On the day the Indian women’s hockey team lost the Tokyo Olympics semi-final to Argentina, two men hit the headlines for creating a shameful nuisance of a ‘celebration’ around the home of Vandana Katariya, among the deadliest strikers on display at the Olympics. She also scored the first ever Olympic hat-trick for Indian women’s hockey, in the crucial league match against South Africa that took India to semi-finals.
Why the ugly ‘celebration’ then? Because the men were supposedly upper caste and Vandana comes from a Dalit family. There was also buzz coming out of local media reports that this ugliness was owing to the fact that the women’s hockey team had too many Dalits etc.
It is easy and safe to call this a national embarrassment, ask for strict action against the vandals — although Vandana’s brother has been quoted as saying that officers at the police station were not paying attention to his complaints.
I am, however, seeking inspiration from this to venture into hazardous territory and ask: What is it about hockey, more than most other sports, especially cricket, that represents India’s diversity so much better? Diversity of not just caste, but ethnicity, geography, and also religion.
Why do I call it hazardous territory? One, because we, the upper castes, make most of our debating and social media universe hate to talk about ‘caste’ type ‘regressive’ issues that take India ‘backwards’. See the outrage when someone talks of the traditionally upper caste makeup of our cricket teams.
So sharp is the reaction, that most of us are chicken even to state a simple fact: That India’s cricket has risen as the game has become more inclusive. Or ask a question: If India’s cricket revolution is built around the rise of enormous pace bowling talent so India can field four pacers in a Test while having more than a couple on the bench, where has it come from? I am sorry, people, if someone lets this hurt their savarna pride quite unnecessarily, but Indian cricket has become more talented, aggressive, energetic and successful as it has become more inclusive. It is to the credit of the team and the BCCI leadership that a true meritocracy has been built here.
There is something about hockey, on the other hand, that it has always been the game of the underdog: Minorities, tribals, subordinate classes and castes. We can’t talk sociology, but we can surely cite history and facts. Muslims, Sikhs, in the past, Anglo-Indians, tribals from the most impoverished east-central plains, Manipuris, Kodavas, have for decades chosen hockey as the stage to display their talent. We know that Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and others were criticised for reminding the country that eight of the men India put on that bronze podium were from his state. He didn’t say Sikhs, but we need no reminder.
Facts and history, we promised we will rely on. We go back, therefore, to Indian hockey’s first appearance at the Olympics, 1928, Amsterdam. Dhyan Chand was in the team, but the captain was a man who in official records goes merely as Jaipal Singh. His full name, however: Jaipal Singh Munda. Remember the legend of Birsa Munda? India’s first Olympic gold came under the captaincy of a child of a deeply impoverished tribal family in Jharkhand. Not sure any other major sport in India can make that claim.
That was only the beginning of a rich tradition where east-central tribal India has consistently produced hockey talent. And again, for some reason we can’t explain, a line of doughty defenders. In the current teams, Deep Grace Ekka and Salima Tete for women. And Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas for men. Except Salima (striker, outside-right), the rest are defenders. Three current defenders do not make a trend? Remember some of the most pugnacious defenders in the more recent decades, Michael Kindo and Dilip Tirkey.
The tradition was institutionalised by wonderful academies in the tribal heartlands, Khunti in Jharkhand, and Sundargarh and around in Odisha. Leading India to its first Olympic gold out of the way, Jaipal Singh Munda went on to other, more important things. In his early childhood, a British pastor’s family had taken him under its wings. He was sent to study at Oxford, where he excelled, but preferred to play and work for India and not spend his life in the ICS either.
He was in our Constituent Assembly as a representative of the tribals and generations of Indians should thank him every time we sip our single malt or favoured spirit legally. He saved us from the imminent danger of compulsory, nationwide prohibition. That was the mood in the Assembly in that Gandhian environment. But he dug his heels in: Drinking is a tradition with us tribals. Who are you to ban it?
Coming back to hockey, that first team had eight Anglo-Indians, among them goalkeeper Richard Allen, born in Nagpur and educated at Oak Grove, Mussoorie, and St. Joseph’s, Nainital. He didn’t concede a single goal in the entire tournament. If I am digressing here and there, that is also to underline the fact that all sport has colourful history, folklore and its characters, not just cricket.
Of the rest, three were Muslim, one Sikh, young Dhyan Chand, and, of course, a Jharkhand tribal as captain. By the following Olympics, the numbers of Muslims and Sikhs were rising. This is why Partition delivered such a blow to Indian hockey. A lot of the talent went away to Pakistan, and it became the first to deny India the Olympic gold in Rome, 1960.
Because Partition was fresh on our minds, Pakistan was our main new rival, and there were wars with it, until the early 1970s, not many Muslims featured in 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 trusted. Definitely not against Pakistan.
Subsequently, a star cast of Muslim hockey stars had risen, Mohammed Shahid and Zafar Iqbal captained India, among others. The trend-setter was, of course, defender Aslam Sher Khan. Check out the 1975 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, the only time India were champions. In the semi-final against Malaysia, India were a goal down with minutes to go for the hooter. They were winning many penalty corners, but Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo, even with their heavy sticks, were failing to convert.
A penalty corner in the 65th minute (game was for 70 minutes then), was the last hope. And coach Balbir Singh Sr (triple Olympic gold medalist, 1948, ‘52 and ‘56) called in Aslam from the bench to take this life-and-death shot. If you can find that footage, watch young Aslam walk on to the burning deck, kiss his amulet, and slam the equaliser in. It took the match into extra time and striker Harcharan Singh scored to settle the issue. Aslam later joined politics as we know, and became an MP. Post-Partition, he opened the door to Indian hockey for its Muslims.
I leave it to you to google the squads of all national hockey teams for the decades since that 1975 World Cup win and you will find this pattern get even stronger. Every Indian team, men or women’s, reflects India’s diversity in its fullest glory. Manipur’s Meiteis are a tiny community of just over a million. In Tokyo, they had Nilakanta Sharma in the men’s team, and Sushila Chanu in the women’s. You want to check the recent past, remember Thoiba Singh, Kothajit, Chinglensana and Nilkamal Singh. Seen somebody from the northeast break into the national cricket team yet?
What is it that has made hockey the sport of the underdog for a hundred years, don’t ask me. I can only state this reality and remind you that Indian cricket’s rise has coincided with its growing inclusivity. It should settle the pointless debate over caste and merit. I know the rabble I am rousing, but this isn’t against the upper castes. They have talent, but a nation will prosper when it reaches out to seek talent in whichever social stratum it exists.