Bhiwani: My Small Town in Haryana

Since Vijender Singh won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, the first ever in boxing and two of his mates, Akhil Kumar and Jitendra reached the quarter finals, Bhiwani, a small town in Haryana, has become a household name in India, and perhaps even in the world of boxing. In India's boxing contingent, four out of five were from Bhiwani. At the Athens Olympics, out of four, three Indian boxers were from Bhiwani. No wonder Bhiwani, with boxing rings scattered around the town, is called little Cuba. Vijender fought valiantly but lost to his Cuban opponent. Cuban boxers did not win a single gold this time. But under Fidel Castro, this Caribbean island has produced a dazzling succession of Olympic boxing champions including Te'filo Stevenson, one of the greatest of all times, who like other Cuban boxers refused to turn professional with assured millions to win in USA, another great boxing nation, where this game is dominated by Afro-Americans, who in the absence of other professions barred to them, excel in boxing, basketball, athletics and music.

Before the start of the Olympics and during it, as other fancied Indian participants failed even to qualify for the final rounds, Indian TV channel sports anchors, now focused on boxing, started looking up for Bhiwani, a district town 125 kms west of Delhi. Soon TV teams and reporters turned up at this till now obscure town to cover the aspirations and reactions of boxers' families and the town's excited and proud residents. Except for hockey's gold and other medals, one silver in shooting and just two bronze medals in wrestling and tennis, Indian athletes did little to cheer her billion population throughout Olympic games since India began participating. But on the trough of India's economic upsurge, the best ever Olympic performance with Avinash Bindra 's Gold in 10 meters air rifle shooting and another bronze in wrestling for Sushil Kumar from Delhi , somewhat fortuitously, was reason enough for exuberant celebrations all over India for its masses hungering for sports icons.

Except for rifle shooter Bindra, who hails from a very well off family in Chandigarh, which provided him for a decade, not only moral but most of the financial support, a prerequisite to produce a world beater, the boxers and wrestlers come from poor families; children of bus drivers, conductors or marginal farmers. India is not a sporting nation and the bludgeoning middle class is yet to take to athletics and other sports as a professional career option, except for cricket, which with a religion like following in India, now supports the cricket world. 

I was born in Bhiwani in 1938, when it was a small dusty Tehsil town in the backward region of undivided Punjab of Hindustan and treated as Kalapani aka punishment postings for officials by ruling mandarins in Lahore. 

When I went over to Banaras in 1954 to study engineering, Bhiwani was a subdivision of Hissar district of Indian East Punjab. When I said Punjab was my home state, many would start conversing in Punjabi, which certainly was not my mother tongue. We were still learning Punjabi from refugees, who were forced to flee their homes in Multan, Jhang and other cities in newly created Pakistan. They had lost their belongings and many of their relatives were butchered on way to India. Some would brag unconvincingly about big gardens and properties they had left behind. However they were all hardworking and aggressive in business and transformed the city's commercial environment. The Haryanvi women started changing over to Punjabi dress -salwar kamiz, more practical than the billowing skirt, short shirt and head cover. Of course I learnt to understand Punjabi only when in 1958 I started teaching electrical engineering at Patiala. The salwar 'kamiz has become perhaps the most popular wear in India, specially among the young, although jeans, a fashionable western import, is now taking over in major cities and towns. 

Many would ask me where was Bhiwani situated. Most had not heard about it, except for residents of cities which textile industry, since Bhiwani boasted of two textile mills and an Institute which trained textile engineers. Bhiwani also had a degree and teachers training colleges, run by local Seth Kirori Mal Trust, which also runs Delhi's Kirori Mal college. Some literary types would exclaim, " Oh! Bhowani Junction!" and had to be corrected that Bhiwani was a non-descript meter gauge rail station. The locale of novel 'Bhowani junction ' was perhaps inspired by Jhansi's railway hub.

However, after the division of East Punjab into Punjab and Haryana, its dynamic and development obsessed Chief Minister Chaudhary Bansi Lal, soon got its railway station transformed into a junction, by cajoling the Indian Railways to build a broad gauge link from Rohtak to Bhiwani. A politician friend related how it was done. When Bansi Lal made the request, the Railway Minister, in usual fashion said that " Yes, we will do it after the land survey etc-- in next years budget ". But Bansi Lal, a shrewd and go getter Jat, replied that the Haryana government had completed all the required surveys. The Railway Minister then talked of acquiring land for the project , which could take some time. Bansi lal had brought along his officers ready with draft notifications for acquiring land and signed them on the spot. Once he was determined to achieve something, he would go all out for it. He is rightly known as the builder of Haryana (and Bhiwani) adding irrigations canals, lift irrigation schemes, industries, roads, universities and historic and tourist spots at Panipat and Kurukshetra. His drive and rough and ready methods specially during the 'Emergency rule' of 1975-77, when he had shifted to New Delhi as the Defense Minister brought him much notoriety but at least in India, people knew about Bhiwani, Bansi Lal's home town.

Haryana was carved out of Punjab in 1966. This region had been neglected both as part of undivided Punjab and East Punjab. It soon flourished and took advantage of its proximity to Delhi, as can be seen in Gurgaon, near Delhi, home to national and international companies in automobiles, motorcycles, tractors, white goods industries and sunrise IT and BPL business. Haryana is now one of India's richest states in spite of little local raw materials.

During 1940s and 1950s , Bhiwani was a dusty waterless town, with Rajasthan's sand dunes encroaching right inside the city's western limits. Birla's education city of Pilani in Rajasthan is only 50 kms west of Bhiwani and Churu, home town of Laxmi Mittal, the steel baron, is not far away. I remember perpetual water scarcity in Bhiwani. Summers brought in hot abrasive sand storms. Two water channels, one for city's water needs and another for the two textile mills, were called small and big nehers  ' canals or rivers. As a child if we jumped from one bank we would hit the opposite side. No wonder I never learnt swimming. There were many big ponds dug around the town to store rainwater for drinking, washing and for the cattle. Between Bhiwani and Rohtak, 45 kms away on way to Delhi, one could spy only one little garden. There were a few gardens around the city, otherwise it was just dust, sand and more sand with some dry shrubs here and there. 

When I visited Bhiwani in 1970, on home leave while posted at Ankara,  I was almost shocked to see that between Rohtak and Bhiwani, not only there was greenery and booming agriculture, even sugarcane was being cultivated near the city. The old city gates had been rebuilt in splendor,  there were new smooth concrete roads with traffic signals, not that any one followed them. Shop keepers were selling apples and grapes like wild berries of old days. There was a growing smell of prosperity all around. Earlier, even those who owned thousands of arid land were forced to join the army as simple soldiers for a livelihood. Now with networks of canals and water pumps, they had come into riches and indulged in politics and usual aggressive activities. In general, owing to the abiding influence of Arya Samaj, few ate meat. I myself became a non-vegetarian while studying at Banaras. Unfortunately the sudden upsurge of wealth has brought in evils like drunkenness and alcoholism. 

An unusual instance when Bhiwani was mentioned with some astonishment was at Rome Airport in 1984 by the Italian airport manager of Air India, when I then posted at Bucharest in Romania and was transiting via Rome for Delhi. Apart from my passport, he had also seen details about Haryana politician 'academician Ch .Hardwari Lal, Om Parkash, an Indian businessman settled in Prato, near Rome and the then Deputy Managing Director of Air India, Chaman Lal Sharma, all connected to Bhiwani. With scarce foreign exchange, not many Indians, not even rich ones, could then travel abroad.

The town is believed to have been founded by a Rajput chief Neem Singh to honor his wife Bhani. The name Bhani later morphed into Bhiyani and subsequently to Bhiwani. The town also has a conspicuous religious dimension. Because of a large number of Hindu temples it is called "Chhota Kashi". Like Rajasthan, the arid land of Bhiwani has produced a large number of rich traders and industrialists. They splash colossal sums building big Havelis (mansions) and there are many in Bhiwani and in ostentatious marriage ceremonies. But owners of these mansions made their money in Kolkata and elsewhere, where they operated, occupying a small space in a ill lit room in bazaars. Perhaps, embarrassed how to explain to their Maker how they came into their ill gotten wealth, some by hoarding food grains during famines and scarcity, to atone for their sins, a few have built temples and Dharamshalas (charity rest houses) and to perpetuate their names, schools and colleges.

Bhiwani has produced two chief ministers of Haryana state and a couple of Cabinet Ministers for New Delhi. The state has been a model of political innovation, not always of the right kind .It added the term Ayaram-Gayaram, for political defections, now so prevalent all over India; political parties and individuals changing allegiance for political or monetary gain

It was sickening to watch Indian politicians crowding out the returning Olympic medal winners for photo-ops. Almost all sports associations have fallen in to the clutches of politicians and their favorite civil servants or hangers on, which are used for patronage and free trips abroad. As politicians do elsewhere, many awards and prizes are announced after wars or sports medals, but not disbursed .

A few decades ago, many politicians would turn up, a few months before the Olympics in European capitals, say of East Germany, a major sporting force then and request for a coach so that India could win a few medals. That attitude has not changed much since then. India did not even qualify for entry into hockey at Beijing. There is just no accountability or even remorse for their colossal failure.

Wrestling, football, hockey, volleyball used to be favorite sports in Bhiwani. It appears that now boys from lower middle classes have taken to boxing in large numbers, for, a national or international medal ensures a job in the police at lower level of say sub-inspector. Vijender has been promoted to Deputy Superintendent of Police rank. Like most Indian states, jobs are sold, with political elites using even transfers and threats of transfer to milk money from the civil servants. No wonder they in turn do nothing unless bribes are paid. Well, what would you expect when honorable members accept money for raising questions in the Indian Parliament and during the recent vote of confidence, according to Members themselves, the going rate for transfer of loyalty was 250 million rupees, a big sum. But political dynasties have garnered thousands of millions of rupees each, even held in foreign currencies abroad. 

Olympics had become a cold war arena of competition in physical prowess between Capitalism and Communism, which has somewhat cooled off after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However sport persons from Russia and former communist nations are still doing well. China topped the list of gold medal winners in Beijing, displacing USA to second place. Winning a medal still requires national endeavour in which the state, corporate interests and individuals all participate jointly. 

Apart from the latest training techniques, supporting gizmos, sports medicine and psychology, doping techniques aka administration of drugs to enhance athletic performances have also seeped in; an ancient practice from the days of Roman gladiators who used stimulants such as strychnine to pump themselves up for a battle. Doping is done through gene therapy i.e. by inserting genes into a cell which instruct the body to produce large amounts of a hormone, protein, or other natural substance that enhance performance. Dope manufacturers keep a step ahead of means to detect it. Most sports suffer from it including cricket, with players from Pakistan i.e. Shoaib Akhtar and Mohamad Asif and the Australian spinning wizard Shane Warne to name a few.

There are numerous examples of doping in recent history from athletics. Sprinter Marion Jones of USA, who won five Olympic gold medals, used drugs and has been convicted. Boxer Jason Giambi of New York says he turned to steroids beginning in 2001. Ken Caminiti, once an 'Outstanding Player' insisted half the players in baseball shared his steroid weakness. He died at 41 of a cocaine overdose. 

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who lowered the old 100-meter mark at the 1988 Olympics, was found using illicit testosterone and banned. But Carl Lewis, his rival and supposedly Mr. Clean and a loud one, had reportedly failed drug tests before the 1988 Olympics (the charges came out only after his retirement). And of course the ever popular Diego Maradona from the slums of Argentina - the Pele of the generation- who was expelled from the 1994 World Cup after testing positive for too many drugs to count. Apart from American Tour de France star Lance Armstrong since 1999, Richard Virenque of France, Italy's Marco Pantani (dead) of a drug overdose last winter) and, most recently, Tyler Hamilton of the United States have all tested positive for steroids or blood-enhancing EPO. The list of doping of athletes is long and endless. It is like a cat and mouse game, with athletes and players from advanced nations generally succeeding more often than not.


More by :  K. Gajendra Singh

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