From battle front to chasing continental glory
Raised on tales of valour from the 1965 Battle of Asal Uttar – described as the largest tank battle since World War II – the youth of this eponymous village have always had a thing for the olive green. Over the years with shrinking land holdings, the army has become their only career option.
Not a bad career option for people in this remote corner of Punjab’s western district of Tarn Taran that is seven kilometers from the border.
So, Malkeet Singh, 23, became a soldier. He also had strong physique and was above six feet tall. That gave him the chance to try his hand at a sport he had never heard of before. Malkeet is part of the Indian men’s rowing team for the 18th Asian Games starting on Saturday.
“Earlier, I had no idea about rowing and I started pursuing the sport only after joining the army,” said Malkeet. “From childhood, we hear tales of the battle and the entire village is proud of the fact that it was fought and won here. And, as most families face dwindling land holdings because it gets divided among growing families, joining the army becomes an obvious choice,” said Malkeet’s elder brother Badsha, also a soldier.
Making it to the army
Between September 8-10 every year, a fair is organised to mark the martyrdom of Param Vir Chakar Abdul Hamid in Asal Uttar. “Senior army officials visit our village to pay homage and every time they announce that the village’s youth, who are physically fit, are welcome in the army. Every year, around 10-15 make it,” said Badsha.
Malkeet joined after completing school and was picked to pursue rowing. In his first year, Malkeet won gold in the national championship (in 2015). “We are confident that he will make the country proud,” said Badsha.
Rowing, a launch pad for better life
Like Malkeet, Olympian Swaran Singh had no idea about rowing till he was enlisted in 2009. “When I heard the word for the first time, my reaction was, ‘what is rowing,’” he said. In Jakarta, on Friday, he won gold in Men’s Quadruple Sculls. Another rower from Punjab Sukhmeet Singh was also part of the four-member Indian team that won gold in the above event. In Inchon four years ago, Swaran had won silver.
Recalling his first brush with the sport, Swaran said: “I picked up the sport only because of my height. The army team was looking for boys above 185cm. I was tall and fit, so my seniors recommended my name.
“The sport has earned me recognition and because of the cash incentives that I got for winning international medals, I have contributed to building a decent house for my family.”
Apart from Malkeet and Swaran, five – Sukhmeet Singh, Bhagwan Singh, Manpreet Singh, Jagvir Singh and Gurinder Singh – others from Punjab have made it to the Asian Games squad. All seven are from rural areas and learnt sailing only after joining the army.
Bhagwan Singh added a bronze medal in the country’s kitty in Jakarta. He was part of the Men’s lighweight double sculls event that finished second on Friday.
Except for Rohit M, who is a civilian, everyone in the 23-men’s rowing squad is from the army. “Earlier, the rowers from South India used to dominate even within the army as being from coastal areas they knew the sport. But now, most of the rowers in the squad are from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and none of them had prior experience. They are able to make it big purely because of their height and endurance,” said a coach at the Army Rowing Node in Pune.