To get to the main stage in the massive farmers’ protest on the Singhu border between Haryana and Delhi, one has to go through a formidable man named Sukhjeet Singh. Built like a tank, with a neck as thick as a truck tire, Sukha Bhandal, as he is better known, is one of the most famous Kabaddi players in India. In rural Punjab and Haryana, it is a household name. Songs are written about him. His other nickname is “sher” (lion) and he has huge lion tattoos on his back and arms. His annual tournament winnings easily make him worth millions.
“I was part of the protest from day one, when farmers began to agitate at the district and state level,” he said. “Later, when they decided to march to Delhi on November 26, I joined them.” Sukhjeet is not the only athlete who is part of the agitation; among the protesters on this border is a large contingent of some of the biggest rural sports stars in northern India; Kabaddi exponents and fighters who draw crowds by the thousands in dangals, the traditional kushti competitions.
Vijender Singh, India’s first Olympic boxing medalist, also went to the protest site on December 6. Unlike many of the other athletes there, he has clear political ambitions, but the man from a village called Kaluwas in Haryana is also intimately connected. to agriculture.
“There is no way someone from our rural areas is not part of the protest,” said Vijender. “My grandfather was a subedar in the army and the one who brought boxing to our town. My brother Manoj fought in the Kargil war. My father was a driver for Haryana Roadways and I like sports. But our whole family is linked to a common profession: agriculture ”.
The protests have included the participation of several other conventional athletes. On December 6, Kartar Singh (wrestling), Gurmail Singh, Rajbir Kaur and Ajit Singh (all Olympic hockey athletes) and boxer Jaipal Singh shared the stage with Vijender and announced their intention to return their Padma Shree, Arjuna, Dhyanchand and Dronacharya.
Like Vijender, Sukhjeet is also deeply rooted in the land. Two decades ago, when he was 14 years old, he lost his parents in the space of a year. One of the three brothers, he found himself alone on the family farm in the village of Bhandal Dona in Kapurthala. His sister had married and left, his brother had emigrated to Germany. Despite his requests to join any of them, Sukhjeet decided to stay behind and try his hand at running the farm. It also allowed him to pursue his passion, kabaddi. “Agriculture has given me everything,” he said. “So how can I not be here?”
If athletes know something well, it is organization and teamwork. At the Singhu protest site, which stretches nearly 15 kilometers along the road, such collaborative discipline has been critical. When the protesters’ plan to march to Delhi was blocked and the road became the site of the protest, kabaddi players took part in organizing the tents. “We entered Haryana on November 26 at night and our night stop was near the Panipat toll plaza. The next day, in the morning, we moved to Delhi, but since the border was sealed, we had to stop at the Singhu border, ”said Mangat Singh, aka Mangi Bagga, who is as well known as Sukhjeet. At the inaugural Circle Kabaddi World Cup (the kabaddi circle is the most popular rural version of the sport in Punjab) in 2010, Mangat was the Indian captain. “We got help from our kabaddi friends in Haryana and set up tents and equipment for the stage.”
Kabaddi players and fighters from Sonepat (Singhu border falls into Sonepat), India’s pre-eminent wrestling belt, also collaborated with public address systems.
Kabaddi player Sandeep Nangal Ambian, who came to Singhu with his colleague Sultan Samspur, driving a truck full of fruits destined for distribution at the protest site, said that “veteran Kabaddi players have appealed to all players to join the protest. At any given time on the Singhu and Tikri borders, you would see more than 100 kabaddi players and other athletes serving the movement. “Athletes from the famous Mandothi wrestling village, near the Haryana-Delhi border in Tikri , which has become another place of protest, they have a kitchen.
“It is a fight for a common cause,” said 23-year-old kabaddi player Viney Khatri, whose Kharak Jatan village in Rohtak is 80 kilometers from the border with Tikri.