OOn the day the Indian women’s hockey team lost the Tokyo Olympics semi-final to Argentina, two men made headlines for creating a shameful nuisance of a ‘celebration’ around the house of Vandana Katariya, among the deadliest strikers exposed at the Olympics. She also scored the first-ever Olympic treble for Indian women’s hockey, in the crucial championship game against South Africa that led India to the semi-finals.
Why the ugly “celebration” then? Because the men were supposed to belong to the upper caste and Vandana comes from a Dalit family. There was also a buzz in local media reports that this ugliness was from the fact that the women’s hockey team had too many Dalits, etc.
It’s easy and safe to call it a national embarrassment, to call for tough action against vandals – although Vandana’s brother said officers at the police station were not paying attention to his complaints.
However, I seek to draw inspiration from it to venture into dangerous terrain and ask: what is hockey, more than most other sports, especially cricket, so much better representing the diversity of India? ? Diversity not only of castes, but also of ethnicity, geography and also religion.
Why do I call it dangerous territory? Firstly, because we, the upper castes, make most of our debates and the social media universe hate to talk about “regressive” “caste” type issues that are pushing India back. See the outrage when someone talks about the traditional upper caste makeup of our cricket teams.
The reaction is so strong that most of us are chickens even to assert one simple fact: that Indian cricket has grown as the game has become more inclusive. Or ask a question: if the cricket revolution in India revolves around the boom in huge rhythm bowling talent so that India can field four pointers in a test while having more than a couple on the bench, where does it come from? I’m sorry, folks, if someone lets this hurt her savarne quite needlessly pride, but Indian cricket has become more talented, aggressive, energetic and successful as it has become more inclusive. It is to the credit of the BCCI team and management that a real meritocracy has been built here.
There is something about hockey, on the other hand, is that it has always been the game of the underdogs: minorities, tribes, subordinate classes and castes. We cannot speak of sociology, but we can surely cite history and facts. Muslims, Sikhs, in the past, Anglo-Indians, the poorest central-eastern plains tribes, Manipuris, Kodavas, have for decades chosen hockey as a stage to show their talent. We know that Punjab’s Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and others have come under fire for reminding the country that eight of the men India has placed on this bronze podium are from his state. He didn’t say Sikhs, but we don’t need a reminder.
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Fdeeds and history, we pledged to support us. We therefore go back to the first appearance of Indian hockey at the Olympic Games, in 1928, in Amsterdam. Dhyan Chand was part of the squad, but the captain was a man who, in official records, identifies himself simply as Jaipal Singh. His full name, however: Jaipal Singh Munda. Do you remember the legend of Birsa Munda? India’s first Olympic gold medal came under the captaincy of a child from a deeply impoverished tribal family from Jharkhand. Not sure another major sport in India can make this claim.
This was just the start of a rich tradition in which east-central tribal India has always produced hockey talent. And again, for some reason we cannot explain, a line of valiant advocates. In the current teams, Deep Grace Ekka and Salima Tete for women. And Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas for men. Apart from Salima (attacker, outside-right), the others are defenders. Three current defenders are not making a trend? Remember some of the most pugnacious advocates of decades, Michael Kindo and Dilip Tirkey.
The tradition has been institutionalized by wonderful academies in the tribal centers, Khunti in Jharkhand, and Sundargarh and around Odisha. Leading India to its first Olympic gold medal, Jaipal Singh Munda moved on to other more important things. In his early childhood, a British pastor’s family took him under their wing. He was sent to study at Oxford, where he excelled, but preferred to play and work for India and not spend his life at ICS either.
He was in our Constituent Assembly as a representative of tribes and generations of Indians should thank him every time we sip our legally favorite single malt or spirits. It saved us from the looming danger of a nationwide mandatory ban. Such was the atmosphere at the Assembly in this Gandhian environment. But he got down to it: Drinking is a tradition with us, the tribals. Who are you to forbid it?
Getting back to hockey, this first team consisted of eight Anglo-Indians, including goalkeeper Richard Allen, born in Nagpur and educated in Oak Grove, Mussoorie, and St. Joseph’s, Nainital. He hasn’t conceded a single goal in the entire tournament. If I digress here and there, it’s also to point out that every sport has a colorful history, folklore and its characters, not just cricket.
Of the others, three were Muslims, a Sikh, the young Dhyan Chand and, of course, a member of the Jharkhand tribe as a captain. At the following Olympics, the number of Muslims and Sikhs increased. This is why Partition dealt such a blow to Indian hockey. Much of the talent went to Pakistan, and he became the first to deny India Olympic gold in Rome, 1960.
Because the score was fresh in our minds, Pakistan was our main new rival, and there were wars with it, until the early 1970s few Muslims were on the Indian national team. There is also the infamous case of the brilliant Bhopal striker Inam-ur Rahman who was taken with the team to Mexico (1968) but not really trustworthy. Certainly not against Pakistan.
Afterwards, a cast of Muslim hockey stars stood up, Mohammed Shahid and Zafar Iqbal were captains of India, among others. The pioneer was, of course, defender Aslam Sher Khan. Experience the 1975 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, the only time India has been a champion. In the semifinals against Malaysia, India was one goal minutes from time for the siren. They were winning many penalty corners, but Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo, even with their big sticks, failed to convert.
A penalty corner in the 65th minute (the match lasted 70 minutes) was the last hope. And coach Balbir Singh Sr (three-time Olympic gold medalist, 1948, ’52 & ’56) called Aslam from the bench to take this life or death photo. If you can find these images, watch young Aslam walk across the burning bridge, come out and kiss the amulet around his neck, and slam the equalizer. It took the game into overtime and forward Harcharan Singh scored to fix it. Aslam then joined politics, as we know, and became an MP. After the score, he opened the door to Indian hockey for his Muslims.
I’ll leave it to you to Google the teams of all the national hockey teams for the decades since that 1975 World Cup victory and you will find that this model gets even stronger. Each Indian team, male or female, reflects the diversity of India in all its glory. The Meiteis of Manipur are a small community of just over a million people. In Tokyo, they had Nilakanta Sharma for the men and Sushila Chanu for the women. Want to check out the recent past, remember Thoiba Singh, Kothajit, Chinglensana and Nilkamal Singh. Have you ever seen someone from the North East enter the national cricket team?
What made hockey the underdog sport for a hundred years, don’t ask me. I can only state this reality and remind you that the rise of Indian cricket has coincided with its growing inclusiveness. It should settle the unnecessary debate over caste and merit. I know the mob that I am raising, but it is not against the high castes. They have talent, but a nation will prosper when it seeks talent in whatever social strata it exists.
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