Monday, 16 July 2012
Book Review: Bhiwani Junction – The Untold Story of Boxing in India by Shamya Dasgupta
The Noble Sport, also called boxing, has of late become more popular in India, especially after Vijender Singh won a bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Until India’s independence, boxing had flourished in British India. However, after independent India’s leaders decided that engineering, mathematics and five year plans for development were much more important, boxing, like all other sports (other than cricket of course) started to die a slow lingering death. In the last decade or so, things have started to change and Vijender’s Olympic bronze has officially signalled the beginning of a new chapter in Indian boxing.
Sports journalist Shamya Dasgupta has been a boxing fan ever since his youth and his pioneering book on boxing in India is a labour of love, one which would serve as a primer for anyone interested in Indian boxing and boxing in India (they are two different things) and its future prospects. With the panache of a champion lightweight, Dasgupta deals with topics ranging from a history of boxing in India with snippets about various Indian boxing greats, past and present, to an analysis of why boxing has staged a comeback in India, to an enquiry into why Haryana has churned out so many more boxers than any other Indian state to the state of women’s boxing in India. Dasgupta is no armchair commentator – he has been physically present at many of the venues where Indian boxing history was made and where Indian boxers bit the dust, he has joined India’s Chief Coach of boxing, G. S. Sandhu and his trainees for their early morning roll call at the Sport’s Authority of India’s Patiala Centre and he has spent time with many boxers and their families at their residences. The result is that when Dasgupta talks, you hear an insider speak, one who has been holding fort in a corner of the ring, rather than a commentator who has just sauntered into the middle of a bout. Dasgupta’s writing reminded me of Muhammad Ali’s style of boxing – he floats like a butterfly while describing the good stuff and stings like a bee when documenting the abysmal parts.
Dasgupta lays bare the state of boxing in Haryana and the rest of India and what emerges is a riveting mosaic, one where bright hope mixes with corruption and inefficiency. Haryana has emerged as India’s boxing powerhouse for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the patronage given by the State government. Those who do well are assured of jobs and money and promises made to boxers have been kept. This contrasts sharply with the state of boxing in the rest of the country. Boxing has offered many well-built Haryanvi lads a way out of poverty, giving them much more than they would have got through mere education. The fact that Abhay Chautala, the President of the Indian Boxing Federation, hails from Haryana, hasn’t done any harm either. Dasgupta has an interesting theory for why Haryanvi boxers have done better than say, boxers from Punjab. The answer according to Dasgupta, could lie in their diet. Both Punjabis and Haryanvis are equally well built, but since Haryanvis are generally vegetarians, unlike Punjabis, they tend to be lighter and fit into lower weight categories, something which gives them an enormous advantage in a sport where participants are classified on the basis of their weight.
Just as boxing flourishes in Haryana, with a number of private coaching centres, the most popular and famous being the Bhiwani Boxing Club run by Jagdish Singh, a former boxer, it languishes almost everywhere else, including states like Manipur which has produced a number of champions such as Mary Kom and Dingko Singh. There is a severe lack of infrastructure and little patronage from the state governments. Boxing facilities at reputed Sports Authority of India centres at Bangalore and Bhopal have practically closed down, though the centre at SAI, Patiala, where the national team trains under the tutelage of Chief Coach G. S. Sandhu flourishes. The rivalry between coaches, especially between Jagdish Coach and Chief Coach G. S. Sandhu makes for interesting reading. Both are committed men, one working at the grassroots level and the other training the national team, cogs in a wheel which rumbles along on a rutted track, inching towards Olympic glory.
Dasgupta feels that private sector support is vital if Indian boxing is to be developed and boxers and coaches given a better deal. Citing the excellent work done by the Mittal Champions Trust, Dasgupta suggests that each sport should have one large private sector sponsor in order to make a difference. Reading this, I couldn’t help compare the state of Indian boxing with that of India’s economy. Both have tremendous potential and both suffer from a number of drawbacks, such as lack of adequate infrastructure and government’s apathy and inefficiency. It is the private sector which helped kickstart India’s economy after 1991 and similarly, Indian corporate houses need to play a greater role in sports if India is to catch up with the rest of the world.