Sports and leagues are today wedded to each other, be it cricket, hockey, kabaddi or football. But this piece is not about those conglomerates; it is about a game that does not register in our sporting consciousness but has been played in the Indian sub-continent for over a century: rugby, a sport that we view as ‘people hitting and jumping on each other for an odd-shaped ball’.
Like cricket, it was introduced to India by the British. As a matter of fact, the All India & South Asia Rugby Championship has been played every year since 1924. Now if I tell you that India has a women’s rugby team, I am certain that most of you would be surprised. Due to the efforts of coaches such as Surhud Khare, who first introduced rugby to a few girls in Pune, we have a national team. The first Women’s 7’s Tournament was held in Pune in 2008, with teams from Pune, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and Hong Kong participating. In 2009, after the All Women 7’s event in Mumbai, the first Indian Women’s Rugby team was formed.
In spite of very little support, attention and encouragement, the women playing this sport have worked tirelessly to make this their life. The national team has even had some victories under their belt in the five years of competing at the international level. To put this in perspective, let us remember that India won its first Test match in 1952, only after 23 games over two decades.
The girls playing rugby look forward every year to the one major tournament: the national championship. This keeps them driven and focussed. But they had hoped this year would be special with the prospect of representing India at the recently-concluded Incheon Asian games.
Over the last one-and-a-half years, every member of the team hoped to make a mark in the Asian games. They put in many hours on the field, in the gym, working on tactics, strategies and honing their skills. Rugby, being a physical sport, meant that they had to adhere to strict diets and invest in protein supplements. They got hardly any support from corporate houses or the Sports Ministry. They put their education at risk, delayed surgeries, and worked at odd jobs to make the extra money. But they did not view any of this as a burden since the dream of playing at the Asian Games kept them going. Unfortunately, this dream ended rather abruptly.
The Sports Ministry decided to prune the number of sportspersons sent to the games to 516 from the 609 sent to Guangzhou, China. The ministry selected only those team sports in which it felt a top-eight finish was possible. Now by itself this may not seem to be unfair but take a look at the context. These decisions were not made two years ago; they were made at the last minute. This meant that all these girls who had believed that they would represent the country were suddenly told that it was not possible.
There is more to why such decisions don’t make any sense. The ministry’s argument, I am sure, is about the team’s ‘competitiveness’. These sportswomen hardly get any international exposure. They have hardly three weeks to prepare even for the few international tournaments they participate in. What has the ministry done to uplift the standard of the game? How can the ministry create standards for selection when it does not provide enough support for the sport itself?
More than just this one event, the Government of India — or for that matter any of us — do not cherish people who play sports that have ‘no TRP rating’; if the players are women, it is even worse. Today players such as Annapurna Bothate, Saloni Prachande, Neha Pardeshi and Vahbiz Bharucha don’t know if this sport really has any future in this country. Their spirit is gutted.
Though rugby players are not alone in this situation, this piece is anchored around women’s rugby for another reason. In a patriarchal country like ours, it becomes significant when women choose a sport that challenges social prejudices and masculine notions. Shouldn’t we, as a modern society, grasp the social relevance of their courage and provide them every support they need? Even as we rejoice in the successes of Mary Kom on celluloid, we still treat women in sports as second grade sporti-zens. Nobody is asking for favours and I am sure these rugby players will be the last to accept ‘gender-based charity’, but they demand respect. Not an unfair request, is it?