A host of top Indian sportsmen hailing from Punjab and Haryana led by former Arjuna award-winning wrestler Kartar Singh and Olympic medalist Vijender Singh have decided to return their national sports awards to the Government of India as a way of showing solidarity with the farmers who have been protesting against the new agricultural laws.
It is one of those rare occasions where Indian athletes have raised their voices against government policies. However, boxing star Vijender, who is willing to return his Khel Ratna award to show support to the farmers, revealed that he advised other sportspersons from Haryana and Punjab who wanted to join the farmers’ protests to stay away from it.
“I received a lot of messages from athletes from Punjab and Haryana who wanted to support the farmers. But most of them have jobs in the government,” Vijender told Scroll.in over the phone.
“But knowing well the small-mindedness of this government I asked the athletes to not take part in the protests as I felt the government with their small mentality could hurt the careers of these athletes. On a personal front, I’ll firmly stand with the farmers,” added the Indian boxer who contested for a Delhi Lok Sabha seat for the Congress in 2019.
There have been previous instances where athletes have felt pressure from the government to forward their propaganda.
One such prominent recent example was of Indian female athletes tweeting out identical messages from their Twitter handles to thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi for starting a campaign called Bharat Ki Laxmi to celebrate women’s achievements.
This time around, the athletes have decided to return their national awards because they believe that the efforts of farmers must be recognised.
“One of the main reasons for us winning these awards is the farmers. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve the success that we did in our sporting careers without the effort farmers put on their fields to feed us,” Kartar Singh, a two-time Asian Games gold-medalist told Scroll.in.
“So when we saw how farmers who were peacefully protesting were dealt with, we decided to do something about it and return our national awards. So far we have thirty athletes who are willing to do so,” he added.
The group of athletes reached New Delhi on Sunday in order to return their awards and marched towards Rashtrapati Bhavan from the Press Club of India on Monday. But they were stopped by the police on their way and prevented from returning their awards.
The group led by Kartar Singh have since stayed in New Delhi and wrote to the President on Tuesday requesting him to accept the return of their awards.
The Indian Olympic Association released a statement reacting to the sportspersons’ move urging them to not mix the two issues.
“Off late sports persons are seen to be announcing return of their National Awards as a mark of their support for the recent farmers’ issue. National Awards and farmers issue are 2 separate things, while every Indian including us loves and supports the farmers and we all would always like our farming community to be happy as they are the *ANNDATA’s* of our country,” read a statement from IOA.
Reacting to the same, Vijender felt the decision to return the awards is a reflection of their feelings about the law changes.
“For a moment, I thought what will I achieve by returning the awards?” the 2012 Olympic bronze-medal winning boxer said.
“But the fact is that we are unhappy with the situation and returning the award is a way of expressing that feeling of unhappiness to the government. It shows that the sportsmen of this country are standing firmly with the farmers and they feel the farm law changes are not right. If the farmers are unhappy, we are unhappy. It’s as simple as that,” Vijender said.
Apart from receiving the award from the president, an athlete who wins the national sports awards receives prize money, pension and allowance to travel freely in railways among the major benefits.
For players, most of whom come from a rather humble background, the benefits serve as a big financial help. So returning the award means losing out on the perks that the prize offers.
“You can win awards and medals again but I have been fed by farmers of Punjab for 14 years. So how can I not help when they are in need,” Vijender further added.
“Sportspersons are simple people. They don’t understand politics, but they are also very sentimental. So for us, letting the awards go, to show support to the farmers who have helped us matters a lot,” added Kartar Singh.
Tens of thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab and Haryana, have camped out at the entrance to Delhi for many days now, asking the government to reverse the agricultural legislations, which they fear could pave the way for the government to stop buying grains at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.
The athletes are yet to receive a green light to meet the president but are unlikely to leave the city without doing the needful.