Run, Shantha, run

The Siddis settled in South India many generations ago. Photo: Murali Krishnan

The Siddis settled in South India many generations ago. Photo: Murali Krishnan

It is pouring heavily in the forested district of Haliyal, some 500 km from Bengaluru. It is 6 a.m. and there is a buzz of activity in the local school of this small, nondescript town.

Twenty-five school children, all in their teens, selected by the sports department as future athletes, are readying for their morning drill. The rain is no dampener: the training moves indoors, into the spacious auditorium.

Among the boys and girls running laps are four Siddi teenagers — and they all want to become professional wrestlers. Rohan Mutesh Durmani (14), has already won medals in categories much beyond his age limit. He is shy, but knows what he wants. “I want to be part of the national team, Asian Games and the Olympics. I want to win medals,” he says.

The Siddis are a small community of descendants of the Bantu people of southeast Africa whose ancestors journeyed to India between the 15th and 19th centuries as slaves, domestic help or soldiers. Today, the nearly 60,000-strong community is to be found primarily in Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Chief coach Manjunath, who is training the children, is a former wrestler himself. He is happy with their performance.“They excel in athletics, football and wrestling. They have got speed and strength… they will do well,” he says.

The Siddis, who are slowly coming into the limelight, are known for their sporting talent, mainly in athletics, and have won many laurels in the past. Now, the Indian government has decided to re-launch a sports programme it had abandoned in the early 90s to scout and train members of the community as athletes, with an eye on the 2024 Olympics.

A vulnerable community that lives on the margins of poverty, most Siddis work as farm hands, labourers or in other menial jobs. They remained estranged from society for decades, treated as outsiders and discriminated against. It has taken long years and painstaking work for them to assimilate into mainstream society. Says Cheryl Rebello, an activist whose organisation CherYsh works closely with the community: “They have traditionally lived in forests and came into the cities only in the past 50-60 years. It will take time to bring them to the centrestage. But it is happening.”

About two decades ago, the Sports Authority of India set up a Special Area Games scheme to scout and train members of the community in athletics. Despite some success, the project was abandoned in the mid-90s. Margaret Alva, a former minister in the Congress government, encouraged the Siddis and also set up facilities such as gymnasiums. Now, with the Rio Olympics in the air, the project has been revived to target the 2024 games.

Shantha Pedru Dodmani from Haliyal district is a natural runner. She used to practise for four hours every day and participated in mini marathons, winning several competitions. Being a near-celebrity in her community, she has tried to inspire other youngsters. “It is not often that you hear of Siddi girls running. That’s why I ran the marathon, to prove a point to the community,” says Dodmani.

Under the new scheme, sports organisations have started to give opportunities to children from the community. The programme starts at the district level, with sports camps where children get intensive training in wresting and athletics. The camps are being gradually extended across Karnataka and other states. Can their natural talent be harnessed well enough, and will they get a chance to prove themselves? That’s the gold medal question that will be answered eight years down the line.

Murali Krishnan is an international radio broadcaster based in New Delhi.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2022 4:20:48 am |