For all its claims about being a progressive nation, certain happenings in India seem to suggest otherwise. Event in the present generation of so-called acceptance and open-mindedness, backward practices are still the norm. As these happen mostly at the grassroots, it is not always possible to bring these incidents to the limelight. Oftentimes, due to a lack of a comprehensive platform, most of these stories are brushed under the carpet never to be heard of again.
But then again, there are some who break the norm enough to put themselves in the limelight. Enough to have their stories heard. Neetu Sarkar was one such inspiration.
In a state which is notorious for its abysmal child sex ratio, Neetu Sarkar fought her way to become an inspiration for the people of her small village. Being born in a state of Haryana was never easy for a girl like her. Add to that her rural background and one can only understand the continuous discrimination she constantly faced. At the age of 13, Neetu was married off to a man who was nearly 30 years her senior and mentally challenged. For a young girl to go into a completely unknown space and being forced to live with a complete stranger, Neetu definitely saw quite a few bad days. As if that was not enough, her father in law tried to rape her. Unable to bear this humiliation, Neetu ran away from home.
Child marriage as an institution is forbidden from a legal standpoint in India since 1929. But when Neetu got married, it was a classic instance of close-mindedness prevailing over the law itself. In a space of ignorance where one is not even told about their rights or the availability of better options, the subaltern, and repressed classes are conditioned to believe that their best option is to remain at the receiving end of such atrocities.
“When I was 13, two girls from my neighborhood eloped and this is what scared my family. They thought I will also do the same. So they married me off. Basically, I was the one who was punished for their mistake,” Neetu now recalls in an interview to The Better India.
After Neetu returned home from the debacle that was her first marriage, her parents were understandably angry at the behavior of her in-laws. However, that did not stop them from marrying her off a second time. Luckily this marriage proved to be in her favour as she was given in hand to a supportive and kind man. By 14, she was already the mother of twins
Neetu’s tryst with wrestling began while watching female grapplers competing in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. ““I used to be fascinated with wrestling even when I was a child. When the 2010 Commonwealth Games were taking place in India, I was watching wrestling on TV and suddenly it struck me that I should take this up as a career,” she said.
And that’s when her struggle inside the akhara began. A phenomenon that was widely brought to the forefront by the film Dangal, Neetu faced the same kind of sexist discrimination when she tried to act upon her decision of entering a male-dominated akhara in Bhiwani. Predictably, she was not allowed to do so.
Her decision and the public announcement of it thereof caused a minor scandal within her community members who could not wrap their head around young girl wrestling. Determined as she was, she did not falter. Becoming overweight at that point was a different sort of hurdle to overcome as Neetu was nearly 80kgs then. To lose weight in order to make a mark in the competitive fold, she began waking up at 3 am every morning to run for nearly 10kms. She would complete this routine and return back before any of the village elders woke up to chastise her or vindicate her for her choices.
The first positive thing to happen for Neetu’s wrestling character was meeting coach Ziley Sing. By 2013, Neetu had already established within the junior circuit in the 51 kg category. Her first breakthrough in the senior category came at the 2014 Senior National Championship, where she won bronze in the 53 kg category.
She has also represented the country in the World Junior Wrestling Championships in Brazil.
Talking about the change in the attitude of her community members, it is certainly quite a major shift. “Now, the very villagers who were angry with me for choosing wrestling, are proud of my achievements. The people at the akhara have felicitated me. And I see parents telling their daughters to become like me. This gives me a lot of happiness,” she concludes.
Funding is still an issue for her as, in India, the sport does not pay much. However, she hopes to get a job with Indian Railways soon. Currently, she is being funded by Sushil4Sports Foundation.
She has been through a lot. But there is still definitely a long way to go!