Monday, the 7th day of December, 2020, will be marked as an historic one in Indian sport. On two counts that too.
On this day, legendary sports persons from Punjab marched from the Press Club of India to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to return the honours bestowed on them — the Arjuna, Dronacharya, Padma Shri and Dhyan Chand awards — in solidarity with the ongoing protest by farmers against the dubious Farm (Agriculture) Laws instituted by the BJP government. They carried ‘35 awards’ with them, as well as the heart and spirit of the protesting farmers, united to the cause by giving up symbols of their life-long journey in sport.
The “cause”, which is slowly metamorphosing into a nation-wide movement, is larger than any awards, they all said in unison, even as their march was halted by the authorities. They did not know, though, that their march also triggered a very rare incident in Indian sport.
While the show of dissent by athletes — former or present — is a rare and momentous occasion in itself, the second incident which transpired a little later in the day is rarer. The gesture and the march by the sporting heroes of the country seem to have unified the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). The IOA’s mudslinging faction heads came together to issue a joint statement, stating a Wikipedia-ish definition of the national sports awards and a frivolous understanding of the farmers’ protest. Issued by IOA president Narinder Batra and secretary general Rajeev Mehta, the statement suggests that the ongoing farmers’ protest is an issue that is separate from that of the sports awards. The insinuation — not worded in the statement of course — is that the sports persons are mixing the two and they should refrain from doing so.
“National Awards which are given by the Government of India to Sports persons for their extraordinary performances when they are representing India in international sporting events [sic]. These National Awards are given to sports persons as a recognition for their performance they have given for their country,” read the statement.
“Off late [sic] sports persons are seen to be announcing return of their National Awards as a mark of their support for the recent farmers issue. National Awards and farmers issue are 2 separate things, while every Indian including us loves and supports the farmers and we all would always like our farming community to be happy as they are the ANNDATA's of our country. The Government and the farmer leaders are in talks and we all are hoping for an early resolution & solution,” it added.
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Pardon the typos in the statement. These are extraordinary times. Issuing a statement while emotions are brimming over the joining of forces of the IOA president and secretary general is understandably difficult. Beyond the errors though, the statement is shallow, and out of character when compared to the many official, and at times, leaked pieces of writing that came out through the course of the Batra-Mehta muscle flexing that played out in May and June this year.
Above all, the statement seemed rushed too. Maybe they had directives to follow. The orders, if at all any, would not have come from the politicos though. For that would amount to political influence in running of sport? Something which could attract a ban from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and something the IOA claims it keeps at arm’s length. Consider how?
Maybe the directive came from the very source from where the IOA bosses conjured up the idea that the farmers’ issue is an island with no implications on anything or anyone else in the country.
It is a larger understanding that pushed the 35 former athletes — superstars of their eras and fields — to give up their awards. They feel it is a small sacrifice to make, and the least they could do.
“The farmers have always supported us. We felt bad when we saw that our farmer brothers were lathicharged, roads were closed. Farmers are sitting on streets in bitter cold for their rights,” Kartar Singh, gold medallist in the 1978 and 1986 Asian Games, told reporters after the march was stopped by the police near Krishi Bhawan, of all places (the symbolism is hard to miss).
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“I would like to request the government to repeal the draconian law,” added Kartar, who led the march alongside Gurmail Singh and Rajbir Kaur and a few other former athletes. They were carrying awards of many who could not make it to Delhi owing to their old age and frail health. That list included some of the biggest names in Indian sports history -- from basketball legend Sajjan Singh Cheema to boxing stars Kaur Singh, BS Sandhu, Jaipal Singh and weightlifter Tara Singh.
Kartar, outspoken as always, derided the government for passing the Farm Laws on the sly when the whole nation was reeling under the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When the entire country was shivering from the fear of corona, they passed the bill in both houses and got it passed from the President,” he said.
“I agree there is a need for change in farm laws but when our children are not happy, the government’s priority should be to make them happy. Why is the government forcibly trying to push the farmers into accepting the contentious bill?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Beijing Olympic bronze medalist Vijender Singh said he will return his Khel Ratna award to protest the contentious new laws after joining the protesters at Singhu border on Sunday. He also spoke about how many current athletes feel connected with the struggle but are staying away from expressing open support fearing repercussion.
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“I have trained in Punjab and eaten their bread. They have been protesting in this biting cold and I have arrived here as a son and a brother. Other athletes from Haryana wanted to come too but they have government jobs and fear repercussions. I am in touch with them and they are with our farmers,” Vijender told reporters.
The IOA honchos seem to have not understood the larger implication of these statements by the eminent personalities whose exploits on the playing field are the reason why the body itself exists and even remains relevant enough to issue statements at will. They fail to make that direct connection. So one is not very surprised that they completely failed to understand the implications the farmers’ protest and its result will have on the future of the country, starting with food security and stability.
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