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A level-playing field

columns Updated: May 13, 2011 12:20 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai
Rajdeep Sardesai
Hindustan Times
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It’s been called the ‘Jatification’ of Indian sport. There were 50 Jats in the Indian contingent at the Commonwealth Games and they won 27 of India’s 101 medals, or more than a fourth. If you count the four Jats in the hockey team, then actually 31 of the 50 players won medals. While Jat men have been traditional powerhouses in sports like wrestling, it’s the emergence of the Jat woman, exemplified by discus thrower Krishna Poonia, who won India’s first track and field gold in 52 years and Mandeep Kaur and Manjeet Kaur who won the 4x400m relay, which suggests a real breakthrough moment.

Jat-dominated Haryana, after all, is still a state with one of the worst sex ratios in the country. The state which had only 805 females per 1,000 males in 2001 showed some improvement while notching up a tally of 850 females per 1,000 males in 2009. Gurgaon and Faridabad, two of the most economically developed districts, recorded a striking improvement in the sex ratio in the 0-6 years category. But as the recent khap controversy has shown, the social milieu of Haryana has been resistant to change, caught between caste traditions and ersatz modernity. Is sports then an opportunity for Haryana to bury the stereotype?

Social scientists will point to a co-relation between community, environment and sporting success. The Masai tribesmen put Kenya on the world map with their natural aptitude as steeplechasers and middle distance runners. The Ethiopian tribes became renowned marathon runners. Runners of West African descent — whether from Jamaica or the United States — are born to run fast. Perhaps, we now need to consider that the muscular Jats are built to wrestle or throw the discus (not to forget cricket too, blessed by the original Jat sporting icon, Kapil Dev Nikhanj, unarguably India’s finest fast bowler, and now by Virender Sehwag, the most destructive opening batsman the country has produced).

But the Jat success story in sports may have less to do with community and more to do with the emergence of a new India that is cutting through traditional hierarchies, and moving beyond the metropolitan mindset into smaller towns. Chak De and Bunty Aur Babli creator Jaideep Sahni has coined the term, ‘India A, B and C’ to mirror this change. Wrote Sahni, “The way I see it there is an India A, India B and India C. India A is us, we’ve come from pretty privileged backgrounds, we are the top one per cent in terms of resources. India B is the India of Bunty aur Babli, who sees us on cable and wants to be like that. Then, there is India C, the tribals we used to watch dancing with Indira Gandhi when we were kids.”

While India C remains deprived, the Commonwealth Games success suggests that India B has well and truly arrived on the sports field. One doesn’t have exact figures, but it’d be a reasonable assumption that more than 80 per cent of our medal winners come from India B: small town people with big hearts, and a driving ambition to succeed at all costs. Then, whether it’s a Rahi Sarnobat, the teenage shooting sensation from Kolhapur, or Ashish Kumar, the first medal winning gymnast from Allahabad, there is little doubt that the real energy of Indian sport is coming from outside the big cities. The era of the elite clubs and gymkhanas has slowly come to an end, with tennis perhaps the sole exception. The privileged children of India A are too effete to survive in the highly competitive world of sport. By contrast, the vaulting aspirations of India B and their tough growing up years have enabled them to thrive in a similar environment. We’ve seen this ‘democratisation’ of sport already take place in cricket where the dominance of the urban, upper middle class cricketer has given way to the spectacular rise of the small town boys, be it an M.S. Dhoni from Ranchi, a Harbhajan from Jalandhar or a Zaheer Khan from Shrirampur. It should come as no surprise that India’s ascent to the number one Test spot has coincided with the emergence of the India B boys in the national team.

In a sense, sports, with the premium it places on merit, has provided a passport to India B to somehow gatecrash into the India A party. In the first 30 years after Independence, India A zealously guarded its elite status, be it in politics, business or sport. This was the Nehruvian era of the old school tie and Oxbridge alumni societies. Some of those cosy networks still survive, with patronage distributed to friends and cronies (witness the way in which the CWG Organising Committee was populated with relatives of key members).

And yet, there are unmistakable signs of change. The Green Revolution and the rise of the middle peasant castes broke the Brahminical domination over politics, even if it created new power elites. Economic liberalisation by removing the licence-permit raj opened a window of opportunity for first generation entrepreneurs. And now it seems that the investment in sports academies in smaller towns (we still need many more) is finally creating the basis for a sporting revolution.

Ironically, one of the few professions resistant to change has been journalism. For decades, a tiny, anglicised elite dominated the profession. How many Dalits, or for that matter Jats, have become editors and anchors? Perhaps, the remarkable growth of the regional media, print and television, offers some hope that even journalism will transform itself and reflect the spirit of a new India.

Post-script: The Jat tally at the CWG was almost matched by the armed forces who won 25 medals, including ten golds. It is not only a tribute to the sports infrastructure provided by the forces to its personnel, but, importantly, a confirmation that the men in uniform, like sports itself, respect merit and human endeavour.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network n rajdeep.sardesai@network18online.com The views expressed by the author are personal