Bhiwani: dirt tracks to dreamland
by K Gajendra Singh on 31 Aug 2008 0 Comment


Ever since Vijender Singh won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, the first ever in boxing, and his two mates Akhil Kumar and Jitendra reached the quarter finals, Bhiwani, a small town in Haryana, has become a household name in India, perhaps even in the world of boxing.


In India’s boxing contingent, four out of five were from Bhiwani. At the Athens Olympics, three out of four Indian boxers were from Bhiwani. No wonder Bhiwani, with boxing rings scattered around the town, is called Little Cuba. Vijender fought valiantly but lost to his Cuban opponent. Cuban boxers did not win a single gold this time, but under Fidel Castro this Caribbean island produced a dazzling succession of Olympic boxing champions, including Teófilo Stevenson, one of the all-time greats who like other Cuban boxers refused to turn professional with assured millions to win in USA, another great boxing nation, where this game is dominated by Afro-Americans, who in the absence of other professions barred to them, excel in boxing, basketball, athletics and music.


Before and during the Olympics, as fancied Indian participants failed even to qualify for the final rounds, Indian TV channel sports anchors, now focused on boxing and started looking up Bhiwani, a district town 125 kms west of Delhi. Soon TV teams and reporters turned up at this hitherto obscure town to cover the aspirations and reactions of boxers’ families and the town’s excited and proud residents. Except for hockey’s gold and other medals, one silver in shooting and just two bronze medals in wrestling and tennis, Indian athletes did little to cheer her billion population throughout the Olympics, since India began participating.


Except for rifle shooter Avinash Bindra, who hails from a very well off family in Chandigarh, which provided him for a decade, not only moral but financial support, a prerequisite to produce a world beater, the boxers and wrestlers come from poor families – children of bus drivers, conductors or marginal farmers. India is not a sporting nation and the bludgeoning middle class is yet to take to athletics and other sports as a professional career option, except for cricket, which with a religion like following in India, now supports the cricket world.


I was born in Bhiwani in 1938, when it was a small dusty Tehsil town in the backward region of undivided Punjab and treated as Kalapani (punishment posting) for officials by ruling mandarins in Lahore.


When I went to Benares in 1954 to study engineering, Bhiwani was a sub-division of Hissar district of Indian East Punjab. When I said Punjab was my home state, many would start conversing in Punjabi, which certainly was not my mother tongue. We were still learning Punjabi from refugees who were forced to flee their homes in Multan, Jhang and other cities in newly-created Pakistan. They had lost their belongings and many of their relatives were butchered on the way to India. Some would brag unconvincingly about big gardens and properties they had left behind. However they were hardworking and aggressive in business and transformed the city’s commercial environment.


The Haryanvi women started changing over to Punjabi dress, salwar-kameez, more practical than the billowing skirt, short shirt and head cover. I learnt to understand Punjabi only in 1958 when I started teaching electrical engineering at Patiala. The salwar-kameez has become perhaps the most popular wear in India, specially among the young, although jeans, a fashionable western import, is now taking over in major cities and towns.


Many would ask me where Bhiwani was situated. Most had not heard of it, except for residents of cities with a textile industry as Bhiwani boasted of two textile mills and an Institute which trained textile engineers. Bhiwani also had a degree and teachers training college, run by local Seth Kirori Mal Trust, which also runs Delhi’s Kirori Mal College. Some literary types would exclaim, “Oh! Bhowani Junction!” and had to be told that Bhiwani was a nondescript metre-gauge rail station. The locale of novel ‘Bhowani junction’ was perhaps inspired by Jhansi’s railway hub.


However, after the division of East Punjab into Punjab and Haryana, the dynamic and development-obsessed Chief Minister Bansi Lal soon got its railway station transformed into a junction by cajoling Indian Railways to build a broad gauge link from Rohtak to Bhiwani. A politician friend related how it was done. When Bansi Lal made the request, the Railway Minister in usual fashion said “Yes, we will do it after the land survey etc in next years’ budget.” But Bansi Lal, a shrewd go-getter Jat, replied that the Haryana government had completed all requisite surveys. The Minister said acquiring land for the project could take time. Bansi Lal had brought along his officers ready with draft notifications for acquiring land and signed them on the spot!


Bansi Lal is rightly known as the builder of Haryana (and Bhiwani), adding irrigations canals, lift irrigation schemes, industries, roads, universities and historic tourist spots at Panipat and Kurukshetra. His drive and rough and ready methods specially during the Emergency of 1975-77 when he was in New Delhi as Defense Minister, brought him much notoriety. But at least in India people knew about Bhiwani, Bansi Lal’s  home town .


Haryana was carved out of Punjab in 1966. This region had been neglected both as part of undivided Punjab and East Punjab. It soon flourished and took advantage of its proximity to Delhi, as can be seen in Gurgaon, home to national and international companies in  automobiles, motorcycles, tractors, white goods industries and sunrise IT and BPL business. Haryana is now one of India’s richest states in spite of little local raw materials.


During the 1940s and 1950s, Bhiwani was a dusty waterless town with Rajasthan’s sand-dunes encroaching the city’s western limits. Birla’s education city, Pilani, Rajasthan, is only 50 kms west of Bhiwani, and Churu, hometown of steel magnate Laxmi Mittal is not far away. I remember perpetual water scarcity in Bhiwani. Summers brought in hot abrasive sandstorms. Two water channels, one for the city’s water needs and another for the two textile mills, were called small and big nehers (canals). As children, if we jumped from one bank we would hit the opposite side! No wonder I never learnt swimming. There were many big ponds dug around the town to store rainwater for drinking, washing and for the cattle. Between Bhiwani and Rohtak, 45 kms away en route to Delhi, one could spy only one little garden. There were a few gardens around the city; otherwise it was just dust, sand and more sand with some dry shrubs here and there.


When I visited Bhiwani in 1970, on home leave while posted at Ankara, I was shocked to see that between Rohtak and Bhiwani, not only there was greenery and booming agriculture, even sugarcane was being cultivated near the city. The old city gates had been rebuilt in splendour, there were new smooth concrete roads with traffic signals, not that anyone followed them. Shopkeepers were selling apples and grapes like wild berries in the old days. There was a growing smell of prosperity all around. Earlier, even those who owned thousands of acres of arid land were forced to join the army as simple soldiers for a livelihood. Now with networks of canals and water pumps, they had come into riches and indulged in politics and aggressive activities. In general, owing to the abiding influence of Arya Samaj, few ate meat. I myself became a non-vegetarian while studying at Benares. Unfortunately, the sudden upsurge of wealth has brought in evils like alcoholism.  


An unusual instance when Bhiwani was mentioned with some astonishment was at Rome Airport in 1984, by the Italian airport manager of Air India, when I then posted at Bucharest, Romania, and was transiting via Rome for Delhi. Apart from my passport, he had also seen details about Haryana politician-academician Ch. Hardwari Lal, Om Parkash, an Indian businessman settled in Prato, near Rome, and the then Deputy Managing Director of Air India, Chaman Lal Sharma, all connected to Bhiwani. With scarce foreign exchange, not many Indians, not even rich ones, could then travel abroad.


The town was reputedly founded by Rajput chief Neem Singh to honour his wife Bhani. This later morphed into Bhiyani and subsequently to Bhiwani. The town has a conspicuous religious dimension and owing to a large number of Hindu temples is called “Chhota Kashi.” Like Rajasthan, the arid land of Bhiwani has produced a large number of rich traders and industrialists. They splash colossal sums building big havelis (mansions) in Bhiwani and in ostentatious marriage ceremonies. But the owners of these mansions made their money in Kolkata and elsewhere, where they operated in small spaces in ill-lit rooms in the bazaars. Perhaps embarrassed at their immense wealth, some acquired by hoarding foodgrains during famines and scarcity, they built temples and dharamshalas (charity rest houses) to atone for their sins; a few built schools and colleges to perpetuate their names.


Bhiwani has produced two chief ministers of Haryana and a couple of Cabinet Ministers. The state has been a model of political innovation, not always of the right kind. It added the term Ayaram-Gayaram for political defections, now so prevalent all over India.


It was sickening to watch Indian politicians crowding out the returning Olympic medal winners for photo-ops. Almost all sports associations have fallen into the clutches of politicians and their favourite civil servants or hangers on, and used for patronage and free trips abroad. Many awards and prizes are announced after sports medals are won, but not disbursed.


A few decades ago, politicians would turn up a few months before the Olympics in European capitals (say East Germany) and request for a coach so India could win a few medals. That attitude has not changed much. India did not even qualify for entry into hockey at Beijing. There is just no accountability or even remorse for their colossal failure.


Wrestling, football, hockey, volleyball used to be favourite sports in Bhiwani. Boys from lower middle class families have taken to boxing in large numbers as a national or international medal ensures a job in the police at lower levels. Vijender has been promoted to Deputy Superintendent of Police rank. Like most Indian states, jobs are sold, with political elites using transfers and threats of transfer to milk money from civil servants. No wonder they do nothing unless bribes are paid. Well, what would you expect when honourable members accept money for raising questions in Parliament? During the recent vote of confidence, according to Members themselves, the going rate for transfer of loyalty was 250 million rupees, a big sum. Yet political dynasties have garnered thousands of millions of rupees each, held in foreign currencies abroad.


Olympics had become a Cold War arena of competition in physical prowess between Capitalism and Communism, which somewhat cooled off after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, sports persons from Russia and former communist nations are still doing well. China topped the list of gold medal winners in Beijing, pushing USA to second place. Winning a medal still requires national endeavour in which the state, corporate interests and individuals all participate jointly.

Apart from the latest training techniques, supporting gizmos, sports medicine and psychology, doping techniques to enhance athletic performances have seeped in, a practice from the days of Roman gladiators who used stimulants like strychnine to pump themselves up for battle. Doping is done through gene therapy i.e. by inserting genes into a cell which instruct the body to produce large amounts of a hormone, protein, or other natural substance that enhances performance. Dope manufacturers keep a step ahead of means of detection. Most sports suffer from it, including cricket, with players from Pakistan, i.e. Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif, and the Australian spinning wizard, Shane Warne, to name a few .


There are numerous examples of doping in recent history from athletics. Sprinter Marion Jones of USA, who won five Olympic gold medals, used drugs and has been convicted. Boxer Jason Giambi of New York says he turned to steroids in 2001. Ken Caminiti, once an ‘Outstanding Player’ insisted half the players in baseball shared his steroid weakness. He died at 41 of a cocaine overdose.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who lowered the old 100-meter mark at the 1988 Olympics, was found using illicit testosterone and banned. But Carl Lewis, his rival and supposedly Mr. Clean, had reportedly failed drug tests before the 1988 Olympics (the charges came out only after his retirement). And of course the ever popular Diego Maradona from the slums of Argentina - the Pele of the generation - was expelled from the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for too many drugs to count.


Apart from American Tour de France star Lance Armstrong since 1999, Richard Virenque of France, Italy’s Marco Pantani (died of drug overdose last winter) and, most recently, Tyler Hamilton of the US have all tested positive for steroids or blood-enhancing EPO. The list of doping athletes is long and endless. It is like a cat and mouse game, with athletes and players from advanced nations generally succeeding more often than not.

K. Gajendra Singh, IFS (retd.) served as Indian ambassador to Turkey, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Romania and Senegal, and is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.

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