It could have been Calcutta, Bombay, Manipur, even Punjab. But it’s Haryana that is at the forefront of boxing’s resurgence. In my quest to understand why Haryana, I’ve come to realise that it could have been nowhere else.
Haryana is mostly rural, agricultural. There are these terrible clichés about how you’re most likely to settle a dispute with a bullet through the head in these parts. Kind of like the badlands you associate with Hollywood westerns or Sholay. It’s also primarily vegetarian, with desi ghee and milk being a big part of the ‘good things in life’, so much so that an average household is likely to acquire a buffalo before thinking about making babies. But this is also a place where you’ll find the next chilled beer outlet before the beer you’re drinking has warmed up. And to the outsider, the rather rough edge to the dialect of Hindi that’s spoken here is at once entertaining and off-putting.
But Haryanvis—men and women—are by and large gifted with large, tough body structures. And they are good-looking, I might add. More than anything, the men of Haryana have always called to my mind those from the Asian part of the erstwhile Soviet Union—the Uzbeks and the Kazakhs, for example. Tall, with long arms and low bodyweight. People often ask me, why Haryana and not Punjab? It’s a fair question, but the answer is also obvious. A six-foot Haryanvi will usually weigh around 70 kg, while his counterpart in Punjab will push the needle past 80. It might have something to do with the eating habits of the two cultures, but when I see a Punjabi and a Haryanvi boxer together, the boy from Punjab appears bulkier, and is often more muscular, while the boy from Haryana is wiry, with better reach and lightness of feet.
In Pitching Around Fidel, SL Price writes, ‘Cubans have a tendency to “slim down” into their weight class. The Cuban system chisels its talent, pushing the fighter to drop weight and squeeze their power into lighter weight classes.’ Interesting parallel, isn’t it?
In another context, Vijender tells me, “If you have trained anywhere in Haryana, especially in Bhiwani, no one in India can dominate you; you might lose once in a way, but you will always be the tougher nut out there.”
Here’s what former Jamaican-origin British heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt says about the Cubans: “Cuban fighters smell fear in their opponents. If they can intimidate you, they’ve got you.”
Haryana hasn’t yet achieved this internationally, but the odds are good that it will happen sometime. If all goes well. But the question then is why the Haryanvis haven’t always rocked the boxing stage. I have looked for the answer to the question, asking a number of people for their opinion. At the end of it, I think we must put it down to: a) the state’s earlier focus on farming or joining the army as occupation options, and b) a spark was needed to set the scene aflame. Haryana now has that spark in the form of Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar. All other reasons I’ve heard flow from these.
As with all revolutions, at the core of this story is ‘need’. Ask any boxer, and you’ll find him saying “naukri”and “paisa” when you ask why he chose boxing for a career. Harlem, Havana or Haryana, poverty is where it starts: a situation that often guarantees toughness in youngsters with spirit. If there is a system or process in place, you could become an athlete. If there’s nothing to channel your energy into, you might choose crime.
Akhil Kumar responds candidly to a question on how he took to boxing: “A job, nothing else. If any young boxer tells you that they have become boxers to bring glory to the nation, they are lying. It’s not that we are not educated, but being from rural parts of Haryana, we can’t be too ambitious. We only think of getting jobs in the railways or in the police or in the army. And the easiest way to get one of these jobs, at least in Haryana, is through the sports quotas.”
Hence Haryana’s surge in recent times. One of the fun statistical asides of the 2010 Commonwealth Games—where India finished second in the medals’ tally—was that Haryana finished fifth. ‘India-minus-Haryana’ would have finished just above Haryana, behind Australia, England and Canada. Fifteen of India’s 38 golds at the event—nearly 40 per cent of the country’s best-ever haul—were won by athletes from Haryana.
For a spot of perspective, Haryana has just over 2 per cent of the nation’s population, and occupies 1.37 per cent of the total land area of India (as per the Government of India’s website).
Difficult though it is for a journalist to admit this, part of the credit of the Haryana success story must necessarily go to the state government. As well as to other politicians with interests in the matter. The Haryana government promises every sportsperson who wins a national or international medal an automatic cash reward and a senior government job. Besides, youngsters are encouraged to take up at least one sport in government-run schools, while the Sports and Physical Aptitude Tests to spot high-potential athletes (who would then be given appropriate training and scholarships) is also in place.
Most of this is credited to the Congress government of Bhupinder Singh Hooda, and even his political opponents don’t deny that the policy has paid dividends. IBF President Abhay Chautala (a leader of the Indian National Lok Dal and certainly no fan of the Hoodas) says about the Hooda government, “The Haryana government has certainly supported sportspersons, especially boxers, with incentives, jobs, etc. Youngsters realised that this is the best way to get jobs and support their families. Lots of private academies also came up because people were ready to pay for them. The local government has recently taken five boxers directly as DSPs in Haryana Police. Not all governments can do that.”
It’s one thing to offer someone a random position in one of the government-run PSUs. It’s another to tell a strong athlete that he doesn’t need to worry about his future because a ‘good job’ is assured for him if he brings home the booty from his travels abroad. RS Dalal remembers, “Athletes used to be employed as constables. But Mr Hooda has initiated a revolution. I was asked if sportspersons should be employed at higher levels than as constables (in Haryana Police) and, of course I said yes, and suggested the position of sub-inspectors. But the government was thinking of DSPs. I was amazed, and as a sports lover, it was fantastic. That’s what has happened now with some of our boxers and other athletes. If it hadn’t been for Mr Hooda, Vijender would have been a ticket collector in the railways.”
More importantly, unlike Mohammad Ali Qamar’s story earlier in the book, the Haryana government, everyone admits, has been prompt in honouring its promises. Chautala concedes, “As soon as they announce something, they act. They are trying to spread the game.”
And it’s only then that the ambition becomes bigger, stronger, and a youngster starts feeling that there could be more to the life of a boxer than punching tickets or issuing challans. “Wanting to represent India comes later, and even later comes the desire to take part in the Olympics or win a big medal,” says Akhil. In fact, not all the boys have even heard of the Olympic Games when they start out.
This brings me to one of the things I have always wondered about, something I have often asked several sportspersons about, not just boxers. When a boy or a girl from a lower middle-class family gets a job at, say, 18 years of age, earns Rs 15,000 or so, enough to support his or her family, does the motivation to keep struggling and to perform better remain as strong? I have got a variety of answers, none of them satisfactory. Some say that there’s no question of the motivation dipping because nothing beats the high of representing your country. A few say, yes, the motivation does dip and that’s something we have to live with. Others ask, when unlike the richer sportspersons, boxers and wrestlers and others take up sports mainly to earn a living, where does the question of motivation come in.
It’s a tricky situation then. India, it is widely acknowledged, lacks a sports culture, something even current Sports Minister Ajay Maken admits is one of our biggest handicaps. To bring youngsters into the fold, incentives and inducements are a must. But once the incentives are enough to satiate the budding athlete, where’s the incentive to do his or her best?
There’s no point in hoping that the authorities can tap into the slightly wealthier classes to provide the next generation of sporting heroes, because, as BABF chief Asit Banerjee asks, “You think a middle-class mother will allow her son to go out and get his nose busted?” So, yeah, European football on TV might get middle-class and upper middle-class youngsters playing football in the near future, but boxing, no chance. Wrestling or weightlifting, even less so.
So this is a chicken-and-egg situation that we have to live with. And just on the basis of numbers, Haryana has surged ahead, chicken-wise and egg-wise.
That philosopher among Indian boxers, Akhil Kumar, starts by quoting Abdul Kalam to contradict my theory about motivation and incentives: “A dream is not what you see when you are sleeping, it’s what you see when you wake up. Look at Abhinav Bindra, he is so rich. But the more important thing is desire. When he won the Olympic gold, he was 25. He might have all the luxuries in the world, but is that everything? That’s why you work hard. He already has what we are working for. We also feel that if we had money and personal trainers, we would have gone further. Abhinav already has everything, but he is still trying to reach higher.”
And that’s where the Haryana government has come good, and not just for boxing. The process starts with talent, which the state already had in abundance. What was needed was a few stars, role models. And that was handed to the state government on a platter in 2008. Vijender of course; wrestler Sushil Kumar as well, though he lives on the outskirts of Delhi within the Punjab state boundaries in Sonepat now. And don’t forget, Bindra is from Chandigarh, which may not strictly be in Haryana, but is the state capital. Throw in Akhil and Jitender Kumar, both Beijing quarter-finalists, and the government only needed to react, which it did. Importantly, as coach TL Gupta says, “Society accepted them as heroes, embraced them.”
Here we need to return to the Cuban example again. Blas Fernandez confirms my theory: “Throughout history, boxing has been a poor person’s sport. If you are rich, you don’t want your children to participate in such a brutal sport. But in Cuba, that’s not the case.”
Cuba is also a classic example of Communism gone right, at least in the context of sport. Boxing started in the country as a means to attract tourists, with North American boxers fighting each other in public spaces. But as First Secretary of the Communist Party as well as the Prime Minister of the country at the time, Fidel Castro published National Decree 83a, making ‘professional’ sports illegal in Cuba. Of course, many sportspersons left the country, moving to the United States or Europe. But many stayed back. And it’s these ‘patriots’ who earned the full goodwill of the Castro administration. After all, ‘In Cuba we only love those who resist and the rest we tolerate’, as the sign above the main ring at the National Boxing School in Havana proclaims. The ‘love’ found expression in exactly the kind of incentives and perks that we are seeing in Haryana, close to half a century after Decree 83a.
There are other parallels. Here’s how Akhil, the son of a low-ranking policeman in Gurgaon, started boxing a decade and a half ago: “There was the Nehru Stadium, but it didn’t have a ring. There used to be aluminium water pipes lying around. We got four of them together, made a square, and that was the ring. There were poles where we hung our bags. The Rs 30 tennis shoes we wore hardly protected our feet and we got blisters. Thankfully, a local bhaiyya who used to box with the police department got us two sets of gloves when he saw our enthusiasm.”
For Vijender, on the other hand, it was a matter of following a family obsession. While his father was encouraging, the family’s meagre income from the father’s salary as a driver with Haryana Roadways meant that providing for growing boys who were training morning and evening was tough. Luckily for Indian boxing, they managed. One of the things Vijender got right, even though he was self-confessedly lazy, is that he did everything he was asked to. “We had to do cross-country running once a week and I used to usually come last because most of the other boys would take a ride on a bus along the way, while I didn’t. And I would get pitaaifrom Jagdish Coach. I would get angry and shout, but I think I gained from not taking shortcuts.”
Unlike Haryana, Cuba has an almost 100 per cent literacy rate, though Haryana ranks marginally higher than the Indian average in terms of literacy (76.6 as against the national average of 74.1 according to the 2011 census). But everything in Cuba is controlled by the Communist Party, and that means an even distribution of wealth, of which there isn’t too much to go around. ‘Impoverished’ is how experts describe the background of most boxers. ‘They know,’ celebrated boxing writer W Gregory Guedel mentions, ‘that by defecting to the US, they can make more money, but if they stay in Cuba, they are assured of a lifetime of stability.’ And when there is stability, and the discipline that comes from sport, there’s a good chance that crime rates will go down. Think Harlem. Think Haryana too, where guns are easy to get and easier to use. But as a Haryana politician tells me in the course of a random conversation, “A sportsperson trains in the morning and in the evening. He is too tired to go out after that. When will he go out and commit crimes? If your state promotes sport, crime automatically goes down.”
Right now, Haryana is the object of envy for the rest of the boxing fraternity in India. Nanao Singh says with a dejected look in his eyes, “When we win a big international medal, the government in Manipur promises us only Rs 5,000 or Rs 10,000. And even then, you are not sure it will come.” Mohammad Ali Qamar, who has spent a lifetime waiting for his state government’s promises to be fulfilled, says, “In Bengal, apart from at the SAI Centre in Salt Lake, we only have concrete rings. The facilities are so poor. When we train on sponge rings, we get sprains and pulls. There are 20 clubs in Bengal, though the official records say there are 76. I don’t see even 76 boxers at the state-level tournaments. Where is the honesty? Where is the encouragement?’