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'We don't celebrate the true heroes of India'
- Faisal Shariff
Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real. So believed Khashaba Jhadhav, India's first individual Olympic medalist. Jhadhav was the first and only one of two Indians to win an individual medal at the quadrennial games.
And yet you wonder how you have never heard of Jhadhav before. We have heard of P T Ushaand Milkha Singh, India's sprint heroes who faltered at those crucial microseconds at the Olympics. The high profile athletes whom the country honoured with awards. There is absolutely no doubt that both athletes deserved the awards, but what is intriguing is why K D Jhadhav did not get the same, if not greater, recognition for his effort sans any assistance.
Recalls Ranjit Jhadhav, his only son, "When Baba wanted some financial help for his journey to the Helsinki Olympics, he received a cold snub from (then Bombay chief minister) Morarji Desai, asking him to contact them after the Games."
The same leader garlanded the victorious Khashaba when he returned from Helsinki at a function organised in Bombay.
In search of a true hero…
My search for Khashaba Jhadhav, bronze medalist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, began when the editor left a note at my desk asking me to track down India's first individual Olympic medalist.
I thought it would be an easy job since K D Jhadhav was in the Maharashtra police force for close to 25 years. A phone call later, I realised that surprise would be my accomplice on this journey.
Very few men in uniform have heard of their illustrious comrade at Naigaum in Mumbai. They were completely unaware of the fact that the sports ground in the police premises is named after the legendary Olympian, as is the lane adjacent to the Naigaum police station.
"His wife came here many times asking for her son to be recruited in the force, but to no avail. None of the senior officers heeded her repeated requests," said one officer who finally managed to give me the family's address and a Marathi newspaper article featuring Jhadhav -- my only source of information on the unsung hero.
After an overnight journey to Karad in western Maharashtra, we were surprised to find that the name Khashaba Jhadhav drew blank faces. The ignorance wasn't restricted; it was ubiquitous.
A hop to the Karad police station further followed the same pattern.
After a lot of effort we found the home of the forgotten hero. Outside the house, on a cracked wall, sat a nameplate which read -- Olympica Niwas. A sad reminder of what life once was for this celebrated family.
We walked through the tall sugarcane fields, the crop that decides political destinies in Maharashtra. There is not much in the sugar belt of Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur that one can be proud of in terms of sporting excellence, except that the first-ever individual Indian Olympic medal winner hailed from the village of Goleshwar in the Karad taluka near Satara.
Life and times
Youngest of five sons of Dadasaheb Jhadhav, a good wrestler himself, Khashaba's interest in wrestling started very early. Wrestling wasn't the only sport that he excelled at. Weight lifting, swimming,running, malkhamb and hammer throw were some of the other sports he graced with amazing ease.
"He was the youngest to get into the akhada (gymnasium) at the age of ten and then we all followed him," remembers his close friend, Rajarao Piloba Deodekar.
"He would never miss any wrestling event anywhere. He would take all of us with him to watch the match and then analyse and discuss the match with us."
True heroes, they say, are admired without an apology. Not so in the case of this wrestling great who had to beg for money to travel to Helsinki. The Maharaja of Kolhapur funded Jhadhav's trip to London for the 1948 Games. But for the 1952 Games he and his family went around the village begging for contributions to enable him to flirt with destiny.
Khardikar, principal of the Rajaram College, where Jhadhav studied, mortgaged his home for Rs 7,000 to send his former student to the Olympics. Despite repeated requests to Morarji for only Rs 4000, there was no help forthcoming from any quarter.
"He would have easily won the gold at Helsinki," said Sampat Rao Jhadhav, his cousin who was with Khashababhau when he left for Helsinki to compete in the bantamweight category.
"It was difficult for him to adjust to the mat surface. After two rolling fouls he missed out on the gold medal which was his for the taking. (The gold was won by Japan's Ishii Shobachi while Russia's Rashid Mamedekov clinched the silver.) Moreover, there was no interval between the two bouts and to fight with two world class wrestlers without appropriate rest was more than a Herculean effort," added Rao.
But an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal. And a first is always special. The victory procession at the Karad railway station was a see-it-to-believe scene recalls Rao.
"There were dhols along with a 151 bullock cart procession right from the outskirts of Goleshwar to the Mahadeva temple which is normally a 15 minute walk. It took seven long hours that day and no one was complaining. We have not seen joyous scenes like that either before or after that day. There was a feeling of pride and every villager was basking in that moment of glory. Khashababhau brought the small village of Goleshwar, earlier a dot on the map, to the fore. The whole world knew and recognised Goleshwar as the village which gave India its first-ever Olympic champion."
The first bout that Khashaba fought when he returned from Helsinki was for his principal. The entire collection from that wrestling match were handed over by Jhadhav to his principal to release the latter's home from the moneylender.
Khashaba returned to the village and put his medal at his coach's feet. Success never ever went close to this man who never feared calling it as he saw it. He was severely critical of the coaches and officials who traveled with him to the Games. 'They were more interested in shopping and visiting the casinos,' said Jhadhav in one of his interviews.
Why don't they make men like him anymore?
There were ceremonies and functions held to celebrate the feat of this lone Indian who stood up to the challenges of stiff international competition and emerged glorious.
Although there were numerous functions, no financial bonanza awaited Khashaba. Except for pride and recognition, the bronze medal brought little joy to the Jhadhav family.
Slowly, but surely, all talk of his feat faded and he was but another name in Karad's voters's list.
Khashaba, however, was a very competitive coach and his son Ranjit believes that had his services been used, wrestling would have still retained its raw appeal in the country.
In 1955, Jhadhav was enlisted as a police sub-inspector. The next 22 years of his career went unrewarded, without a promotion. Despite several letters and requests, he was never given his due and the injustice meted out to him was in his own words 'unparalleled.'
On the insistence of his colleagues he was finally appointed as assistant commissioner of police in June 1982, for a brief period of six months, until he retired.
Two years later, on a quiet August morning, Khashaba died in a motorcycle accident on the highway leading to Karad. The vehicle slipped and over-ran both him and his friend. It was a ghastly end.
The Akhil Bharatiya Khashaba Jhadhav Wrestling Tournament was instituted to posthumously appreciate his contribution to Indian wrestling. His son and wife, however, continued to run from pillar to post lobbying for the Chhatrapati Shivaji award, Maharashtra's highest sporting honour, but were turned down on the pretext that he was dead.
In 1994 after repeated requests to the Maharashtra sports minister, Khashaba Jhadhav was posthumously awarded the Chhatrapati Shivaji award.
But the Arjuna Award still eludes the wrestler.
"My father should get the Arjuna Award because he deserves it. I have done everything possible to get my father the recognition he deserved when he was alive. I will try and get the Arjuna Award awarded to my father," says his son, Ranjit, who has written to Sports Minister Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa in June. There has been no response yet.
"I'm bitter. I'm bitter when I look at the prevailing conditions. The glamour the cricketers have got. It hurts. What have they given in return to the people who showered so much love and attention on them? They will have to take into consideration my father's accomplishments. Milkha Singh wasn't highly qualified, but became the sports director of Punjab. My father was a BA, LLB and yet they thought that he was not qualified to be a coach," says a bitter Ranjit.
Ranjit scored 214, one short of the mark for qualification, in the main Maharashtra Public Service Commission exam. When he approached then chief minister Sharad Pawar for consideration he was curtly told, 'Don't come to me with your father's name.'
"My 13-year-old son was shattered when his father died. I hid all the pain in my heart and played the man of the house. The Manohar Joshi government gave me Rs 1 lakh and employed my son in the state government. But life hasn't been easy for me. I have had to fight to get everything that ought to have been provided to us. Agriculture is still the main source of revenue for us.
"You journalists come here only during the Olympics, do your stories and then leave. Please take my plea to the Government of India, to the people out there who are starved of true heroes. If we don't celebrate the true heroes of India, how can we expect new heroes to emerge?" asks Khashaba Jhadhav's widow.
As I drove back from Olympica Niwas I passed the gym where Khashaba learnt his art. Kids do not venture into the akhada anymore; instead, they fancy cricket and football. A milk centre nestles in the complex and Jhadhav's picture has been returned to the family for the fear it may be damaged due to poor maintenance.
It was past six in the evening and the sun was about to set. And it dawned on me that in the past hundred years we have managed just two individual Olympic medals because we as a nation don't deserve true heroes. We just have commercial stars for whom we cannot use words like 'tragedy' and 'heroism' because they are covered with commercial labels. Maybe under all that, there is a hero somewhere, but it is hard to tell.
Yet, Khashaba Jhadhav is one man whose story of guts and glory will go down as a tragedy in the chronicle of Indian sport.
The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example. Jhadhav has proved his legacy all right. It is now our turn to show that we know how to treat our true heroes.
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