Caste, ethnicity, religion – United colours of Indian hockey prove the game thrives in inclusivity
Shekhar Gupta’s opinion piece in The Print however focuses on a different – and arguably more interesting – issue, namely, how diversity in teams and talent pools results in higher performance.
Whilst the Indian cricket team has become more diverse in recent years (in terms of caste and class), Shekhar says that hockey has been since Independence the most diverse of India’s team sports: “There is something about hockey, on the other hand, that it has always been the game of the underdog: Minorities, tribals, subordinate classes and castes. We can’t talk sociology, but we can surely cite history and facts. Muslims, Sikhs, in the past, Anglo-Indians, tribals from the most impoverished east-central plains, Manipuris, Kodavas, have for decades chosen hockey as the stage to display their talent.”
He delves further into the subject of how tribals have excelled at hockey for several decades now: “…beginning of a rich tradition where east-central tribal India has consistently produced hockey talent. And again, for some reason we can’t explain, a line of doughty defenders. In the current teams, Deep Grace Ekka and Salima Tete for women. And Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas for men. Except Salima (striker, outside-right), the rest are defenders. Three current defenders do not make a trend? Remember some of the most pugnacious defenders in the more recent decades, Michael Kindo and Dilip Tirkey.
The tradition was institutionalised by wonderful academies in the tribal heartlands, Khunti in Jharkhand, and Sundargarh and around in Odisha. Leading India to its first Olympic gold out of the way, Jaipal Singh Munda went on to other, more important things. In his early childhood, a British pastor’s family had taken him under its wings. He was sent to study at Oxford, where he excelled, but preferred to play and work for India…”
Shekhar then moves on to reminding us of the starring role played by religious minorities in India’s hockey triumphs. He begins with India’s first Olympic hockey gold in the 1928 Olympics: “…that first team had eight Anglo-Indians, among them goalkeeper Richard Allen, born in Nagpur and educated at Oak Grove, Mussoorie, and St. Joseph’s, Nainital. He didn’t concede a single goal in the entire tournament. If I am digressing here and there, that is also to underline the fact that all sport has colourful history, folklore and its characters, not just cricket.
Of the rest, three were Muslim, one Sikh, young Dhyan Chand, and, of course, a Jharkhand tribal as captain. By the following Olympics, the numbers of Muslims and Sikhs were rising…
Subsequently, a star cast of Muslim hockey stars had risen, Mohammed Shahid and Zafar Iqbal captained India, among others. The trend-setter was, of course, defender Aslam Sher Khan. Check out the 1975 World Cup in Kuala Lumpur, the only time India were champions. In the semi-final against Malaysia, India were a goal down with minutes to go for the hooter. They were winning many penalty corners, but Surjit Singh and Michael Kindo, even with their heavy sticks, were failing to convert.
A penalty corner in the 65th minute (game was for 70 minutes then), was the last hope. And coach Balbir Singh Sr (triple Olympic gold medalist, 1948, ‘52 and ‘56) called in Aslam from the bench to take this life-and-death shot. If you can find that footage, watch young Aslam walk on to the burning deck, kiss his amulet, and slam the equaliser in. It took the match into extra time and striker Harcharan Singh scored to settle the issue. Aslam later joined politics as we know, and became an MP. Post-Partition, he opened the door to Indian hockey for its Muslims.”
Shekhar ends the piece on an intriguing note by saying that it is not clear why hockey has been the sport of the underdog in India: “What is it that has made hockey the sport of the underdog for a hundred years, don’t ask me. I can only state this reality and remind you that Indian cricket’s rise has coincided with its growing inclusivity. It should settle the pointless debate over caste and merit.”