Bankner, a village of about 12,000 voters on the northern edge of Delhi, is just a kilometre-and-half long jog from Haryana. The sporting culture of the agrarian state rubs off on to this hamlet with talented young athletes in wrestling, shooting, hockey, kabaddi and volleyball emerging from here despite its small population.
No wonder then that even the candidate favourite to win the municipal corporation elections this time is an acclaimed sportsperson.
Dinesh Kumar Bhardwaj is a former India kabaddi team captain, a two-time Asian Games gold medal winner including once as skipper of India. Of late, the 41-year-old Arjuna awardee has emerged as a good samaritan in the locality with open drains breeding flies, having helped people during the pandemic with food and facilities.
Bhardwaj, who won gold in Doha and Guangzhou Asiad in 2006 and 2010 respectively, is hoping to cash in on the goodwill built on that relief work to win the elections on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket from Ward No. 2 Bankner in Narela legislative assembly constituency.
His constituency, comprising close to 44,000 voters, includes Swatantra Nagar (21,000 voters), Lampur village (about 3,000), Ghoga village (about 3,400) and Sanoth (around 3800) besides Bankner.
He remains the only high-profile sportsperson to contest elections to corporation which is generally deemed as a stepping stone to high-level politics.
“Ishwar ka vardaan hai Bankner par (Bankner has been blessed by God),” explains Bhardwaj about why the village has done well in sports.
“Our fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers earlier used to play sport as co-curricular activity like it happens in most villages, especially of Haryana. There were no international tournaments but there was this culture of sports unlike in Delhi where people focussed more on studies [or other vocations]. Ladpur (northwest Delhi), Nizampur (northwest Delhi), Kair (southwest Delhi), Khera (south-west Delhi) besides ours in Narela are all villages where sports activities have been part of tradition and culture.”
Like many of his fellow village boys, Bhardwaj started kabaddi at a young age, inspired by elders of the village.
“When I was 12-13, I saw seniors in the village playing kabaddi here. Narender, Anil, Kanha, Harichand Khatri, Monu, Naresh (he reels off the names of his seniors in the village), there were many who used to play kabaddi. I saw them and got inspired and thought that I should also play kabaddi,” he recalls.
The village has some basic sports facilities. The temple has an akhara wherein lie some mats as well as some dumb-bells, a rope and some other rudimentary equipment.
Across the road from the temple is a sports field, surrounded by trees. Kids generally play cricket there in the evenings. But an area earmarked for kabaddi, with the mat, can be spotted on entry to the ground. The periphery of the ground is marked for a kuchcha (made of mud) athletics track.
There is also facility for badminton and volleyball.
For most kids, sports have been a gateway to a job.
Bhardwaj, whose elder brothers also used to play sport but only for fun, was also one of those who wanted to use sporting achievement to land a government job.
One of his elder brothers is a retired Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) employee.
“We were motivated to play sport because we thought we will get a job. But after getting a job – I worked in (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), Air India and other departments — I set the bar higher,” says Bhardwaj, who first shone in a local village tournament.
“Every year, there is a kabaddi tournament in our village and we all participate in it. That is where you get recognised initially.”
Dayanand Rawat is a 65-year-old former wrestler. He doesn’t betray any hint of ageing and prior to Bhardwaj was one of those who people looked up to for inspiration.
Rawat won a silver in the National Wrestling Championships in Jalandhar in the February of 1983, losing the bantamweight final due to an elbow injury despite being 2-0 up in the summit clash.
“I had to sit out for four minutes as it seemed that my hand was separated from the elbow joint. I got some treatment and resumed fighting but lost the final,” he recalls.
“However, I got employment with the Indian Railways a couple of months after my silver.”
Rawat says that the village grooms wrestlers from 10-12 years of age and make them ready to go to state and national academies from where they can progress. It is a process involving 4-5 years.
“We always ensure that the sports facilities are improved through MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) fund. Dinesh ensured that the kabaddi venue got lights, Sunil Khatri, ex-AAP president of the ward, got light in the badminton courts, someone else got the lights in volleyball court etc. We all, out of our own pocket, planted trees around the stadium,” says Rawat.
Sanjay Kumar Khatri is the hockey coach in the Bankner Senior Secondary School and holds training sessions in morning and evening.
Although hockey hasn’t generated the kind of stars wrestling and kabaddi have produced regularly, it still managed to churn out some talent like Sarita who went on to represent India women’s hockey team. She shifted out of the village after marriage.
Khatri recalls the days when he and his friends use to play hockey with Sarita and other girls in the village in the early 90s.
“Recently, a boy represented Delhi in senior nationals while there were a couple who turned out for Delhi in the sub-junior nationals. Another toured Australia with the Indian national school games team,” says Khatri, who himself played hockey locally having taken up the sport in 1989 when he was in seventh standard.
“I don’t push kids into playing regularly. I always tell them that school and tuition classes are the priority. Only when they find time from that, they should come to play. That is the reason why I hold training sessions in the morning as well as in the evening. I have 60-70 trainees,” adds Khatri.
The school ground is what is locally known as ‘chat ground’ i.e. it does not have grass, nor does it have any turf. The playing surface is laid out of sand.
Bhardwaj promises to lay an astro-turf on priority when he comes to power.
“In our village, a hockey player has become India captain, we have got good wrestlers (even post retirement wrestlers like Jagminder Khatri are competing in World Veteran Wrestling Championships and returning with a medal). In Judo too, we have talent and a good coach. In shooting, we have Rajbir [who won a gold and a silver recently in World Police Games]. So, there is this culture sports,” adds Bhardwaj as he returns from addressing a rally with a sore throat.
“We have so much talent here in Bankner. My dream is to open an international-class stadium for my village. That is what I want to do as priority. With improved facilities, kids will aim higher and do better in other tournaments. The stadium will have hockey turf and [a synthetic] track for athletics. Sports is being promoted by our party — Aam Aadmi Party [AAP], it is building a [sports] university, hockey turfs in villages etc,” says Bhardwaj, who says he did not take up coaching because he felt he could use his name and reputation to improve facilities in his village.
“I never thought of coaching because there is a lot of work to be done in the village. Since childhood, I wanted to become a sportsman. When I won the Arjuna Ward, I started meeting people and I realised I had to work for them. I feel happy working for people,” says Bhardwaj, who captained Bengal Warriors in the 2016 edition of Pro Kabaddi League too.
“I want to appeal to kids to take up sports because it teaches hard work, rules and discipline. In office work, you can cut corners – consume cold drinks, caffeine etc, but in sports you have to take care of your diet, get up at 4, work out, go to school or office and then work out for two hours later. Whoever has discipline, does well in life. Sports teaches it,” concludes Bhardwaj.
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