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|September 1, 1999||
The Rediff Election Specials/ Josy Joseph
Wrestlers bounce back in the fray, thanks to electioneering
Political leaders, cutting across party lines, are hiring hundreds of pehalwans, most of them petty criminals and history-sheeters, for acting as bodyguards and to carry out sundry activities, including booth-capturing and bogus-voting on election day.
The akharas in Delhi and surrounding areas, traditional training centres that groom wrestlers which have produced several wrestlers of repute, are now deserted, its members busy in election campaigns, guarding politicians, organizing rallies, and getting ready, if necessary, for booth capturing and bogus voting. The Delhi police has already rounded up about 400 antisocial elements, most of them wrestlers from Haryana and Delhi, till now.
In hiring wrestlers and goons, neither ideology nor image counts. A senior Delhi police official told rediff.com that they have even arrested a few pehalwans who were reportedly working for this election's Mr Clean, Dr Manmohan Singh, the Congress candidate from South Delhi. "We don't know if Dr Singh is aware of these men being involved in his campaign," he said.
But Sahib Singh Verma, the BJP candidate from Outer Delhi, definitely knew of his men. The Jat leader had hired several dozen pehalwans, promising them employment and money. The city police has already arrested 22 residents from Haryana who were working for the former Delhi CM, who were apparently brought in with a promise of jobs in the Delhi Vidyut Board. Though the ex-CM has rejected these allegations, a senior officer of the city police said the youth had admitted that they were brought to the capital for the purpose of working on his campaign.
Sources claimed that immediately after the pehalwans were arrested, Verma called up city police commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma requesting him to let them off. The west district police released them but the duty magistrate has asked them to appear before him periodically.
The Delhi police is continuing to arrest antisocial elements on the eve of the general elections. "Most of them are from akharas in Delhi and Haryana," the senior police official said.
"We made preventive arrests as these are elements who could create trouble during elections. Further searches are going on," he added.
A member of the Chandgi Ram Akhara, one of the oldest training schools for wrestlers located in the northern fringes of Delhi, told rediff.com, "Our boys are busy with elections, now they get paid well... It is a professional service." The akhara is run by Arjuna award winner Chandgi Ram, who personally prefers to keep off this business, but does not interfere in what his trainees do.
Most akharas offer their entire lot of pehalwans to one particular party. "Money is the key motivator," say city police officials. Though akhara members deny any criminal links, police officials say a "substantial number of them have a criminal background". Lack of education and the inability to achieve much in the field of sport force the pehalwans into doing petty jobs for property dealers, private financiers, etc, all of which ultimately leads them to the world of crime, say police officials.
The city police commissioner has threatened tough action, and it has to "some extent" deterred Haryana-based pehalwans from coming to the capital. Besides, Haryana, where the Congress and the BJP-INLD combine are locked in a tough fight, itself offers them a lucrative market. But because elections are spread over three phases, "on the crucial days we expect more of them to come in," admits a senior official of the crime branch.
According to police officials and local political workers, anything ranging from Rs 1000 to 10,000 is paid to a wrestler for 10 days' work. "The reward depends upon the efficiency of the pehalwan," says a local BJP worker Harish, who is campaigning for Sahib Singh Verma. The best of the wrestlers are hired for protecting the leaders, and those who are also local dadas are paid heavily for getting voters to the polling booths and "for taking care of the situation" on the polling day, says Harish.
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