2024 Lok Sabha polls: Nursery of wrestlers in Baghpat grapples with ‘political neglect’ - Hindustan Times

2024 Lok Sabha polls: Nursery of wrestlers in Baghpat grapples with ‘political neglect’

ByS Raju, Malakpur (baghpat)
Apr 24, 2024 10:26 PM IST

Baghpat's political landscape has changed over the years, leaving the legacy of wrestling nurseries in jeopardy. Only one akhara remains, struggling for resources.

Elections have come and gone and so have leaders in Baghpat, which has changed political colour over the years, but the political players have not offered much to the akharas with the result that all but one of these nurseries for wrestlers has either shifted out of Malakpur village here or closed down because of a paucity of resources.

Khalifa teaching nuances of wrestling to budding grapplers in his akhara at Malakpur village in Baghpat (S Raju/Hindustan Times)
Khalifa teaching nuances of wrestling to budding grapplers in his akhara at Malakpur village in Baghpat (S Raju/Hindustan Times)

Regretting that a legacy of over five decades is about to vanish, villagers say that public representatives of the area can protect it but remain apathetic.

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Run by the septuagenarian Khalifa (Master) Iqbal, popular as Iqbal Khalifa, the sole surviving akhara in the village has produced many national, international and Olympian grapplers over the past few decades.

“No politician has paid attention to the development of this five-decade old nursery of wrestlers,” Khalifa says about the ongoing Lok Sabha election in which Baghpat will vote in the second phase on April 26.

The main poll contestants in Baghpat this time are Rajkumar Sangwan (Rashtriya Lok Dal backed by BJP) who is pitted against the Samajwadi Party’s Amarpal Sharma and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Praveen Bainsla. Two-term sitting BJP MP Satyapal Singh is not in the fray this time.

“They all take pride in mentioning that Malakpur has an akhara which has produced many wrestlers of national, international and Olympic repute but the village got nothing in return,” adds Khalifa as he watches a training session from his cot and puffs on his hookah.

He himself was a wrestler for 11 years but quit the sport due to family reasons and then set up this akhara on the premises of his home 50 years ago to hone the skills of young grapplers.

Subhash Tomar, Sandeep Tomar, Rajeev Tomar, Shokinder Tomar and Anshu Tomar are a few wrestlers from the akhara who represented India at the international level. Shokinder was also honoured with the prestigious Arjuna Award. Narendra Tomar, Ashok Tomar, Prahlad and Aarti Tomar also brought laurels for the akhara and the country.

The fact that this nursery of wrestlers in Malakpur is passing through tough times can be gauged from the fact that the village had eight akharas, but the others, barring Khalifa’s akhara, gradually either shifted to other places or closed down because of paucity of resources.

Khalifa’s akhara, the oldest one, is still struggling to carry forward its legacy despite the odds.

“It is the only akhara which has been running for the past five decades,” Khalifa says and adds that he still has a dozen young wrestlers working hard to make a mark in the sport.

“It’s an expensive sport because wrestlers need a nutritious diet every day for building their muscles,” he adds.

Jitendra Tomar, who accompanies his 17-year-old son Raunaq Tomar to the akhara every day, agrees.

A budding wrestler needs to incur 300 to 400 on his diet every day while for a full-fledged wrestler it could go up to 2000 to 2500 daily, says Jitendra who was a “pehalwan” and teaches nuances of wrestling to budding grapplers.

“The price of nuts and milk used in the diet has increased manifold in the past few years. It’s difficult for families to afford such a costly diet,” Jitendra says.

“Agriculture, mainly sugarcane, is the main source of villagers’ income and sugarcane dues add to their financial woes,” Jitendra says.

Another veteran wrestler Chainu says many youngsters give up the sport after sometime because their families can’t afford such a costly diet.

Villagers demand that the government should provide diet facilities in akharas like mid-day meal in schools.

Young wrestlers Sakib and Shahzad say they joined the akhara after getting inspiration from senior wrestlers.

Currently practising on soil pits, these budding players demand “synthetic wrestling mattresses”, which are now being used in all types of competition. Long ago, dangals (local wrestling competitions), which are still very popular in the area, were generally patronised and promoted by local politicians because these events enabled them to remain in contact with local people.

Back then, cash prizes at these dangals were a major source of monetary gain for wrestlers.

Now, the frequency of these dangals has reduced from 300 in a year to 29 to 30, which is another setback to the sport, says Khalifa.

“Many of them (politicians) do come to the akhara occasionally but they did nothing for its development,” Khalifa says.

But the silver lining is that the sport has become a medium for getting government jobs through the sports quota, he says.

Almost all wresters of his akhara got jobs and this became a source of inspiration for villagers to put their children into wrestling and other sports, he adds.

Seeing the popularity of the sport in the area, Rashtriya Lok Dal chief and Rajya Sabha member Jayant Choudhary gave money from his MPLAD (MP Local Area Development) fund to develop a synthetic track at Shahmal Stadium and wrestling facilities at Janta Vedic Degree college in Baraut.

But no attention was paid to the akhara where over 15 budding wrestlers still practise five hours a day, Khalifa says.

Baghpat used to be the pocket borough of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and its forerunner, the Lok Dal. Former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh won the seat thrice in a row in 1977, 1980 and 1984 on the Lok Dal ticket. After this, his son, Chaudhary Ajit Singh, took over his political mantle, winning the seat in 1989 and 1991 for the Janata Dal, in 1996 for the Congress and in 1997 (bypoll) as an Independent. He bagged the seat for the Rashtriya Lok Dal in 1999, 2004 and 2009. The BJP fielded former Mumbai police commissioner Satya Pal Singh, who won the seat in 2014 and 2019.

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