For Indian movie buffs, the portrayal of sports officials victimizing athletes for money and position may seem to be good story telling. Movies like Badlapur Boys, Bigil, Kennedy Kabaddi Club and Saala Khadoos (Iruddi Suttru) have all shown athletes emerging triumphant against the backdrop of corrupted officials.
But in real life, happy endings like the silver screen are not the norm. For Mahipal Singh, his international career in kabaddi came to an abrupt end after he refused to be part of a corrupt system.
In 2000, Mahipal was selected to represent India at the Sri Lanka Asian Championships and he went on to help his side win the league title. But hopes of continuing his international career was cut short just as quickly.
“I have my honour and dignity. I cannot sell my dignity. The coaches and officials expect unquestionable obeyance, immaterial whether it was morally wrong or even corruption,” said Mahipal, who was stopped from any further international appearance.
Mahipal’s selection to the national team was made without the recommendation of the coaches and this did not sit well with the autocratic chief coach.
“The development of the game or the welfare and the improvement of players were never priority. All they were interested in was for us to be completely subservient to their whims and fancies,” lamented Mahipal, who is now 48-years-old.
Players were also often required to pay “bonuses” to coaches and officials to be recommended for selection to the national team. What was a payment that ranged between INR 30,000 to INR 50,000, is now said to be 10 times the amount.
Players are often told that they would earn much more from promotions and incentives once they were in the national side and that it was a small price to pay for their status elevation.
Until recently, India were the undisputed kings of kabaddi and were shoo-ins to win any competition even when not fielding their best players.
“When I continued to defy the system and refused to make any uneccesary payments, they threw hurdles after hurdles to derail me. Finally the chief coach wrote a letter to the national body saying that I had discipline problems and should not be considered for the national team,” said Mahipal.
Despite of his playing prowess, Mahipal, who had started representing his school and village teams in the 1990s before making it to the University, District and State teams, never played for India again.
He did however, helped the Railways team to the title at the Mumbai National Games in 2001.
“After that in future tournaments, I was often benched or played out of position to give the impression I was not a good player. It was a dark history in my life. I felt very bad as I had spent my time and life to achieve great things in kabaddi. I was exhausted with the whole situation and just could not fight on,”said Mahipal, who gave up playing the game soon after.
The bitter episode would have put off many from continuing in the sport completely. That was the case with Mahipal initially, but whilewas not able to change things on the court, decided to do it through the legal system.
His legal battle against the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (AKFI) started in 2013, and finally bore fruit, with the federation being suspended and being put under government appointed administrator in 2018.
“Kabaddi is popular in the villages in India. Many young aspirants want to play kabaddi at a higher level. But the federation was in the hands of a select few, who were more interested in personal gains instead of the development of the game,” said Mahipal.
The Office Superintendent with Indian Railways said that he took it on himself to campaign to clean the sport laden with corruption to help the younger generation of players.
“I always believed that I was a good player who was denied the opportunity and wanted to ensure this corrupted and authoritarian way in kabaddi did not victimize another young player,” added Mahipal.
Mahipal’s case against the AKFI highlighted several issues apart from corrupt practices within the federation. One of it was the failure to adhere to the Indian Sports Code, where a president of an association cannot hold position for more than three terms.
The then AKFI president Janardhan Singh Gehlot was elected in 1985 and had a stranglehold on the federation and ruled it with iron fist until 2013 when the case was filed.
“The case was jointly filed by four of us, but before long three of the other petitioners withdrew their names from the action. I myself was offered money and position to withdraw the case. I was told to name what I wanted in return of withdrawing the case,” said Mahipal.
Following his refusal to fall into the trap, the AKFI restructured their organisation. Gehlot stepped down from the presidency but was elevated as the Life President and his wife Mridula Bhadauria was appointed as the new president.
“This case should have been decided quickly but for the next five years the lawyers for the defendants keep using any loophole they could find to continually delay hearing dates,” said Mahipal.
And when the case was finally decided in August 2018, the judge not only suspended the association and put it under a court appointed administrator, but also barred both Gehlot and his wife from standing for future elections of the federations.
Mahipal, in his pursuit of justice, had also highlighted the issue of corruption in player selections.
“Selection into the national team very much depends on who you are, who you know and how much you can pay to get into the team. This kept many good players out of the team and lesser players getting selected,” said Mahipal.
India’s defeats to Iran in both the men’s and women’s teams at the last Asian Games in Jakarta cemented the problem. Until the defeat Indian teams have had lost only once to Pakistan at a major international tournament.
Allegations of sales of participation certificates were also highlighted during the trial. Unlike other countries, participation at national and international tournaments in India is seen as an advantage and a stepping stone to government job appointments.
Delivering a stinging rebuke to the Gehlots, the court observed that there was an “apparent anarchy” prevailing in the affairs of the AKFI and said it was appalled at the manner in which every mandatory condition “was ignored with impunity” by the couple.
It also ordered that the entire exercise of fresh elections should be carried out within a period of six months and AKFI shall make available to the administrator an appropriate office space and facilities for the discharge of the directions and make available such staff and personnel as he may express the need for.
“The first administrator quit after a short time in the position and he was replaced by a second administrator. But it has been two years and the progress has been very slow,” said Mahipal.
Many are also concerned with the appointment of Deoraj Chaturvedi to assist the administrator in conducting the elections.
Chaturvedi was the right hand man of Gehlot and served as the secretary of the AKFI.
He is also still one of the directors of the company set up as the International Kabaddi Federation (IKF). Chaturvedi, Gehlot, Kasrani Tejaswani and Gehlot’s son Tejesvi are the other directors of the IKF. Chaturvedi also serves as the CEO of IKF.
“Many of us are concerned with this situation as to whether Chaturvedi can be impartial when he still reports to Gehlot in the IKF,” said Mahipal.
Mahipal said that he had also raised the issue of the delay in conducting the elections to both the Sports Ministry and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) but has yet to get a positive response.
Gehlot was elected unopposed as the vice president of the IOA recently and the Olympic bodies silence on the matter is not surprising.
While Mahipal’s legal action seems to have ended the Gehlot dynasty, there is still a chance it may reappear in a different form.
Gehlot is now positioning his son Tejesvi , who replaced him as the Rajasthan State Kabaddi Association president, to vie for the AKFI presidency.
Despite the turn of events, Mahipal, is confident that things would be set right.
“I have faith that things would be much better. People now understand the issues better. State officials who once feared for the own position also understand the current scenario. They have lost faith in the old management and those associated with them. It may take time that eventually we will have a better organisation working for the benefit of the players and the sport,” said Mahipal.
He said, any new leader taking over would be better than the old regiment.
“If possible I also want to be in the new set-up. Not because I am hungry for a position but to keep an eye on the new management,” said Mahipal.
The high court ruling also puts many of the financial deals made by the AKFI under scrutiny.
With the AKFI elections in 2013 being declared illegal, all financial transactions and contracts signed or renewed by the AKFI are also in question. This includes the lucrative contract renewal with Star Sports in hosting the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL).
The fall of the old order has also seen changes in both India and at the international level.
In India, former international kabaddi players had joined hands to challenge the AKFI by forming the New Kabaddi Federation (NKFI). The NKFI was among the 50-odd countries that had went on to forge a new partnership in forming a new international governing body for kabaddi – the World Kabaddi.
Many from the Gehlot controlled IKF had also chosen to quit the organisation, including its founder member and treasurer Ashok Das.
Ashok, who chose to quit after being kept in the dark of the IKF financials, was subsequently elected as the president of the World Kabaddi.
And the man behind these upheaval of kabaddi in India and the rest of the world, seem to have some relation to Mahipal, whose name means protector in Hindi.
“ I was very motivated towards kabaddi, and always wished to represent my country. All I wanted to do was to ensure the young talented player do not undergo the same systematic injustice that I went through.”
“I want to say to all the future players work on your strength keep your aspiration high to play well. Don’t indulge yourself in the corrupt system . Don’t follow wrong path for selections. Do practice and practice and play with your heart,” said Mahipal.