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Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 14, 2018

Pack a punch: Jagdish Singh, who has coached medal-winner Vijender Singh, at the Bhiwani Boxing Club   -  SANDEEP SAXENA

The BBC of Haryana — Bhiwani Boxing Club, if you like — has given India many international medals. Its athletes, like others in the state’s many such clubs, are driven by the incentive of cushy jobs and fame

Rajni is all of seven — and looks every bit the miniature boxer she is. Her hair is closely cropped and the look in her eyes is martial. Her mother, head covered in a ghoongat, has brought her to the Bhiwani Boxing Club, known as the BBC, for a sparring bout.

A group of little girls, in dri-fit attire and sneakers all laced up, has come from Rajasthan to learn boxing at BBC. Missing classes is not something they are worrying about right now. “You can either study or box,” one of them says, as she prepares for her evening practice.

Indians have been bagging boxing medals in international games, and there is excitement in the villages of Haryana, the state that many of the winners in boxing and wrestling belong to. At the Asian Games in Jakarta late last month, Amit Panghal won gold in the men’s boxing flyweight category, defeating Olympic champion Hasanboy Dusmatov of Uzbekistan.

Panghal grew up in a village not very far from the hamlet that boxer Vijender Singh calls home. Singh won India’s only Olympic boxing medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, triggering a passion for the sport in and around his village.

Winning streak: Amit Panghal defeated Uzbek Olympic champion Hasanboy Dusmatov to win the gold medal in the men’s flyweight category at the Asian Games   -  PTI/SHAHBAZ KHAN

 

Many locals believe that Haryana’s ‘Padak Lao, Pad Pao (win a medal, get a job)’ policy, announced by the erstwhile Congress government in the state in 2014, gave a boost to sports. Under this policy, medal winners can claim government jobs. According to a state government sub-committee report, 284 medal winners are eligible for jobs in the government, as the scheme promised. The current government has a similar scheme in place — medal winners can get out-of-turn promotions in the government. Sports Authority of India (SAI) boxing coach Jagdish Singh says selections to government posts in the police, Army and the Railways continue to be made through the sports quota system.

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In a country where government jobs are scarce, the route to employment through sports has sparked a greater interest in games such as boxing. “At 5.30 am anywhere in Haryana, you will find young boys and girls running on the dirt tracks next to a road, or working out in its many stadiums. We take sports seriously here, as our way forward in life, in the absence of jobs,” SAI’s Singh says.

It was to channel this interest that in 2003 he founded the Bhiwani Boxing Club — the training ground for many would-be boxers, Vijender Singh included.

Lucky strike: Sakshi, who has won gold in junior and youth world championships, picked up boxing because it was the most popular sport in Bhiwani   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

 

The club is to boxers what the coaching centres in Kota are to IIT hopefuls. It has a students’ hostel, which can house around 40 boys and girls, and they come from different parts of the country. They pay ₹6,000 for boarding and lodging, and ₹1,000 as a tuition fee. Most of the students are from lower-middle class families, with parents working as farm hands or manual labourers, according to the coach who is a Dronacharya award winner. The food served by the club is vegetarian, but students are permitted to supplement their diet with non-vegetarian food items, and many do so.

In the practice area, there are ornate mirrors facing the bright red punching bags. On the wall are photographs and posters of well-known boxers who trained here. Students from the club have won 239 medals in the international arena. Besides the Olympian, the medal-winning alumni include Vikas Krishan Yadav, Kavita Chahal and Dinesh Kumar.

They were all trained by Jagdish Singh, who has been a coach in SAI since 1996 and also teaches at a government facility in Rohtak. On Mondays and Saturdays, he supervises the other coaches at the club, apart from personally training the students, many of whom also go for training to the government-run Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports Patiala. The better players are also taken in by the Patiala academy, which bears the cost of food, stay and tuition. From April to June, BBC trains its boxers in the sand dunes near Bhiwani to help them strenghten their muscles.

But Panghal, who is from Mayna village in Haryana, did not train under the Bhiwani coach. He went to the government-run Sir Chhotu Ram Boxing Academy in Rohtak, which

has been the home ground of many state boxers. Rohtak’s All-India Jat Heroes’ Memorial College (better known as Jat College), too, has nurtured many sportspersons.

“The people of Haryana are, in general, fit, thanks to the tough life situations here, where even agricultural practices require a great amount of physical work,” says Jagdish Singh. Mostly vegetarians, their food intake is protein-rich, with dairy products such as ghee, milk and yoghurt forming a large part of an average Haryana villager’s diet.

Amit Panghal, however, weighed a mere 25 kg when he began boxing at the age of 12. His mother describes him as a picky eater, and he smiles sheepishly. “When he was growing up, we sent him to box along with his elder brother, to help him develop strength. But it became clear right then that while he was puny, he was good at scrapping. Soon he was challenging and standing up to boys bigger than him,” his mother says.

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Haryana’s villagers are now used to seeing city reporters flocking here in search of medal winners. Posters are stuck at every turn near Mayna, guiding visitors to Panghal’s ancestral home.

Village elders sit in the cool shade of a neem tree in his backyard, partaking of tea and laddoos, and curiously eyeing the journalists working their notepads and phone cameras.

Panghal’s uncle, Rajnarayan, says the residents of the village erupted with joy when he won his match in Jakarta. All of them had gathered at Panghal’s house to watch the live telecast on the new LCD TV that had been bought for the big day.

“He was playing this bout with his mind. As he came into the stadium, I could see that he was pumped up, while his opponent looked serious,” says Rajnarayan, who also acts as his manager.

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Panghal, 22, joined the Army as a Junior Commissioned Officer in March this year.

The turn towards sports as a means of securing a job in the state has also been necessitated by the fact that agriculture holdings have shrunk over the years.

“Ever since agricultural lands have begun shrinking, people here have turned to sports because of the scarcity in jobs. If anyone tells you they’re doing sports solely for the nation or for unselfish reasons, they wouldn’t be perfectly honest,” SAI’s Singh says.

Locals, however, insist that government incentives too have helped popularise sports. The SAI coach points out that many of the medal winners have been given police jobs.

“Ever since the Railways began recruiting from here, we have seen many people getting jobs in that sector as well. The media coverage of these sports victories has also helped raise awareness, and more people in Haryana are now getting into sports,” he adds.

After he won the gold in Jakarta, Panghal created a Twitter account for himself. His first tweet announced his win, while his second was a shout-out to his favourite actor, Dharmendra, requesting him for a meeting. “Dhamma, as we call him here, has agreed to meet me,” Panghal tells BLink with pride. “Ever since I was a child, we would be told, ‘Dhamma jaise mukke maar (punch like Dharmendra)’.”

One-track mind: World youth championship gold medallist Nitu is unsure if she will take a job, as she has eyes set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics   -  RITU RAJ KONWAR

 

Also learning to hit — but less like Dharmendra and more like Vijender Singh — are Nitu and Sakshi at the BBC. The two teenagers are the best of friends and belong to farming families from Bhiwani’s Dhanana village.

Vijender Singh’s victory, Nitu says, makes her dream of becoming a boxing champion one day. Both girls are 17, and they each bagged a gold medal in their respective weight categories at the World Youth Boxing Championships in Budapest last week, besides wins at the national level. They have been selected for jobs in the Railways but are not thinking of joining yet. They have set their sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

It’s certainly not an easy life. Every morning they are up at half-past four, and travel 20km to the training centre. They are often criticised by the villagers for choosing to box. Despite being the only earning member of the family, Nitu’s father had to take leave without pay from the Chandigarh Vidhan Sabha, to help her train. As they get ready to graduate from the youth level to the senior category this year, the girls say they are eagerly waiting to break new ground, and fulfil their dreams.

“But wherever we go, we cannot forget Bhiwani,” Nitu says.

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Published on September 14, 2018
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