Why sportspersons stand agency with farmers

Rohit Mahajan

HIMA DAs, Lalita Babar, Sushil Kumar, Kaur Singh, Mirabai Chanu, Simranjit Kaur, Mamatha Poojary, Dattu Bhokanal, Bajrang Punia, Mary Kom, Khushbir Kaur, Harmanpreet Singh, Sarita Devi, Neeraj Chopra, Nirmala Sheoran, Geeta Phogat, Tejinderpal Singh Toor, Manpreet Kaur, Sathish Sivalingam, Pritam Rani, Yogeshwar Dutt, Jitu Rai.…

Gurbax Singh Sandhu (L) & Kaur Singh have announced they’d return their awards.

This list, made up almost off the cuff but with some knowledge of their declared histories, is of sportspersons hailing from all corners of India — and Nepal, in one case. They’ve raised India’s flag at international sports events and, hand at heart, whispered the national anthem standing on the podium, watching the Tricolour go up. They have another thing in common — they are sons and daughters of farmers.

Sons and daughters of farmers win us medals in multi-sports events such as the Olympics and Commonwealth and Asian Games. They are aware that if they had remained tillers of land — their own, or someone else’s as farmhands, like their parents — they would have lived their lives in complete obscurity and, in many cases, penury. They are grateful for what sport has given them. And they have their hearts with the farmers’ protest.


Kaur Singh had fought in the 1971 war against Pakistan. He also won a gold medal in boxing in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi and thus is a true legend — farmer, war hero and sports star. His photograph with Amitabh Bachchan from 1982 — the actor playfully planting a fist on the boxer’s square jaw — stirs memories of his heyday. In his old age, after having served in the Army and in the fields, Kaur Singh found out he had to borrow money to be treated for a heart ailment, and had to be rescued by a handout from the Punjab Government.

Kaur Singh was awarded the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri, and he has decided to return these to show solidarity with the protesting farmers.

A shooter — also a farmer and soldier — once told this writer a tale of him failing to do the right thing. “I once used money that was provided to me for training to repair my home, which was in a bad state, in my village,” he said, with some regret. He thought of it as a minor moral failure, but a failure nonetheless. His story made two things clear — that it’s the sons and daughters of farmers or economically deprived families who opt to become jawans in the Army, and it’s the sons and daughters of farmers or people used to manual labour who join sports that pose extreme physical challenges. In short, they provide food, soldiers and sportspersons to the country.

Over 90 per cent?

Tough sports that require extremely strenuous training don’t attract city-bred kids from privileged backgrounds. The supply to the Indian teams in combat sports such as wrestling, boxing, judo is completely rural — or their practitioners move to a city for coaching — because city kids don’t go for sports that could hurt them badly or leave a mark on their faces. Also, tennis courts, badminton courts or golf courses are available in cities, not in villages.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that over 80 per cent of Indian athletes in Olympics sports are from rural backgrounds, and most of them from farming families or ‘mehnatkash’ households, as Gurbax Singh Sandhu, former national boxing coach, puts it.

Sandhu lives in Patiala, but his father was a farmer in Mohammadpura village in Ludhiana. He coached the national boxing team for well over two decades and it was with him in charge that Indian boxing began to emerge as a force. Sandhu has decided to return the Dronacharya Award he was given in 1998.

Sandhu estimates that well over 80 per cent of sportspersons who join physically punishing sports — including track and field events — are from farmer families or from among those used to manual labour, the ‘mehnatkash’ people. “They are hardy people,” he says. “They work in the fields from their childhood, and are willing to push their physical limits. We can make them train harder.” Boxer Mary Kom from Manipur or kabaddi player Mamatha Poojary from Karnataka, to name two, exemplify this.

At the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, an instructor estimates that more than 90 per cent in the latest batch of coaching trainees are from rural backgrounds — they are from families of farmers or allied fields such as dairy/poultry. He himself is a first-generation non-farmer. “I am from a farming family, and my uncles and cousins still till land,” says the instructor. He says sportspersons are aware of the problems of the farmers — that’s why they’re firmly in solidarity with them.

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