Don’t run after Arjuna and Khel Ratna, India

Deepshikha Chatterjee

August 4th, 2017

Image: Deepa Malik

If there is one thing that we, as Indians, love to offer our opinion on, it is about the state of sports in the country. With staggering population figures of 1.3 billion people in the country, conflicting opinions regarding something as subjective as sports is nothing but normal. But, as a country, if we love highlighting sportspeople and their achievements, it is also important to make sure that the accolades reach the worthy people. Especially when it comes to something as prestigious as the Arjuna Awards or the Khel Ratna.

The Awards have a certain legacy attached to them which is enough to be careful so as to not take them lightly. We should not, for instance, be accused of celebrating mediocrity. Oftentimes, our collectively high media coverage of single digit Olympic medals have attracted the snide remarks of self-professed zealots of social media. Piers Morgan, to name one of the most prominent stalwarts of Twitter, has often been at the receiving end of an angry Indian social media mob for downplaying the achievements of our Olympic medallists. All of Morgan’s arrogance aside, can it be conclusively said that the Arjuna Awards have steadily been losing credibility when it comes to honouring the right people?

According to the official website of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, there are several guidelines which must be kept in mind when an athlete is being considered for the Arjuna Awards.

“To be eligible for the Award, a sportsperson should not have had not only good performance over the previous four years at the international level but also should have shown qualities of leadership, sportsmanship and a sense of discipline. “

With regards to this, there are two glaring exclusions from this year’s list of Arjuna Awardee recommendations that need to be addressed. The first is Rohan Bopanna.

In the stipulated time period as specified by the MYAS guidelines, Bopanna has made it two Wimbledon semi-finals- in 2013 and 2015 and has accumulated seven ATP titles. While there are arguments for the fact that such tournaments may not be conducive to scoring enough points on the selection committee’s criterion, it remains that the 37-year old Bopanna has been a major figure for India at the Davis Cups, recently leading India in the World Group playoffs against Uzbekistan.

In the near past, as recently as June this year, the All India Tennis Association announced its intention to recommend Bopanna’s name for the Arjuna Awards. The official deadline for doing that was April 28th, 2017 and clearly, the AITA just missed the window on that occasion.

Within the concerned time period, Bopanna also achieved a career best ranking.Indian Express

Bopanna won the French Open that month, two months after the specified last date. Despite a concise directive that nominations sent in after the deadline will not be entertained, late inclusions on the list have been known to happen before. Usually, it is the Sports Ministry who has the last say on the matter if the player and his achievements are deemed worthy enough. So, in this case, does the fault lie with the AITA for not taking into consideration the consistently brilliant performance that Bopanna has been showcasing during the stipulated time period? Is it a lack of fore-sightedness that caused Bopanna to miss out on a place among Arjuna Awardees?

With no intention of disrespecting Saketh Myneni’s caliber as a Tennis player, it must be conceded that Bopanna’s absence from the list raises certain doubts about Myneni’s inclusion in the list too.After all, Myneni is yet to make a mark on the ATP circuit. In 2016, he reached the first round of the US Open.

Just one other name seems to be quite out of place among the list of eminent sportspeople and it is that of grappler Satyawart Kadian. With no notable performances to his name within the stipulated time period, one wonders at his inclusion which does indeed raise quite a few eyebrows. It does not help that he is the fiance of Rio Olympics medallist and fellow wrestler Sakshi Mallik who was awarded the Khel Ratna after her bronze-medal winning performance at the 2016 Games.

Ambiguous guidelines which dictate that Khel Ratna awardees from the previous year are in a position to nominate one name from their discipline for the Arjuna Award leaves the space for speculations of nepotism when it comes to Kadian’s name on the list.

All said and done, this year’s list of Arjuna Awardees has not caused a stir any more than previous years. Every year, a certain amount of controversy surrounding the list is expected and 2017 is no different. Consequently, all that happens is that the credibility and sanctity of the institution are left open to speculation and subsequent slander.

In exceptional cases, it is often the athletes themselves who misuse certain loopholes in the guidelines to try and turn the tide in their favour. Whereas the guidelines clearly state that there are provisions for only one Khel Ratna to be awarded per year, a condition which may be relaxed for exceptional circumstances like an Olympic medal. This was the reason why Sakshi Mallik and PV Sindhu have been conferred with the title last year whereas Dipa Karmakar and Jitu Rai were felicitated for their outstanding achievements in their respective sports.

Amidst all the controversy, Deepa Malik has jumped on the bandwagon of those clamouring for more recognition.Deepa Malik

This year, the rules were changed again and both Devendra Jhajharia and Sardara Singh have been recommended for the country’s highest sporting honour. As to why two names have been put up for review, there seems to be no valid reason but it has led to several other jilted voices demanding for a Khel Ratna themselves.

Arjuna and Padma Shri Awardee Deepa Malik has taken to Twitter to express her disdain at being overlooked for a Khel Ratna. In a vehement post complete with a direct question to the sports ministry, Malik insinuates that being the only woman Paralympic medal winner is enough grounds to get her a Khel Ratna precisely because PV Sindhu, also a silver Olympic medallist, was awarded one.

Even if one were to take this claim as legitimate, Deepa Malik’s achievement certainly does not trump that of Devendra Jhajharia’s who has now won two Paralympic gold medals- the only para-athlete from India to do so. It is also pertinent to note here that he has set new world-records both the times he has won a medal.

It may so be that a completely unbiased system may be hard to formulate. But even so, the sanctity of the Khel Ratna and the Arjuna Award lies in the fact that it is selective. The very respect it commands stems from how exclusive the titles really are. Maybe the entire system needs to be revamped to close all probable and potential loopholes.

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