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Sanjay Prasad knocks discrimination out with academy to train Dalit boxers in Kolkata
Former national-level boxer Sanjay Prasad is on a mission to take Dalit, underprivileged boxers from Kolkata to greater heights.
Legendary boxer Mike Tyson had once said, "The most successful fighters come from the slums. All the fighters playing today come from slums. It's some kind of institution, connection to fight."
It is not a surprise that some of the most renowned boxers the world has ever seen — Manny Pacquiao, Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield are the products of poverty. Probably, it lends them a greater stimulation to 'fight their way to the top.
When Sanjay Prasad, a former boxer-cum-administrator at the Bhawanipore Boxing Club in Kolkata, witnessed gaping discrimination among boxers based on caste, and language, he could not stay mum and spoke up. But, unfortunately, everyone else among the administrators turned a blind eye to Prasad, and he could signal a red flag from their attitude.
Prasad — an employee in the Eastern Railways, who was weaving hopes of fulfilling dreams of other fledgling pugilists of earning them a job through the sports, left disgruntled. He abandoned his erstwhile club to start his own academy with the boxers who had faith in him.
Sanjay's lone fight started in 2017 when he opened the Balaji Boxing Academy in a narrow, dingy alley in the Bhawanipore neighbourhood of South Kolkata. The former national boxing champion had made up his mind that he won't let caste and language be barriers for the children to learn boxing. "After ending my boxing career, I had taken up an administrative role in the Bhawani Boxing Club. I had groomed a lot of boxers in the club. But after some time, I realised that I was facing plenty of obstructions on my way. The place was rife with a discriminatory attitude. The culture was slowly growing toxic. Others also started taking credits for the boxers' success whom I had trained. Hence I decided to leave the club," said Sanjay in an interview with The Bridge.
The Balaji Boxing Academy prioritised training the Dalit children of the area who were dropouts from the local municipality school and were channelising their energy into unproductive living. In December 2017, the academy became affiliated to the Bengal Amateur Boxing Federation, recognised under the West Bengal by the Boxing Federation of India. "My students and I started looking for children who were spending most of their time on the pavements of the road. They would be busy playing with marbles, fighting each other, and doing odd labour jobs in exchange for some money. My aim was to channelise their energy into boxing so that they can pick up the sport, compete in tournaments, and at least could earn a job in the police, army, or railway," says Sanjay.
The initial struggle was quite overwhelming. Sanjay went door-to-door to seek permission from the parents of the kids to allow them to train. Often a majority of students wouldn't turn up for training at 5.30 in the morning. Sanjay would personally go and bring them. The academy ran with Sanjay paying money from his own pocket, and he would arrange the equipment, gloves, and even a foldable boxing ring worth Rs 2 lakh for the trainees. He reminiscences, "Today, we have over 100 students in our academy. Rome wasn't built in a single day. It took me years of effort to find these students, convince their parents and make Balaji Academy a successful venture. The struggle was quite real when you solely have to pay for their training. But now I can be proud that I have instilled discipline in them. The kids who used to run away from training nowadays surprises me by coming to my house before their morning sessions and waking me up."
Sanjay's efforts paid off when his students, after succesfully featuring in multiple state and district level competitions, won another galore at the 1st East Zone National Boxing Championship in 2019. Sayam Mallick fetched gold in the 30kg division, while Binit Gurung, Rohini Mahato and Nishu Yadav won a silver each in the 32, 36, and 30kg categories, respectively. Their laurels earned respect for the academy, and more parents started having faith in Sanjay's efforts, who dribbles between his coaching job and Eastern Railways. "It was a moment of pride for me. The local TMC MLA Madan Mitra congratulated me and started taking an interest in my academy. His contribution has been immensely helpful. We were also granted funds from the state government to buy more equipment and kits," says Sanjay.
However, the road has still not been smooth for the 41-year-old. At times, he still finds himself embroiled in the petty politics of his former Bhowanipore Club. They have often tried to stop the functioning of their rival boxing club. "We started training in the lane in Kundu para locality from where we were shown the doors. Then we moved into a children's park for training; we were also evicted. Finally, we had to train inside the Bhawanipore cemetery."
The academy now provides training to over 120 students between the ages of five and nine and boasts a strong contingent in the junior and sub-junior categories. Most of them come from the Dalit community who can't even pay the bare minimum of Rs100 a month for the training. Their parents are employed in blue-collar professions such as sweepers, drivers and security guards. More than 30 girl boxers in the academy, which is still the highest female representation in a boxing academy in the state. They usually meet twice on weekdays between 5.30 and 7.30 in the morning and again from 4 to 6 in the evening. There are dedicated coaches who train these students and organise tournaments to them. "You cannot train boxing blindly. There are divisions based on weight, so we analyse each boxer's performance personally and assign them the categories. Our training has produced several junior champion boxers," quips Sanjay.
Even when the lockdown was imposed last year, training continued through video calls where Sanjay provided them lessons to practice. As restrictions were lifted, regular training continued. The academy also hosted Dr. BR Ambedkar Boxing Championships this year in April but India witnessed another wave of covid-19 starting in May. "We have plans to hold another tournament in September this year, through which we will be preparing our boxers for the national and state-level competitions next year," concludes Sanjay.
Boxing takes centre stage as a major sport in the Olympics, where India has already won two medals so far. However, from a small bylane in India, this story also deserves attention within the rich history of sports in the country.