Athletes practising at Bijapur Sports Academy. Photo: bijapur.gov.in
Raipur: In what appears to be a case of institutional discrimination, two ‘upper’ caste sports coaches at the National Sports Academy in the Bijapur district of Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division abused and hit five Adivasi children who had accused them of a lackadaisical attitude to training and have stopped training the children altogether.
The incident which took place on January 4 highlights Indian society’s casteist and racist persecution of Adivasis and also the administration’s institutional discrimination against them since no action has been taken against these coaches so far and the training for these children has stopped, the district administration going so far as to lock the doors of the gyms.
Some of the children involved in the incident had been selected for the Khelo India Youth Games to be held in Haryana, dates for which have been postponed and not decided yet, and training for these games was their top priority. When the two coaches, Suraj Gupta and Prakarsh Rao, refused to train them, using the excuse that a lockdown had been imposed, the athletes accused the coaches of being lax in their duties.
“I pointed out to our coaches that since they only come for training towards the end of the sessions, they don’t provide much training in any case,” said Onish Kodiam, a 17-year-old national judo player who comes from the Muria tribe. “In response, the karate coach said we must be disciplined first, but he was chewing tobacco as he spoke and the tobacco dripped from his mouth. This made Aniram, my fellow athlete, smile. When the coach saw this, he began shouting at us and thrashing us.”
Only school and sports can keep the children in the Bastar region occupied and away from Maoist organisations. But the administration’s biased mindset and negligent attitude could keep even those interested in sports away.
The Adivasis or members of tribal communities have always been used as pawns, both by the administration and the Naxalites. On the one hand, the government, which is supposed to educate the tribal communities, deceived them in the name of development and thrust weapons in their hands to be used against the Naxalites. On the other hand, the Naxalites pulled the Adivasi children away from education and armed them to fight the administration.
The Salwa Judum movement launched in 2005 was a state-sponsored death-trap into which many members of the tribal communities were deliberately pushed, while many others were displaced. The family of 18-year-old Aniram Korsa, one of the children involved in the incident at the sports academy on January 4, was forced to leave Mankeli village in Bijapur and move to Shivirpara settlement after members of the Salwa Judum looted houses in their village. In 2016, the Naxalites barged into their house and killed Aniram’s father, accusing him of being a police informer. Aniram turned to sports in 2017 and began training as a karate player.
In 2022, Aniram, a member of the Muria tribe, received his first opportunity to compete at the national level when he and six other Adivasi children were picked to participate in a national karate championship in Gujarat. The seven young people concerned currently reside at the sports academy’s hostel in Bijapur and train for their competition twice daily.
Since Aniram is his family’s sole earning member and he has two brothers, a sister and his mother to support, he drives an autorickshaw every alternate day to supplement his income. But while the young man is happy to have received permission to park his auto on the hostel premises, he is worried about his training since the karate and judo gyms at the sports academy have been closed.
“Our sports coaches are not concerned about us,” Aniram told The Wire. “They sometimes visit the academy in a drunken state and abuse our mothers and sisters. Nor do they pay attention to our training. After beating us on January 4, the two coaches boasted that not even a leaf falls without their consent. When we went to the Bijapur police station, we were pressured not to file a written complaint. The deputy collector, who is currently in charge of the district sports academy, also told us that we should have approached him before going to the police.”
Aniram, Onish and the other judo and karate athletes at the sports academy have spent the last few weeks trying to persuade Amit Nath Yogi, the deputy collector of the district, to unlock the karate and judo gyms and appoint a new coach.
But Yogi told The Wire that this is impossible at this time. “A new coach cannot be appointed now because we have only recently appointed a coach for swimming and archery,” the deputy collector said. “The halls for judo and karate training can also not be opened because equipment worth between Rs 15 and Rs 20 lakhs is kept there. Who will guard it?”
When the athletes assured Yogi that they would personally shift the equipment to another room and lock it, the deputy collector claimed that since the gym in question was the place where, according to the complaint, the children were beaten by the coaches, it cannot be opened until the police investigate the matter.
However, both the athletes and the Adivasi society at large ask how the police can carry out an investigation without a registered first information report. “The police officials merely took a written complaint from us,” they said.
Even a written complaint may or may not exist. Shashikant Bhardwaj, the station house officer at the Bijapur police station, told The Wire that he has not received any complaint about the coaches and suggested that it may be with the Azad police station instead.
Signs of prejudice
According to the athletes at the sports academy, the two coaches involved in the January 4 incident had displayed markedly casteist and racist attitudes since their appointments four years ago.
The athletes told The Wire that the coaches had abused Adivasi girls on earlier occasions, used slurs like ‘Gond’ and ‘Muria’ and often hit them with belts. They had even expelled some of the children at the sports academy, even though no coach has the authority to do such a thing. The athletes claim that both the coaches were appointed on contract, but have remained with the academy for the past four years.
“I was expelled from the academy in 2020 by Suraj Gupta who called me a Naxalite,” said Mukesh Karti, a member of the Dorla community and a state-level judo player. “When I posted a photo of my brother wearing a police uniform on a messaging app, Suraj Gupta told me that I was a Naxalite and not even fit to play. One day he told me that he was giving me three days’ notice to leave the academy or else I would be expelled.”
Suraj Gupta is a resident of Bhilai district. The athletes at the sports academy allege that Gupta made derogatory remarks against them, telling them that they had joined the academy merely for the free meals. Gupta also often compared Adivasi sportspersons to those in Bhilai. Bhilai, which is sometimes called the sports capital of Chhattisgarh, has high-tech training equipment available and people from affluent families pay hefty fees to train at private institutions. Athletes in Bhilai have no health issues, which is a major concern in Adivasi areas.
According to the athletes, Bhuvan Nage, the previous coach at the academy, had trained them well and paid attention to their health. Under Suraj Gupta, they allege, they are given only one egg in their meals per day and served chicken only once a week.
“Judo is a sport of endurance and strength while karate is one of speed and agility,” Bhuvan Nage told The Wire. “For both the sports, additional nutrition is extremely important. I had made a complete diet chart which included two eggs daily. Now they get only one egg. Before any event, I purchased tins of protein worth between Rs 3,500 and Rs 5,500 from my own salary for the athletes. Even though the Sports Authority of India has allocated Rs 5,500 per month to be spent on each player’s diet, our children are given food worth Rs 700. In such a situation, how will they be able to stand against their opponents?”
Nage believes that if the academy were to offer a better diet, its athletes could perform wonders. “When the children work so hard even in the absence of a proper diet, imagine how much they could achieve if they were fed well!” said Nage. “Mukesh Karti was an excellent athlete, but his low weight for his age causes him a lot of problems.”
Mukesh Karti, who had been ‘expelled’ from the academy in 2020, is a 21-year-old judo athlete who needs to weigh 65 kg to participate in national senior level competitions. But he only weighs 49 kg at present. “I do not know how to add the 16 kgs I require,” Karti told The Wire.
Nage, who works with the police, claims to have been the person who launched the sports academy in Bijapur. “The Naxalites threw a warning to me twice to scare me away,” he told The Wire. “Suraj Gupta and Prakarsh Rao were my students and I had recommended them for the job, but they conspired against me and had me fired. Even now, when the athletes filed the complaint, I was accused of inciting them.”
Meanwhile, the Adivasi society of Bijapur waits for the government to act against Gupta and Rao. “No matter who the coaches are or where they hail from, they have no right to denigrate and abuse the children,” said Ashok Talandi, district president of Sarv Adivasi Samaj. “If the government does not take action against them, then the Adivasi society will hold a protest following COVID-19 protocols.”
Shubham Tigga is a Chhattisgarh-based independent journalist reporting on the issues related to Adivasi communities in the state.