Every September 9, the Sangwans cut a cake. For the family of five at Jhojhu Khurd, a village in Haryana's Charkhi Dadri district, the date will always be special. It was on this day that their daughter, Komal, chose wrestling as her career, years earlier.
When she was nine, Komal sat at home and watched on TV, along with her father Sunil Sangwan, Vinesh Phogat's performance in the freestyle 48-kg category wrestling match at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Vinesh won that game. Komal was enthralled by Vinesh's physical strength and immediately decided that she would follow in the footsteps of her favourite wrestler. Vinesh, who is the cousin of Geeta and Babita Phogat, whose story was the basis for the blockbuster film Dangal , stayed just four-km away in Balali village in Bhiwani district. Komal's dream literally did not seem distant.
"September 9 means a lot to her. It means more to her than her birthday. She tells us that was the day of her rebirth. We all celebrate this day with her, but it is strictly a family affair," says Komal's mother Snehlata with a broad grin.
Komal's career has been marked by intermittent success. She won a gold medal in the Under-14 national school championship, another gold in the Under-15 national championship, a silver in the Asian Championships and a host of cash prizes at traditional dangals (jousts) in akharas. Her seven-year-long wrestling career has been full of struggles, challenges and sacrifices not just for her, but for her whole family.
"As they say, nothing succeeds like success," says Sunil. "The fact remains that even today, any help from the government comes only after the players prove themselves. Big functions are held to felicitate Olympians and give them prize money and jobs, but the achievers at the State and national levels need to run around to get their due. It took me more than a year to claim the ₹50,000 prize money for my daughter's win at the national championship. Sometimes, it takes longer," he says with a sigh. He sits against a backdrop of photos of Komal wearing medals.
The couple's younger daughter, Mukul, 14, also took up wrestling three years ago. Her sister was her inspiration as was Vinesh, whom she says is the "technically most sound" wrestler in the current generation of wrestlers.
But despite having produced three international wrestlers, including the Phogat sisters, Balali has no government-aided quality training centre where young wrestlers can train.
Sweat and sacrifice
The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Stadium, which was set up as part of the government's policy to provide a stadium in each village, is at a stone's throw from the Sangwans' house. The building is dilapidated with wild, overgrown weed covering the ground. No coach has been deployed at the stadium. The locals say they use it to lock cattle.
The building naturally keeps sports enthusiasts like Mukul at bay. And so, every day, Mukul, her cousins and a friend, Neha, are driven by Mukul's uncle for 40 km from Balali to Krishan Akhara in Jhajjar's Khanpur Khurd. The akhara is run by a wrestling enthusiast and supported by the National Thermal Power Corporation. It has a qualified coach. Mukul's day begins at 4 a.m. and ends at midnight. Has the thought of quitting wrestling ever crossed her mind given this gruelling routine? Mukul — frail and with a pixie haircut — shakes her head: 'No.'
Like Mukul's determined uncle, Sunil too had to make sacrifices. For four years after Komal took up wrestling, he juggled between work and meeting his daughter's needs before finally deciding to shut his chemist shop and open a liquor shop instead. Like most of the parents of girls who want to take up wrestling, Sunil too had to frequently accompany his daughter to dangals and wrestling events. This affected his work.
"It is not safe for a girl to travel outside with a coach and fellow wrestlers. So, most parents accompany the girls outside the city. I also ended up travelling four-five days every month. That's when I decided to change my profession. Unlike in a chemist shop, you don't need qualified staff to run a liquor shop. Also, there is little scope for embezzlement in this business," he says. Money too is no longer a constraint.
Snehlata, too, has contributed to her daughter's career in her own way. She shed all inhibitions to learn to drive a two-wheeler in her thirties, so she could drop and pick up her daughters when her husband was not around. Though a strict vegetarian, she never makes a fuss about cooking meat for her wrestler-daughters. "They must eat meat — they need that kind of protein. Else, how will they compete in the ring," she asks matter-of-factly.
Relatives, friends and the elders of the family support the girls' decision. Snehlata says she doesn't pay attention to those who disagree with her decision to allow her girls to do what they want. The couple believe that society's outlook is changing and there is a growing acceptance of women who make their own choices.
A bias manifests in other ways, though. There are fewer community dangals for women wrestlers at the village level. The prize money they earn is meagre compared to the hefty cash rewards and expensive gifts bestowed on male wrestlers. And despite the growing popularity of women wrestlers at traditional dangals, with women even challenging men on some occasions, their participation remains very low.
Sajjan Singh, the coach at Krishan Akhara, says the number of dangals for women wrestlers will perhaps be just one-fourth of those for men. "To invite women wrestlers to dangals , organisers have to spend extra for changing rooms and washrooms. So, usually they are reluctant. Earlier, instances of women wrestling at these dangals were even fewer. The organisers were reluctant to hold bouts for women in traditional sand bed akharas. But the situation has improved now with the ready availability of wrestling mats. Every committee must hold a wrestling match for women. That would take women wrestling in the State to new heights," says Sajjan, who is a wrestling coach diploma holder from the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
Many village committees, especially the ones that have local priests on board, generally oppose women dangals. There is a yawning gap in pay, too: while the prize money for women wrestlers at these dangals ranges between ₹3,000 and ₹5,000, male wrestlers win up to ₹1 lakh-₹1.5 lakh for a bout.
Lifelines for the sport
In the absence of adequate government infrastructure and financial support for wrestlers in the initial years of their careers, it is the cash awards at dangals and the age-old tradition of offering free training at the akharas that keeps the wrestlers motivated. These are the lifelines for the sport. The State boasts of a huge network of such akharas , mostly run by wrestling enthusiasts. Every tenth village in Haryana has such a centre on average.
"Wrestling is one sport where there is very little expenditure on equipment, but expenses on the daily diet of the wrestler are huge. That could range between ₹7,000 and ₹8,000 per month in the beginning and go up over the years. If you add the frequent expenses on travelling and logistics, things become unmanageable for an average lower-middle class family. But the cash rewards at these dangals help to take care of most of this expenditure. Many male wrestlers even make a living out of it," says Sunil. These dangals also provide much-needed exposure to the players.
Come August, freestyle wrestling dangals in the villages across the State are held in fervour till after Holi the next year. Most of them have been a regular affair for decades and are held year after year without a pause. Committees set up by the villagers hold the dangals. These committees collect funds from the locals, businessmen and shopkeepers for the event. The most common patrons, though, are aspiring political leaders as these events pull in large crowds.
During the peak season, one dangal is held every day in the State on average. Such is the craze for these wrestling events that even two or three dangals can be held in a village in just a day, though this is rare. Sometimes children are spotted fighting it out in a corner of a village. Their reward? A packet of biscuits and an encouraging crowd.
"Wrestling is more than a sport for the people of Haryana," Sajjan says. "It is their culture. It runs in their veins. It builds character by promoting celibacy among the youth and spreads brotherhood. The rivals shake hands before and after the bout signifying that they were friends before they challenged each other in the akhara and continue to be friends after the game is over."
Hunger for fame, and pride
Data show how the participation of women wrestlers at the district and State-level events held by the Haryana Wrestling Association has increased almost five-fold in each of the three categories — sub-junior, junior and senior — from 30-odd participants in 2008-2009 to almost 150-odd till last year. "Till 2008-09, the participation of women wrestlers was so little that no trials were required for senior-level games. There were just a few women wrestlers around like Geeta Phogat, Babita Phogat and Sakshi Malik, but the competition is tough now. It is almost at par with the men," says Raj Kanwar Hooda, Secretary of the Haryana Wrestling Association.
This is quite remarkable in a State that often makes it to the headlines for the wrong reasons. Haryana has a high rate of crime against women, only behind Rajasthan and Assam among the States. In 2018, a village in Sonepat district banned girls from wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones. As per the 2011 Census, Bhiwani district (Charkhi Dadri was carved out of Bhiwani as a separate district in 2016) has a sex ratio of 886 and child sex ratio (0-6 years) of 832, one of the worst in Haryana. So, what drives these young women to aggressively enter a traditionally hyper-masculine sport? What pushes them to be women wrestlers in a State where being a woman alone can be hard enough?
"It is hunger — hunger for fame, and pride," says Parmesh Gehlot, a former physical training instructor at a private school. Parmesh quit his job to fulfil his unfinished dream of making it big in the sport through his children Tapasya (14) and Daksh (11). He had to give up the sport because of a painful surgery. But he convinced his wife, a college professor, to push both his children into wrestling. He now accompanies them to Krishan Akhara twice a day, and has taken up farming.
"There are hundreds of IAS and IPS officers. There are hundreds of MLAs and MPs. But there is only one Neeraj Chopra (gold medallist in javelin at the Tokyo Olympics). It is this desire to stand out from the crowd that is the real driving force," says Parmesh, a resident of Khanpur Kalan.
Sunil Sangwan and his wife Snehlata with their younger daughter Mukul (who is holding medals) and son Kunal in front of their house in Jhojhu Khurd, a village in Haryana's Charkhi Dadri district. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA
When the Sangwans are asked whether they have ever regretted the fact that their daughters, and not son Kunal, opted for wrestling, pat comes the reply: 'no'. Sunil explains how parents in Haryana see female wrestling as a rather easy career opportunity for their daughters since there is little competition till the national level and no caste reservation in sports quota jobs. But despite the growing craze for wrestling among women, the competition for them is still nowhere close to the competition among male wrestlers. In Sonipat, Rohtak, Jhajjar and Hisar, which form the hub of wrestling in Haryana, it is a big deal for the men to even book a berth in the district team. But a woman, even with little calibre, can hope to make it to the national team. And at the national level too, the sport is dominated by wrestlers from Haryana.
"With growing competition in male wrestling in Haryana, those not able to make it to the State team often try to play from other States. Even the players in the teams of the Indian Railways, Indian Police and those of Public Sector Undertakings are mostly from Haryana," says Sunil. The composition of the national wrestling teams, both men and women, for various international events over the past two decades shows how the State dominates the game.
India's first woman wrestler Arjun Awardee Geetika Jakhar says attitudes towards the game have changed a lot over time. "What has changed the most is the outlook of the society towards women wrestlers. Acceptance of the game has grown. Players now have better health facilities compared to those a decade ago. We have been winning medals in wrestling at the Olympics for the past three Games. I believe this is one reason for the growing popularity of the sport. Now, parents want their daughters to become wrestlers and earn medals," says Geetika, now posted in Fatehabad as Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP).
It's raining rewards
Though successive Haryana governments since the Om Prakash Chautala-led regime in the early 2000s have encouraged sports by providing jobs and cash rewards to the winners and making sports an attractive career prospect for the rural youth, the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government took this to a different level by offering jobs in return for medals through the 'Padak Lao, Pad Pao (Bring a medal, get a post)' scheme.
"The Hooda government took forward the policy of the previous Chautala government to make sports more lucrative by providing better job opportunities and heftier amounts as rewards. The Haryana Police Service rules were amended to reserve 3% permanent posts of DSPs for direct appointment of outstanding sportspersons. Many players such as hockey player Mamta Kharab, wrestler Geetika Jakhar, cricketer Joginder Sharma, wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, boxer Vijender Singh, boxer Akhil Kumar, and incumbent Sports Minister and hockey player Sandeep Singh reaped the benefits of the policy," says Raj Kanwar, vice-president, Wrestling Federation of India. " Geeta Phogat, who was appointed as Inspector, was later promoted as DSP. Babita was appointed Sub-Inspector. So, the people in the State began to link sports with jobs. Many of the beneficiaries were women wrestlers. It pulled families, both with wrestling and non-wrestling backgrounds, to the sport in a big way."
The job opportunities for women wrestlers have increased not just in Haryana but in Central government services too, in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force and the Central Industrial Security Force. About a decade ago, wrestling found a place in the All-India Police Sports.
Wrestling mats, made available by support from panchayats and the State government, made the choice easier for many girls. Besides, the Hooda government appointed around 550 coaches in different disciplines for different sports in 2013 across the State after nearly two decades.
Chandgi Ram, a freestyle wrestler from Hisar's Sisai village, is regarded as the father of women wrestling in Haryana. He was the first to persuade both his daughters, Sonika Kaliraman and Deepika Kaliraman, to join wrestling in the late 1990s despite stiff social pressure. Chandgi Ram also persuaded his co-coach Jagroop Rathi to introduce his daughter Neha to wrestling. His training centre, commonly known as the Chandgi Ram Akhara, became India's first training centre for women's wrestling. Later, Sumer Singh Nandal, running the country's biggest centre for judo coaching in Haryana's Hisar, persuaded women players to switch over to wrestling given the striking similarities between both the sports and the better prospects for women wrestlers. Since then, there has been no looking back for the Maliks, Phogats, Sangwans and others.
On this September 9, it will be celebration time once again for the Sangwans. The family hopes that Komal, who is now training at the JSW Sports training camp in Karnataka, will join them for yet another round of celebrations. It may be a modest one for the family, but it will be yet another step forward in a traditionally male-dominated society where today, women's choices are not just being tolerated, but celebrated.
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