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Big fight: The silent struggle of one of India’s finest wrestlers

Aurally-challenged wrestler Virender Singh has so far been denied a fair chance to represent India at the Olympics. A new rule and a little help from three young filmmakers may turn everything around, writes Tanul Thakur.

TANUL THAKUR  26th Jul 2014

The poster of Goonga Pehelwan, a documentary on Virender Singh

hen wrestlers fight in Sasroli, a hamlet in Harayana, the akhada (a pastoral wrestling arena) is cordoned off by ropes. The villagers huddle near the ring to watch the match — most of them sit on the ground, a couple of them choose to stand, encircling the akhada and capturing the fight on their mobile phones or handycams. On the other side of the rope, in the middle of the akhada, stand a referee, an announcer and two wrestlers. Before the referee signals the start of the fight, the announcer introduces the wrestlers, appending their names with "pehelwan". However, when he introduces the wrestler Virender Singh to the crowd, he doesn't call him "Virender Pehelwan". He uses the words — "Goonga Pehelwan". For Virender Singh, an acclaimed wrestler who is also deaf and mute, Goonga shoves his name out. As if him being "Goonga" is more defining than him being Virender.

Should people be defined by their limitations? The 53-minute documentary Goonga Pehelwan, made by three young filmmakers (Mit Jani, Prateek Gupta and Vivek Chaudhary), centered on the national-level aurally challenged wrestler, Virender Singh, keeps throwing this question at us. Singh has been a wrestler for more than 10 years, and ruled the international arenas whenever he's fought abroad — he won India's only gold medal at the 2005 Melbourne Deaflympics; he bagged a silver medal at the World Deaf Wrestling Championships in 2008 in Yeravan, Armenia, and then a bronze each at the 2009 Deaflympics in Taipei and the 2012 World Deaf Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. Last year, he won India's only gold medal at the 22nd Summer Deaflympics held in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Despite winning two gold medals at the Deaflympics, Singh has never represented India at the Olympics. No one would have complained had Singh failed in the qualifying rounds, but he didn't fail, he wasn't even allowed to compete. Why? The answer, if you can call it one, is quintessentially bureaucratic — verbose and evasive. In the documentary, when Lalit Bhanot, an ex-IOA (Indian Olympic Association) member, is quizzed about this discrepancy he gives a perfunctory reply: "If you know about the International Olympic Committee's charter or the IOA's constitution, you would know that it is fair and open to everyone." On 4 April 2013, through the RTI Act, the following questions were asked of the IOA: "Can a deaf and mute athlete participate in the Olympics as a part of the Indian contingent? If yes, then is the procedure different for them?" The equivocal answer almost mocks the earnest questions: "There are separate Olympics held for disabled athletes, but their participation is not through the Indian Olympic Association." So if the IOA, otherwise responsible for selecting athletes for the Olympics, is not accountable for selecting the differently-abled athletes, who is? There's an answer within that answer, which shamelessly asserts: "You don't really belong. More importantly, your games are different from ours."

The sound of a whistle is central to the game of wrestling; it's how the game begins. Similarly, fouls, advantages and different rounds are indicated by the sound of a whistle. Singh can't hear the whistle, and that puts him in a tricky situation — in fact, it disconnects him from the basic rules of the very game he's trying to win. "In international games, if the differently-abled wrestler commits a foul, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) mandates that the referees pat them on their backs — especially if they are deaf — instead of blowing the whistle as usual," says Vivek Chaudhary. It doesn't sound that difficult in theory — you just have to inform the referee in advance that one of the players is differently-abled, and he should use tactile cues instead of directing the game by the sound of a whistle, something even Raphaël Martinetti, President of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), also recommends. "We interviewed Ashok Sharma, India's veteran wrestling referee, and asked him if there was such a rule in India, and he wasn't even aware of it. In fact, in 2002, when Singh had won the nationals, and qualified for the World Cadet Wrestling championship, the referees made him stand with his back to the whistle and said, 'you can't hear the whistle so you can't go'."

India has seen some sporadic successes at the Olympics in its previous editions — Abhinav Bindra won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Sushil Kumar won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and a silver at the 2012 London Olympics. Singh's international performances, on the other hand, have been no less stellar — he's won at each of the five big international games he's represented the country in. The government rewards have poured in for Bindra and Kumar, as they should. While it's heartening to know that sportsmen other than cricketers are being rewarded, one has to ask — how much has Singh been paid? Goonga Pehelwan neatly breaks it down for us, displaying a title card that reads: "Sushil Kumar: Rs 5.45 crore (total government rewards); Abhinav Bindra: Rs 3.5 crore (total government rewards); Virender Singh: Rs 3 lakh." The Sports Ministry's guidelines clearly state the different rewards for athletes depending on the kinds of accolades and sporting events. The guidelines also mention that no cash rewards are reserved for the differently-abled athletes. However, Singh once came close. Harayana's Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, under a new policy, had announced that the winner of the 2013 Summer Deaflympics would be awarded a cash prize of Rs 5 crore. Singh won that gold medal. He's still waiting for his Rs 5 crore.

Despite winning two gold medals at the Deaflympics, Virender has never represented India at the Olympics. No one would have complained had Singh failed in the qualifying rounds, but he didn’t fail, he wasn’t even allowed to compete.

Virender Singh is almost 32 years old. There's a good chance that he will be able to compete for only a couple of years more. Most compelling dramas have a third act — the final act — where things finally turn out all right. Singh's story could also have one: the 2016 Rio Olympics. A win at the next Olympics could mean a new beginning for him in every way. If he manages to win, he will not only be better placed monetarily — right now he earns his living by winning dangals (rural wrestling fights) — but will also be finally recogonised as one of the finest wrestlers of the country. But first he must be allowed to compete against the country's able-bodied wrestlers in the qualifying rounds.

he filmmakers, who finished Goonga Pehelwan in mid-2013, chose to end their film with a question: "Will Virender make it to Rio?" The question comes across as rhetorical if not a little too earnest, but even after making the documentary, the filmmakers didn't stop pursuing Singh's story. "We met the central sports minister; we met Harayana's sports minister," says Chaudhary. "Because of all this, there's been a slight pressure on the Wrestling Federation of India. We met its Secretary General, and told him about Virender. And this year, for the first time in the Indian wrestling history, a deaf athlete will get the right kind of referee — one who will give the visual and tactile cues. The nationals will happen in November, and he's training for it. We also have written assurance from the Wrestling Federation of India."

The filmmakers didn't want to stop at just one turnaround. "We were interested in two things — equal opportunity (the right kind of referee), which now seems to be in place for the moment, and cash awards. We want a special policy to be formulated for cash awards, or at least have them governed under the current policy," says Chaudhary.

While making this documentary, the three young filmmakers also found supporters along the way: "Rahul Mehra (founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party), one of the best sports advocates in the country who has fought a lot of cases against the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), has said that he will fight these cases for us pro bono. But rather than putting the government on a back foot by filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), and going through the case of legal wrangling, we decided to talk to them. We spoke to the ex-sports minister earlier this year, and he listened to us patiently." However, a change of government means a fresh round of negotiations will begin. "I will be travelling to Delhi for a new round of talk with the new minister. I have realised there are a lot of good people in the ministry. Once we make them aware of the discrimination, we have a feeling it will work out. If it doesn't, we always have the legal route to fall back on."

Promises have been made in the past. Promises have been reneged on in the past. These things are hardly considered newsworthy. It's in times of this pervasive cynicism that three filmmakers have found themselves to be activists. Bureaucratic indifference and youthful earnestness are unlikely foes — the hostility is not as much marked by differences as much by an innate inability to understand the other. In less than four months, we will find out what prevails over the other.

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