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Bittoo Singh did not mean to take an all-Dalit team to a kabaddi tournament. It just so happened that late in summer 2016 the teams that confronted one another in Gurgaon’s Chakkarpur village were his Dalit boys facing off against the Yadavs of nearby Sikandarpur.
The tournament, with over 30 teams participating, was meant to get villages in and around the National Capital Region to engage with each other through kabaddi matches. Never were these encounters painted as a battle of the castes by the teams or organisers, though from the very beginning the caste composition of many teams was apparent. There were Dalits and Jats, Brahmins and Yadavs, Rajputs and others, representing teams sent by different villages.
This was reminiscent of another time and place in Indian sporting history—colonial cricket—when teams were often ranged against each other by ethnicity and along communitarian lines. The participating teams in upcountry Gurgaon all these years later, by all accounts, couldn’t care less about each others’ caste profile. But, for a section of the spectators—as would soon become apparent—this one aspect still mattered more than anything else. So, as Bittoo’s team piled victory upon victory, the Yadav spectators from Chakkarpur, their own village, couldn’t take it any more.
“We were told by the organisers from Sikandarpur who invited us that our team would have a match against theirs,” says Bittoo. “They never referred to us by caste. They just said that it would be ‘our boys against yours’.”
It is a fact that Chakkarpur had an all-Dalit team and Sikandarpur an all-Yadav team. “The players were fine with whoever won or lost. It’s the Yadav spectators who began to hurl casteist slogans once the Sikandarpur team was losing to us,” Bittoo says. “They probably recall the days we worked for them in their homes and fields and cannot tolerate our independence. One of them hurled a shoe at us and that’s when the fighting began.”
One would assume that the larger secular identity of a village would inhibit the caste identity of its inhabitants in a sporting match, just like in a cricket match the caste, village or state of a player is subsumed within the national team’s identity. But in this village of Haryana, the Yadavs did not identify with their village. They instead felt a strong intra-caste solidarity, as did the Jat boys in Mirchpur who recently thrashed a young Dalit boy, breaking his leg, for beating them in a school relay race.
The agility that wushu warrants doesn’t exist in Jats—is one claim. Another says life as farmers helps them excel in wrestling.
It is said that sportsmanship inculcates generosity and fairness, rouses all society to see horizons beyond the immediate clannish impulse. In Gurgaon that day, this maxim never bore itself out. The games between villages transformed almost immediately into a battle of the castes, replaying the national scenario in many other fields or professions. Which is to say, the moment the “Dalit team” looked set to be declared the champions, hostilities bubbled up.
And yet, in what is perhaps a testament to the spirit of sportsmanship, it is only after the first shots were fired in the air at the Gurgaon games by the Yadav spectators, only after several spectators and players were injured in the melee that ensued, that Bittoo and his players confronted the naked truth that they are, despite obvious skill and gamesmanship, shackled by the straitjacket of their caste.
The present situation is most likely a result of the historical organising of sports along the lines of communitarianism, of which a very obvious instance are the quadrangular cricket matches in Mumbai. Within the team as well, there used to be discrimination, as exemplified by the treatment meted out to early 20th-century cricketer Palwankar Baloo, who exemplified in colonial times the resistance and victories of the downtrodden. Despite leading the Poona Club to victory, not only was Palwankar disallowed to helm the team, nor to bowl or bat, but he was superseded twice for the captaincy by Brahmin players. Though the Poona team beat the Europeans, he was made to endure untouchablilty, and drank tea from a separate tumbler.
Still in the contemporary context, old battles are being fought again and again. And sports, with its overwhelming folklore of preference for talent over clan, the field over the coterie, offers only a glimmer of how caste lies beneath the surface. Coach after coach, player after player—and not just in the peculiar context of north India’s acute caste math—proffers that caste matters not one bit in their sporting field. What matters, they say, is talent and the relative health, drive and initiative of the player selected.
It is an issue complicated by the fact that no repository of caste representation on the playing field exists. A kind of denial being the usual narrative, quite often the variance shows up in little-known far-off fields, where caste battles are actually being waged. “Our technical skills are well over theirs,” says Ashwini, a wushu expert from Haryana’s Jhajjar district, referring to how the Dalits have in recent years taken to this contemporary Chinese martial art similar to kung fu, while the Jats, Brahmins and Yadavs have developed a fiefdom of sorts in traditional wrestling or kushti. Wushu blends performance with speed, explosive power and flexibility. It is also the Dalit’s way of asserting, even retaliating, against the Jat caste’s dominance over traditional wrestling.
“Wushu requires a special kind of fitness and agility which I think the Jats are not able to master. That is why we dominate this field. They can’t beat us at this sport,” says Ashwini. His coach Sudesh Kumar, also a Dalit, says he would encourage students from any community to participate, but it is still largely the Dalits who show up to train.
They attribute this proficiency to two factors: a Dalit coach first introduced wushu to the state in 1989, thereby encouraging other disadvantaged players as well. And second, to the physically tough life of Dalits when they worked on the farms and which continues in their ongoing struggle against poverty in towns and cities albeit in newer non-farm employment.
Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit cricketer in the Raj era, had to endure untouchability, having had to drink tea from a separate tumbler.
Of course, even the Jats attribute their success at traditional wrestling to the tough, disciplined life of a farmer. Jagbir, a coach who has opted to open the doors of his akhara to aspiring players from all communities, says, “A farmer’s work is tough and the people involved in farming get toughened up too.” He does acknowledge that the biggest roadblock for non-upper castes is that students are unable to sustain training, especially if they are Dalit, for they don’t own land to train at or to grow enough food to sell and earn the Rs 20,000 per month required to train an under-18 player. Thus, both “sides” stereotype the other, reminiscent of what writer George Orwell once said about serious sports: “It is war minus the shooting.”
The wushu player, as Sudesh gets a pair to demonstrate, compulsorily wears thick protective gear, for as hands grasp opponents to send them flying to the ground, or as feet land kicks well above eye level, bare feet fly, raising dust whirls. These smashing blows, pirouettes and thuds make the traditional sport of kushti indeed appear tame by comparison.
Young Harish Jangra, an MBC, playing against Ashwini, recently won India a gold. “Dalits are excelling at wushu because the man who brought this sport to us was a Dalit, and he trained other Dalits,” says Harish. “In other sports, some coaches welcome all castes to train under them...not all coaches think alike.”
More often than not, this kind of assertion, coupled with the pragmatic realism apparent in a search for alternative playing fields to excel in, is but the exception. For, coach after coach, player after player, typically asserts that caste matters not one bit to them or to their sport or players. There is good reason for this. “I have always seen, and prefer that sports is seen only from the lens of sportsmanship,” says former football striker I.M. Vijayan, who was thrice Player of the Year. “Here in Kerala at least, I have seen no evidence of casteism on the field. It is politicians who inculcate casteism and here they have not done so,” says the Arjuna Awardee, who became the country’s highest-earning player in his sport, having started out in poverty—as a soda-seller at the Thrissur stadium, before he played for the Kerala Police team.
Sportspersons, including Vijayan, often find that it is poverty and deprivation they battle in their attempt to rise in their chosen field. “Now, at least in football, funds are coming and people are training youngsters on a large scale. That is how even more northeast players can be seen in football,” says Vijayan, 47. “A lot needs to still change, but there is some movement with respect to funding.”
Caste favouritism and other factors come into play typically once a player gains proficiency and prominence. “We have seen players 40 points ahead in regular matches go on to get zero points in selection trials, because the match is being scored by someone from an upper caste,” says coach Sudesh. “Just look at casteism in society, you can see its impact is felt in sports too. That is the environment we live in, but it is the administrative wings of sport—the federation system—that causes this.”
This could be one reason why Vinod Kambli, the star of Indian cricket who arrived on the scene in 1989 right alongside Sachin Tendulkar, said in 2013: “While Tendulkar took the elevator, I have taken the stairs.” He was speaking in retrospect, possibly referring to the fact that Tendulkar (a Brahmin) made his Test debut against Pakistan three years before him, although both had started out roughly together.
Kambli recently asserted that his caste had nothing to do with his career. This was in response to a public missive by BJP MP Udit Raj favouring reservations in Indian cricket, citing Kambli as a Dalit. This would be on lines of what happens in South African cricket, where five players must be of colour. Informal assessments of Indian cricketing show that over 70 per cent belong to the upper castes, in which sport there are no SC, tribal or OBC players.
K. Arumugam trains children from underprivileged backgrounds to play hockey, the national sport, ever since the team failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2008. Most of his students are children of migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He knows they are poor, but more often than not, they are unaware of their caste, like most others in the sporting world. “The poorer face many more disadvantages, naturally,” he says.
Coincidentally, Arumugam’s search for hockey talent has led him to three of his brightest players, and all happen to be Dalits. They are Rohit Gharai and his brother Rahul from West Bengal, whose father drives a manual rickshaw ferrying goods. The family migrated to Delhi about a decade ago. Arumugam’s third player is from Chanch, a remote village in Uttarakhand: 16-year-old Kishore Arya. “I was in the Asia Cup team that won India’s first gold in 23 years,” he says. Rohit, too, asserts that casteism plays no role in how he is treated at school—Modern School, Barakhamba Road, has offered the boys a generous scholarship two years ago. “I love my school and I have made friends. Initially there was some discomfort because some children would point out I am poor, but that was just something I ignored. I am very well adjusted now,” Gharia says.
When it comes to the administration of sports, all players are known to be mistreated, perhaps even regardless of caste. Still, the caste division in one state and the opacity around caste representation in sport tell the story of how larger identities play out across the country.