Hima Das or Dhing Express rarely succumbs to emotions, but she broke down whilst standing on the winner’s deck at Tampere, Finland, when millions of eyes were on her, and the Indian national anthem played in the background. She had earned that emotion, as a grateful India saluted her led by the Hon’ble Prime Minister tweeting, “India is delighted and proud….”
Hima’s journey from the agricultural fields to triumphing over immeasurable odds by sheer dint of her own efforts to bring glory to India is an interchangeable story if only one changes the names of places and individuals from Dhing in Assam to Balali village in Bhiwani, or Mokhra village in Rohtak. As Hima said, “Both my parents were rice farmers. I could not afford shoes, but they asked me to make the best of what I have”. And she sure did make the best of what anybody could!
Besides the very illustrious athlete Neeraj Chopra, Hima Das is the only other Indian athlete to have won a Gold in the World Athletics championship. Even Neeraj Chopra had painted the reality of conditions that champions like him had to endure in the villages of India, “My village still does not have a playground. Whenever I stay there, I need to practice on a road”.
The Intersection of Sporting Families and Farming Communities
It is a common fact that almost all athletes and other sportspersons from fields like wrestling, boxing, weightlifting et al, hail from farming communities from the unseen, unheard, and dustbowl districts of the hinterland or far-flung India. These sportspersons have given their all to reach the levels that they do and perform against sportspersons from other countries with far superior facilities, incentives, and management of affairs.
While everyone hailed, partook in photo-ops, and tweeted condescending congratulatory messages to acknowledge the success of these sportspersons – but each time these simple and hardworking folks spoke up for their farming families and towards the conditions that they still had to endure, the vilest of attributions came flying at them. The same sportsperson once feted and appropriated was meted the same fate that partisan rivals or sometimes even criminals are afforded. Memory was short and painfully selective.
Given the obvious intersection of sporting families and farming communities, it was hardly surprising that the hashtag #kisanektazindabad was extensively invoked by hardy sportspersons from the villages of Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, during the Farmers Protest, earlier. Some, like India’s first Olympic medal-winning boxer, Vijender Singh, had even warned of returning the medals won as a mark of support for the Farmers Protest – but like the fate of many Veterans who too had fought for the nation and made a similar suggestion towards demanding parity in pension (not fully granted as promised, till date), he too was given to mocking, shaming and ultimately ignored.
Shot putter Tejinder Pal Toor had stated the obvious, “Assi kissan dey put haan (I’m the son of a farmer). The government is doing injustice to the farmers. They should immediately listen to the farmers and repeal the laws”. The inherent line of frustration from the sportsperson then was exactly the same, as it is now with the protesting sportsperson (wrestlers) against authorities then i.e., one of unbridled hubris and unchecked power of the authority and the indignity heaped on the protestors in terms of unwillingness to ‘listen’ to them.
Even a few cricketers who hail from similar backgrounds like Harbhajan Singh and Mandeep Singh lent their support, with Harbhajan tweeting “Kissan hamara samman” (Farmer, our Pride) and the young Mandeep movingly stated that had his father been alive, he too would have been at the protest. India’s two-time Olympic medalist and flagbearer at the 2012 London Olympics, Sushil Kumar (now incarcerated for unrelated issues), lamented, “Whole country runs on the work done by the farmers, the issue needs to be resolved as soon as possible” – it all fell on deaf ears as an indifferent and unconcerned dispensation let the farmers fend for themselves, hoping to tire them out and break their will.
A Collective Sense of Neglect and Disrespect
But of course, farmers like sportspeople are cut from a very different cloth and do not throw in the proverbial towel, so soon. They persisted.
Even advanced age could not deter them and the two-time Asian Games Gold Medalist, Kartar Singh (who won the Arjuna Award in 1982 and Padma Shri in 1987) marched towards the Rashtrapati Bhawan to return “35 national sports awards” in solidarity with farmers. He was accompanied by former women’s hockey captain Rajbir Kaur (Arjuna awardee in 1984) and Olympic gold-winning former hockey player Gurmail Singh.
The incalculable weight of medals that these sportspersons had won for the nation and had also earned the right for the Tiranga (Tricolour) to fly high with the national anthem playing in the background, in very distant lands, was all but forgotten. Some even went on to call them ‘anti-India’, some went even further to decry them as ‘Khalistanis’, and so forth. A thankless and ideologically galvanised section could no longer remember the protestors as simply, ‘farmers’ or ‘sportspersons’ – instead, they were supposedly ‘on the payrolls of x,y,z’, and so much more.
When the sportsperson was preparing in makeshift akhaadas (wrestling pits) or running through paddy fields, they didn’t exist for most, save for their struggling farming families. When they won medals for India, they were photo props and suggestive of ‘New India’. When they expressed a contrarian opinion about an administrator or issues like farmers' rights, they were again back to ‘nobodies’ at best, and persona non grata at worst. Such is the level of depraved polarisation, partisanship, and ‘us-versus-them’ narrative, that the times have succumbed to.
With this existing backdrop, it was hardly surprising that a section of farmers who were supported earlier by these sportspersons as their natural ‘own’ decided to come out in support of sportspersons who were protesting, this time. It wasn’t a reciprocal act, but a collective sense of not getting the support they deserve.
That these domains are deeply interlinked and cannot survive without each other is obvious, as is actually the case of all other domains too, but perhaps their linkages are more blurred, but not so for the sporting fraternity and the farming community. As the father of the Indian Green Revolution and brilliant scientist, MS Swaminathan, had bluntly said, “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right”. The sportsperson hailing from farming communities knows that best and very deeply so.
Right to Win Medals, but not to Question a Man
As the new Parliament building was being inaugurated with suggestions of restored pride, nationalism, and unprecedented commitment to democracy, a parallel specter of many illustrious women wrestlers and other women from different walks of life seeking justice against sexual harassment (by an individual and not directed at a political party), was brutally clamped down on.
It seemed they (wrestlers and farmers) had a right to win medals and the right to feed the nation – but not to question a man, who self-confessedly had killed only one person!
As new terms and distractions enter the political lexicon with rewritten and reimagined history – the basic issues of livelihood, dignity, and democracy are pushed to the background. The success in distracting from the real issues, is highly and sadly, successful. It takes real heroes like sportspersons and farmers and not the make-believe claims and theatrics of some, to make India what it was, is, and can be.
We owe the sportsperson and farmers that basic respect and not the timeserving and election-related appropriations that they are often subjected to.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)