In 1981 when Prakash Padukone won the All-England badminton championships, another Indian player clinched the first of his eight national title.
Syed Modi, born Syed Mehdi Hassan Zahdi and fondly called Babua by family and friends, was seen as the heir apparent to Prakash. Only Prakash has won more national titles than Modi, with nine to his name.
Modi was just 18 when he won the first of his national titles by defeating Prakash, who was then at his peak. The national senior title came three years after he bagged the junior national title in 1978,
Modi, seven years younger than Prakash, went on to win the 1982 Commonwealth Games gold in Australia, just as the latter did in Edmonton in 1972. He defeated England’s Nick Yates for the gold in Brisbane.
The ongoing BWF World Tour Super 300 tournament in Lucknow is named after the shuttler.
Unlike Prakash, who went on to win the World Cup in 1981 and upon retirement set up a badminton academy to mentor budding young players, Modi’s career in badminton came to an abrupt end in 1988.
On 28th July, 1988 as he came out of the KD Singh Babu Stadium after a training session he was shot dead. The cold blooded murder sent shock-waves not only among the badminton fraternity but throughout India. More so because the police had in fact filed murder charges against seven people, including Modi’s own wife Amita Kulkarni and her lover and future husband Sanjay Singh , a prominent businessman and politician.
Modi born in a poor family in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, was the youngest of eight siblings. With Modi showing potential in excelling in badminton, it was his five elder brothers who supported him in building a sporting career.
He married Amita, who was also a member of the Indian national women’s badminton team, against the wishes of both families. Neither family were happy with the idea of an Indian Muslim marrying a upper-class Marathi girl.
Amita had to put a hold on her badminton career upon getting pregnant with their only daughter while Modi’s career took off. But the marriage did not go well and by 1988 it was already evident that it was just a matter of time before it collapsed totally.
Modi’s badminton career also seemed to be headed downhill and he lost the national title for the first time to U Vimal Kumar in 1988, just months before his murder.
A few months his death Amita married Sanjay, who was a classmate of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and himself a member of the ruling Congress Party.
The state police made little progress in their investigation into the murder and it was not until the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was brought in that they found an eye witness to the murder.
The CBI also found out of the affair between Amita and Sanjay, who was also a descendant of the royal family of Amethi. They deduced that Sanjay had instructed a political goon named Akilesh Singh to carry out the murder.
However, after claiming to have solved the case, the CBI had to backtrack. Both Amita and Sanjay were absolved of all part in the muder conspiracy. Akilesh and another accused Jitendra Singh were also exonerated.
Two others – Amar Bahadur Singh and Balai Singh – were themselves found shot dead even before they could be judged. The two murders also remain unsolved.
Bhagwati Singh was found guilty of murder and possessing illegal arms, fined and sentenced to life imprisonment, that too because there were eye witness of him pulling the trigger.
In 2011, former CBI Director Sumit Kumar Dutta in his memoir Top Cop Recalls had plenty to say about the case:
“One day, I received a telephone call from an officer close to the Cabinet Secretary that hearing for framing of the charge in the case was being preponed from the day already fixed for hearing and I should agree to it and not oppose the move. I said that it was not possible as our special counsel was in Mumbai and it was not possible for him to come earlier as there was no time for that…. next thing that came to my notice was that the Director was told to change our special counsel...”.
Dutta and the then CBI Director Rajendar Shekhar resolved not to let political interference cloud the case.
“He (Shekhar) told me that the Government wanted to know whether the Director would change the counsel. He wanted my views. I told him it was not possible in principle. He agreed with me. He asked me if I was prepared to put in my papers if the counsel was changed. I said ‘yes.’ He felt happy, as he too had decided to do so…Next thing that happened was something unheard of. All of a sudden, in the name of economy, the Government issued an order cancelling the appointments of all special counsels engaged by various departments to deal with their court cases. Therefore, our special counsel’s appointment was automatically terminated. All were surprised, but did not know the real reason.”
Whether there was a political conspiracy in the case, will forever be a guessing game and has been all but forgotten.
Modi’s name, however, would be remembered for much longer. The Syed Modi International Championships was started soon after his death. It was initially known as the All India Syed Modi badminton championships before being rebranded as Syed Modi International Challenge in 2004. It was renamed as the Syed Modi Grand Prix in 2009 before taking on the current name.
The Indian Railways, were he was attached too also took the decision to build the Syed Modi Railway Stadium and Auditorium in his native place of Gorakhpur.
In 1991, actor and director Dev Anand also produced Sau Crore, a movie based on the murder of Modi.
As for Amita and Sanjay, they went into politics, with Amita standing for elections in the Amethi constituency, a former bastion of the Gandhis. Sanjay switched parties several times and also served as a central minister in VP Singh’s government in 1990.