. “The way youngsters from the far-flung areas and economically backwards are coming up in sports is very heartening. It also shows, if one has talent and determination, nobody can stop or deprive him or her a due place.”
Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) secretary general Randhir Singh was of the view that “Indian sports have always played an important role in unifying the nation”. “I am sure we are moving in a right direction. In a decade or so India will be a major stakeholder in the world sports,” he said and added: “The resurgence is there only it needs to be properly channelised.”
By Harpal Singh Bedi