In 2018, when Hardeep Kaur, who had won the bronze medal at a tournament in Malaysia, , met Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi, Punjab’s Minister of Sports and Youth Services, she was guaranteed a job for her expertise in Karate. Three years later, Sodhi has failed to even recognise her. Kaur who hails from Gurne Kalan village in Punjab’s Mansa district, is an international Karate player who came to the limelight after working as a farm labourer in the fields.
Her story is of a woman and a sports player who was let down by the state. After winning 20 medals at the national and international championships for India, Kaur is nowworking in the fields as a labourer helping in paddy cultivation.
“During a live video interview in which both Sodhi sir and I were participants, he claimed that he had never met me. I was taken aback. He said that even if he did, I should have gone back to see him,” Kaur told Newsclick.
Kaur said she had tried visiting him again. In 2019, Kaur and her father, Naib Singh (55), took money from their landlord to travel to Chandigarh to meet Sodhi. They kept roaming the capital's different sectors close to where they heard Sodhi lived.
“My father is an illiterate man and I was just 19 years old and desperately in need of some work. The person who got us to meet Sodhi the first time had died. So, we spent a day in Chandigarh but couldn’t meet him,” she added.
Born in a Dalit household, Kaur’s mother and father are farm labourers. Her brother works as a chef at a local restaurant. As a kid, Kaur would accompany her parents to the fields and watch them work. Now, with them unable to support her for a masters course in physical education, Kaur decided to work in the fields. She earns a Rs 300 a day for her labour in the paddy fields.
“Earlier my parents and my brother had supported me, depriving themselves of many small luxuries. Now it was my turn,” said a dejected Kaur.
In 2006, when rape and eve-teasing cases were on the rise in Punjab, a workshop was organised in rural areas to train women and girls with basic Karate techniques for their self-defence. It was around that time that Kaur was introduced to the sport. “I picked it up really quickly,” she said.
Kaur learned Karate as a child on an open stretch of dirt in her “pind” and her parents and everyone in her neighbourhood knew of her abilities early on. She was encouraged and helped her in realising her dream. “I come from a rural area and I practiced Karate in an open ground in my pind. Karate is a game which doesn’t require expensive equipment or resources and is based on a person's strength and tricks,” she said.
But this, however, was not enough. The young woman was not even able to buy a Karate uniform; she would borrow it from her team mates before a tournament. She says she was not ashamed.
“What is there to be ashamed of? I am poor and that is the reality. But now, I have earned some money after working in the fields; the first thing I am going to do with it is to buy a Karate suit,” she said.
Calling it “highly unfortunate,” Congress MLA and former hockey player, Pargat Singh, said, “It is unfortunate that we are letting down such players who need our attention and support. The sports minister should allocate departments to each sport and channelise the work.”
Kaur’s life is not just a tale of the state’s failure, but also the systemic undermining of sports in India which are not Cricket. Sportspeople have been saying that other disciplines miss out on getting the government’s attention.
The discrimination is real, according to famed boxer Vijender Singh, who feels that both the media and the government have a role to play in this. “During COVID-19, when the world came to a halt and everything was shut down we saw IPL matches until the Supreme Court intervened. This is business, isn’t it?”
“Mainstream media channels only broadcast Cricket. There is no mention of any other sport and players are suffering because of this discriminatory nature. There are players in other sports who are working hard and representing India internationally. The government and mainstream media both should pay attention to them,” Singh told Newsclick.