For a long time, I was made fun of. I was trolled. I was harassed. Several tactics were applied to shut me up, to bottle down my voice. Newspapers were looking to get their readers interested with catchy headlines even if it meant distorting the truth, they turned me into a joke. Why, you ask? For the simple reason that I always believed in speaking my mind.
It’s unfortunate that the issues that plagued Indian badminton ever since the time I was a part of the competitive circuit are still are. Nothing has changed. I think the people in charge of the sport in India must have been happy to see me bow out when I did because it meant that they would have one less clamouring voice to deal with. I remember, for a long time, there was talk about how things would be better run if the players were put in charge. But, in my case, ex-players were the ones who caused all the trouble.
You would expect misdemeanours of this scale to be conducted privately, or even an attempt being made to hide the fact that this scale of cheating does happen. But the fact that all of it is carried out so openly, so blatantly- it really makes one stop and think. How deep-rooted is this exactly?
How can a man, running his own academy- on Government funding, I might add, be allowed to be the chief national coach and a part of the selection committee of badminton in India? Is this not a conflict of interest? Is Badminton now only supposed to be restricted to people who have the means to afford training in this Academy?
Basically, the argument that you are going to hear in support of this system is that it is all being done for the greater good. Ultimately, the sport is bringing in medals on a regular basis so why would you fix something that, at least superficially, seems like a well-oiled machine.
Another little nugget of wisdom that I got from my seniors was that, “Jo mil raha hai, bahut hai. Humaare zamaane me itna bhi nahi milta tha.” Isn’t this amazing? Progress over time is but expected. But should we just keep shut even when there are incidents of blatant abuse of power happening right in front of our eyes? Even so, let’s go a little deeper.
How much has Doubles progressed in India?
Even here there is a clear case of discrimination. In 2017, the Junior Nationals took place in Assam and, whereas the Singles players were given prizes of all imaginable scale and a car, no less, the winners of the Doubles events had to be content with only a meagre cash reward of some Rs 26,000/-. The explanation given was that each team was treated as a unit. Giving each Doubles players a car would mean spending exactly twice on a Doubles prize than on the winners of the Singles.
Don’t they realise that this is effectively going to discourage a child from pursuing a career in Doubles?
If this side of badminton is so unimportant, why are the medals won in Doubles events even counted among the final medal tallies in major competitions?
Now consider this. I’m a World Championship medalist, an Olympian and a Commonwealth Games medalist. Why have I been ignored for the Padma Shri? Other shuttlers have been known to have received this distinction even without these medals, even before their Olympic performances.
I took India to the highest levels in Doubles badminton- stages and competitions where no one ever dreamed an Indian would go. And what are the thanks I get in return? Harassment and, if that wasn’t enough, a court case that banned me from playing.
Going to court is always the last option for me. You know the Indian judicial system, how drawn out the entire process can be. Who wants to spend their playing careers constantly locked in a deadlock? As players, what is our job? To concentrate on our game or continuously being pulled up to respond to strategic targeting by those in power?
But this final refuge is what I had to resort to in 2013. In the Indian Badminton League that year, one of the clashes between my team and the opponent saw something very unorthodox and against the rules happen right before the tie was about to start. They changed a player right before the match without any prior notice. To protest this, the owner of my franchise told me not to get on the court until this wrong had been righted. It eventually did get solved, and the clash was delayed by half an hour.
After the game did get over, surprisingly, I became the target for the Badminton Association of India (BAI). I was the captain of my franchise, but it wasn’t my decision to stage a protest against the unhand tricks the rival team tried to pull off. Still, I was banned.
You tell me, through all of this, who is supposed to protect me? Isn’t the national coach supposed to stand tall with his top player, a player recently returned from the Olympics, and fight this ban? My coach, the current chief coach- he refused to help me. This, despite the fact that he was in the board for the IBL. You think the court was my first choice for a course of action? I called the current chief coach. I called the then President of BAI. I even spoke to a committee member.
Threats. That’s the only thing I got in return. They even told me that unless I issued an apology, they would stop me from playing my Petroleum tournaments as well. That’s when I went to court. And the judge literally laughed at the shenanigans of these mighty people in power. These people they really do not know how to treat a sports woman with dignity.
They had no case and the decision went in my favour.
This may be an incident of the past, but players are still being subjected to this. Just look at some of the current decisions
There can be no justification for the present Asian Games squad.
This is a prestigious tournament. Does it come every year? No. It comes once every four years. Now, how old are the two Junior circuit players who have been chosen in the team? Don’t they have their entire playing careers ahead of them? Even if you do not consider the fact that they are yet to prove themselves even in the Junior circuit which is appalling in itself, teenagers like them have their best playing years ahead of them. They will get plenty more opportunities- better opportunities. So, at this stage in their career, why would you choose them over someone potentially more deserving?
And again, let’s not get started on the fact that there are no extra Doubles players in the women’s squad. What if someone gets injured? Do you want to risk a chance at a medal just for that little ego boost where you can effectively wield your power to change things that suit you best? What is the great pride behind making Saina Nehwal and Pv Sindhu play Doubles? The fact that they do that should make us ashamed of ourselves. The message that is being put out is that India has such a dearth of Doubles specialists that we make our top Singles players multi-task. Tell me one other country that follows this terrible practice.
As things stand, each day I steadily lose hope- hope in the system, hope that things will get better. Ironically, at this point I do not even know who to blame- the people cunning enough to twist the system to benefit them or the system itself-so rife with loopholes that even daylight robbery is allowed by it.
Badminton is a loved sport. We can only hope that, over time, there will be some redemption of the workings within it.