At the recently concluded National Championships in Jalandhar last week, Amit Dahiya, a former Olympian, won the gold medal in the 65 kg category. Instead of his native state Haryana, Dahiya was representing Jharkhand.
Another Chhatarsaal stadium wrestler Naveen, who won the gold in 70 kg for Jharkhand, also hails from Haryana. The two gold medals and a bronze in 86 kg propelled the state to the fifth position in the team rankings. The first three positions were claimed by Railways, Services and Haryana. But the Railways and Services squads were also made up mostly of wrestlers from Haryana.
In the final count, 32 out of the 40 medals in men’s freestyle went to wrestlers from Haryana. Not just freestyle, even in Greco-Roman and women’s wrestling, Haryana wrestlers won 19 and 30 medals out of 40 respectively. The teams which finished in the top three at last year’s championships are allowed to field two teams – A and B – at the next year’s tournament.
But with the number of wrestlers growing in Haryana, those who fail to make the teams in the state, Railways or Services, transfer to different states to win a ticket to the National Championships.
In most cases, the third-string Haryana wrestlers are good enough to beat the best wrestlers from Maharashtra, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and even Uttar Pradesh.
Given how popular wrestling is in India, Haryana’s domination raises a simple question: What are the other states doing?
Since the start of this year, Sachin Giri of UP has competed in just two tournaments – the state and national championships. That accounts for a total of six bouts for him in the whole year.
“A Haryana wrestler will be competing for 20 days a year,” former coach of Indian Greco-Roman team Kuldeep Singh said. “That is around 60 bouts in a year. This is excluding the mud dangals they go to. Compare this to a wrestler who is on the mat for just two days.”
The difference in the number of competitive bouts is a major concern in states like UP, Rajasthan, Punjab and even Delhi. While male wrestlers from Delhi and western UP travel to Haryana to take part in dangals, female wrestlers seldom do that.
Panipat native Nisha Dahiya, who was under a four-year dope ban until September this year, still competed against girls in dangals around Haryana. The same girls wrestled her at the National Championships where Dahiya won the gold medal in the 65 kg category.
“If I put a girl from Madhya Pradesh in front of a crowd of 1000 people, she will have competition fear,” former India women’s coach Kripa Shankar Bishnoi said. “Haryana wrestlers handle these kinds of crowds on a daily basis. They win and lose in front of huge crowds and have no fear.”
The level of competition to get into the state teams is also very high.
“It’s like a mini-national competition. You win Haryana, you can win the national title,” Singh said. “You are wrestling the best wrestlers of the country on a daily basis. You are sure to get better.”
Punjab suffers from the lack of competition despite hosting the highest number of mud dangals in India.
“Punjab wrestling is finished because of the federation,” former wrestler Palwinder Singh Cheema said. “The state doesn’t have wrestlers to compete against each other. Districts do not have mats so where will wrestlers train. If you do not have three to four good wrestlers in a single category, there is no way you can get better.”
Rewards and returns
Former Punjab Police Director General of Police Mehal Singh Bhullar was credited to bring a sporting revolution in the Punjab Police when he was transferred to Punjab Armed Police academy, Jalandhar. In 1996, he allowed wrestlers to join Punjab police through the sports quota. Wrestlers from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even Mizoram got inducted into the Punjab police ranks.
Taking a cue from Punjab’s recruitment drive, the Haryana government also decided to allow it’s wrestlers to join Haryana Police. The Bhupender Singh Hooda-led Congress government opened the way and also announced cash awards for medal-winning sportspersons.
“Close to 70 percent Punjab Police personnel from 1996 to 2005 are Haryana wrestlers,” Kuldeep Singh said. “Haryana wrestlers looked for jobs in the Army before that. Now, they had their own state giving them jobs.”
Wrestlers, boxers and athletes continue to be employed by Haryana police and even by other departments of the government. Other states, however, have failed to implement this.
“UP doesn’t have sports quota in government jobs,” Ravinder Mishra, a coach from UP employed with Railways, said. “Most UP wrestlers are employed with Railways. National medallists were considered for Group D recruitment which has now stopped.”
In states which are slowly coming up in wrestling, Himachal Pradesh for example, the reward is low-hanging fruit.
“The eligibility to apply for government jobs in HP via sports quota is participation in three national championships,” HP coach Vivek Thakur said. “Wrestlers go, get pinned three years in a row and still get a job. Do you think they will aim for medals?”
Rani from HP, however, is an exception. An assistant sub-inspector with Himachal Pradesh police, Rani was recruited as a constable after she won her first medal at National Championships. But she is a judo player and has represented India at international competitions which led to her promotion.
But what about Punjab which continues to give wrestlers good jobs in the police department?
“The employed people are from Haryana,” Cheema said. “They do not care about what Punjab wrestlers are doing. Domestic competitions are not strong either and no wrestlers are coming up.”
Cheema was the last heavyweight wrestler from India to win a medal at Asian Games. It took 18 years for an Indian wrestler to win a junior world title since Cheema’s in 2001.
Mud dangals still remain Punjab wrestlers’ go-to competitions where they can earn healthy money and not rely on government jobs for survival.
It’s a similar case in Maharashtra. Vijay Chaudhary, who has never wrestled on the mat, is a three-time Maharashtra Kesari and is a Deputy Superintendent of Police, thanks to his wins in dangals.
“It’s just one pocket of Maharashtra which has wrestling,” Bishnoi said. “Do you think a poor wrestler can afford to travel from a big Maharashtra state to travel and participate in dangals?”
Not just wrestlers, parents in Haryana travel kilometres and sometimes to another state with their kids, mostly girls, for competitions. Kiran Godara who represented India at the World Championships in September is accompanied by her father to all competitions in India.
“Even after they reach the top level, parents are committed to their progress,” Singh said. “Parents bring food, milk and travel kilometres for that. People who are not related to wrestling are interested in wrestling.”
“Jaan jhok dente hai wrestler ke career mein (They dedicate their lives in a bid to make the wrestler’s career),” Bishnoi said. “Kids become more responsible and that is how you grow.”
A wrestler’s growth is also linked to the leveling of coaching he or she receives. While other states have struggled to find good coaches, Haryana has managed to unearth good coaches on a consistent basis.
“Himachal has one Sports Authority of India coach,” Thakur said. “If people who run academies are not updated or are not the best, it is not the best situation.”
In Madhya Pradesh, there is another problem that Bishnoi lists. “There are a few coaches but most of the are on a contract basis. They are there only when a big official visits, they manage the arrangements.”
In a different time, khalifas (coach) were more focused on producing good wrestlers for showing their strength. But wrestling in eastern UP and beyond... in Bihar, West Bengal and even the North East has seen centres continue despite poor results.
Manipur, a hub of strong weightlifters and boxers, was once a women wrestling powerhouse as well. It won three straight national titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000 before Haryana began its rise.
The lack of competition, rewards and even training centres saw the downfall of the sport. Furthermore, the state federations failed to help the wrestlers. The wrestlers from stronger centres in Haryana, Delhi and western UP took No Objection Certificates and wrestled for these states.
In the near future, the trend looks unlikely to change. Out of the ten weight categories at the Nationals, eight gold medallists in women’s wrestling were from Haryana, eight in men’s freestyle and seven in Greco-Roman.
Though wrestlers from Punjab, UP, Karnataka won gold medals, it was one of those rare instances that repeats itself in Indian wrestling.
“It will take around 20 years for other states to catch up with them,” Thakur said. “That is if they continue their commitment to the sport. Haryana are way ahead. Even if they are opening a private centre, the mat is the first thing they buy.”
“If the Haryana government does not help you, then the village panchayat will,” he said. “If it doesn’t, then relatives will. Parents will sell land. The only aim is to make the kid a sportsperson. Other states are aimless.”