Dalits have earned significant popularity in various fields in the last few years. They have excelled in all kinds of fields, starting with art and ending with the writing industry and numerous other areas one can reckon with. However, when we talk of Dalit artists occupying various fields with their talents, Dalit sportsperson in the mainstream arena is hardly mentioned, or we can say one doesn’t recognise them except for a few. Hence, let us recall and appreciate the over-the-top Dalit athletes of the past and present.
Palwankar Baloo: India’s first Dalit cricketer, who battled caste prejudice both on and off the field. Palwankar Baloo was a legendary cricketer in India during the British Raj. He had established himself as a pillar of the Indian cricket team, dismissing a slew of former Europeans. He was a major hit during a 1911 tour of England, where he took 114 wickets at an average of 18.84 with the best haul of 8/103 against Cambridge. He was a gifted bowler who always made an impact, assisting his team to a resounding victory against the Europeans. However, his struggles, especially at the downtrodden time, cannot be forgotten. He was frequently insulted as a cricketer. He was also said to be served tea on a clay Matka outside the pavilion during the intervals of some matches. The hardships and tribulations are numerous, but so is the story of his success as an outstanding cricketer who consistently outperformed his opponents.
T. USHA: Also known as the “Queen of Indian Athletics.” Throughout the 1980s, she dominated the Asian track and field scene, winning numerous medals for India. Usha made history by becoming the first Indian woman to compete in the Olympic final in Los Angeles. Usha also competed at the Jakarta Asian Championships in 1985, winning six medals. She had always believed in herself and aspired to break her records, and she always said that she never competed against anyone but herself. Usha is currently a member of the Board of Advisors of the Indian International Movement to Unite Nations’ Boards of Advisors (IIMUN).
Vinod Kambli: Known primarily as Sachin Tendulkar’s best buddy, Kambli is a well-known Dalit cricketer who represented India between 1991 and 2000. He is just one of four Dalit cricketers to have played in a test match for India. During his school days, he had an uninterrupted partnership of 664 runs with his childhood best friend, Tendulkar. He was only 23 years old when he played his last test. After that, he appeared only in one-day international matches and played his final ODI match while he was just 28 years old. Despite his aversion to discussing his caste, he has been the target of caste-based discrimination on the field by fans. He has also been in several reality shows and acted in some serials and Bollywood films.
Hima Das: also known as ‘Shing Express’, is a world-class Indian sprinter from Assam. She is the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in a track event at the World IAAF U20 Championships, and she presently holds the Indian national record in the 400-metre sprint. She had always desired to play football professionally and was a dedicated player in high school. Her parents are farmers and live in a small village in Assam. Hima is currently employed as a government servant in the Assam Police Service as a DSP. In 2018, President Kovind presented her with the Arjuna Award.
Helen Thulasi: Former National-Level boxer and Tamil Nadu state champion Helen Thulasi – also known as Thulasi Ekanandam, who switched from boxing to Mixed Martial Arts, was dubbed ‘Lady Mohammed Ali of India’ for her lightning-quick footwork and hitting style. Helen also had to deal with the stigma of being a Dalit. “I’m expected to stay at the bottom just because I was born Dalit,” says Helen. She entered the ring for the first time when she was 14 after watching her sister fight. Thulasi, who was born in a Dalit family, says that even before her break, pursuing an athletic career was challenging and she had done everything from delivering pizzas to driving a car to make ends meet. “I was treated unfairly because I am a Dalit woman, and I was never given a chance to advance in my work.”
Jyoti: In India, breaking caste barriers has always been a difficult task, but Asian bronze medallist wrestler Jyoti, a Dalit, has overcome cultural shame to achieve success in the sport. Jyoti, the daughter of a bank peon, is a three-time Asian Wrestling Championship bronze medallist. Jyoti, who competed in the 75-kg event at the 2014 Asian Games and the 2014 Commonwealth Games, once recalled an instance in which Jyoti felt she was being treated unfairly because of her ‘low caste’. She was once made to lose a semi-final bout despite being a clear winner in a home tournament, and she knew it was only because she was a Dalit. The bronze medal play-off match was initially set up for the next day, but the organisers decided to hold it on the same day so that she would not have enough time to recuperate – it was a deliberate attempt to keep me from winning a medal. After serving Delhi Police for seven years, from 2009 to 2016, the 70-plus category lady grappler has overcome the barriers and now works as an Income Tax Inspector.
Regardless of how far India has progressed, Dalits continue to be underrepresented in Indian sports. Dalits can participate in sports while avoiding all society’s ills, such as poverty and caste-based discrimination. Although, in recent years, the concept of caste-based quotas in sports has been a hotly debated topic. Many athletes who won countless medals at the international level and made the country proud have always been looked down upon in mainstream culture. As a result, to eradicate caste-related victimisation in the cauldron of athletics, equal representation and, more importantly, simple respect should be offered.
Subhangi recently graduated from SRM UNIVERSITY, Chennai with a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication.