Six Dalit sportspersons you should know about: Part 2
In the Hindu caste system, Dalits form the lowest echelon of society, falling outside of the four-fold caste hierarchy. Characterised as ‘untouchables,’ Dalits have historically been excluded from many parts of mainstream society, often relegated to occupations considered impure for caste Hindus. Though the caste system has been legally dismantled and caste-based discrimination is a punishable act, caste remains deeply entrenched in South Asia, culturally and socially.
Dalits continue to be discriminated against daily. Hate crimes and segregation in housing, school and access to public services are common. Indeed, activists have compared the treatment of Dalits to apartheid. Dalits also continue to be underrepresented in higher socioeconomic occupations. Though they are starting to gain prominence and carve a space out for themselves in the arts, there has been very sparse Dalit representation in sport.
Since 2013, April has been observed as Dalit History Month, to celebrate and commemorate important Dalit figures throughout history. In 2022, the Canadian province of British Columbia officially recognised April as Dalit History Month as well.
Last year, we looked at six Dalit athletes who have made their mark in sports – this year, we look at six more who have excelled in this field and broken barriers.
Palwankar Baloo (cricket)
Born in 1876, Palwankar Baloo is said to be India’s first Dalit cricketer and was a left-arm spin bowler. He came from a family of leather workers and his father was in the army. Baloo and his brothers would thus use the army’s discarded cricket equipment to play. He started off as a help on the field, erecting nets and marking the pitch for other players, in Bombay. But the chance to bowl the British batsmen as they practiced at the nets honed in his cricket abilities.
Upper caste Hindus were apprehensive about allowing a Dalit into their teams. However, in 1896, Baloo was asked to join the Hindu Gymkhana team. This doesn’t mean he was treated as an equal – during intervals, he was served tea, water and lunch separately, and was not allowed to mingle with his upper caste teammates.
Baloo even travelled to England with the first all-Indian team for a cricket tour. The Indian team was defeated, yet Baloo’s cricket skills were noticed by all. Though he was one of the best cricket players of the time, he was overlooked for captaincy.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Indian politician and Dalit reformer, considered Baloo as a hero and icon for the Dalit community. In later life, Baloo joined politics, serving as a Dalit reformer and leader.
Vandana Katariya (field hockey)
Born in 1992, Vandana Katariya is a forward in the Indian Women’s Hockey team. She rose to prominence in 2013 during the Women’s Hockey Junior World Cup, where India won a bronze medal and she was their top scorer.
She captained the national team after Rio 2016 for the Asian Championships Trophy the same year, where the team won gold. At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in the match against South Africa, Katariya scored an Olympic hat-trick, becoming the first Indian woman to do so.
The Indian women’s team made it till the quarterfinals at Tokyo, the first time since the Moscow Games in 1980. However, after their loss against Argentina in the semi-finals, Katariya and her family faced abuse from many – two upper caste men burst firecrackers outside of Katariya’s family home, and they were subjected to caste-based slurs. The men allegedly claimed that the team lost out on a medal because “too many Dalit players” were on the team. While her teammates stood by her, sports authorities did not condemn the behaviour.
In March 2022, Katariya won the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award granted by India, for her contributions to the field of sport.
I.M. Vijayan (football)
Inivalappil Mani Vijayan was born in 1969, and is a former professional football player and former captain of the Indian team from 2000 to 2004. He played as a striker.
He has been awarded the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year award three times, and was the first to win it for multiple years. In 2003, he received the Arjuna Award for outstanding performance in sports and games by the Government of India.
Vijayan was born into a poor Dalit family, with both his parents being daily wagers. When he was 12, he lost his father to a work accident, and thus began selling soda bottles and cigarettes in his hometown’s stadium to support his family. This is also where his love for football deepened, as he watched all the games.
He was spotted on the field by M.K. Joseph, the then-director general of police of Kerala, and was invited to join the Kerala Police football team at the age of 17. In four years, he had risen up to earn a spot to play for Mohun Bagan, one of India’s best football clubs.
After retiring from football, Vijayan turned towards acting in Malayalam and Tamil movies.
Anand Kumar (mountain climbing)
In 2014, when Anand Kumar was 17, he climbed Mount Everest, becoming the first Dalit person to do so. He scaled the mountain with Malavath Poorna, a 13-year-old indigenous girl, who became the youngest woman to achieve this feat.
Born to a Dalit family in Telangana, Kumar has faced extreme poverty all his life, with his father working as a cycle mechanic and his mother as an agricultural labourer. Kumar took a picture of Dr B.R. Ambedkar along with him for his trip, and unfurled it along with the Indian flag when they reached the summit.
Pooja (para archery)
India’s first Paralympic archer, Pooja (also known as Pooja Khanna and Pooja Rani) was born in 1990 into a Dalit family, and her father is a bin collector turned scrap vendor. As a child, she suffered from polio which left her with an impairment in her legs.
As a disabled Dalit, Pooja has not only had to deal with casteism, but also with prejudice related to her disability. Pooja notes that many of her fellow athletes who she trained with would not share water with her, and she was asked a few times to not use the public tap, due to her caste. Pooja has also found that in India disabled people are still viewed as dependents, and their full potential is not recognised. However, she realises that her achievements are helping change perceptions about Dalits and disability as well.
Sompal Kami (cricket)
Nepalese cricketer Sompal Kami was born to a Dalit family in Gulmi, western Nepal in 1996. When Kami was young, his father moved the family to India for work, where he spent most of his childhood. His love for cricket grew in India, though his parents were not supportive of the time he spent on sport – for them, cricket was a game for rich people, unlike them.
When Kami returned to Nepal, his talents were noticed and he found a place on the Nepali national cricket team as an all-rounder. The Nepali team is beginning to gain momentum, and Kami is part of team that is helping Nepali cricket reach new heights.