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Para sports in itself has been a massively ignored field in India.
However, some might believe that in recent years, there has been progress on that front. It is still not recognised as much as it should be, but at least things are changing for the better. That, however, cannot be said for all para-sports.
Recently included under the Asian Para Games roster, Blind chess is quite a unique sport in itself. Ironically, its uniqueness comes from the fact that it is perhaps the most similar to its “sighted” version. Explaining the ‘differences’ between the two is Kishan Gangolli.
Kishan Gangolli has been one of the more successful blind chess players for India. Initially introduced to the sport by his uncle, Gangolli has represented his country in several international tournaments since 2011. Over the years, he has won several national and international competitions. He reveals a little about the sport before moving on to the issue at hand.
“We have a special board,” he explains, “The black squares are slightly lifted as compared to the white squares. When we touch the board, we can make out which is which. Moreover, we have special chess pieces, which can be differentiated by touching. And here arises one of the few differences between normal and blind chess.”
“In normal chess, once you touch a piece you have to move it. Whereas, in blind chess, once you lift a piece you are obligated to relocate it,” explains Gangolli during a conversation with The Bridge.
Gangolli then reveals perhaps the most significant difference between the two versions of the sport, “Our biggest asset is our imagination. We visualise how the game is being played and strategise accordingly.”
The para-athlete reveals what he has gone through in his career so far. A champion at both national and international stage, he has proven to be an invaluable asset to India’s blind chess contingent. However, even after several years of success, Gangolli has found support hard to come by. This lack of support left him so frustrated that he almost decided to quit the sport for good.
“The support hasn’t always been there for us. It is only this year that we have started getting some recognition due to blind chess being a part of the Asian Para Games,” recalls Gangolli, “However, before that, we have always found support hard to come by. For example, when I approached the government for help, after winning several tournaments, they refused to entertain me on the pretence that blind chess is not an Olympic sport.”
“Recognition has always been the main issue for blind chess.”
“I sometimes feel that we aren’t even getting as much attention as the sub-junior categories. As a result, we are constantly overlooked for funds and awards. We are still to see what kind of response we get now since it has finally been included in the Asian Para Games roster.”
“I tried to get things changed a lot. I approached the government for help but was ultimately left frustrated. So much so, that six months earlier I decided it would be better for me to retire from the sport altogether, “ reveals Gangolli.
After years of being ignored despite his sacrifices, the para-athlete couldn’t take the uncertainty any more and stepped away from the sport. He instead wanted to focus on things that ‘had a future’ and can support him and his family. However, at this moment, a Bangalore-based company called Akshayakalpa stepped in and saved the country from losing one of its most talented sportsmen.
Now employed with Akshayakalpa, Gangolli has enjoyed one of the most stable periods of his life in a long while. Private intervention in his case has led the para-athlete to believe that there is hope for the sport. However, situations such as his are far and few, and it is a fact that he understands. In reality, a game as unrecognised as blind chess is unlikely to attract any corporate help.
“Yes, I think corporate should step up in such cases. But the point is if we don’t get any recognition from the government, why would any private firm approach us? So that has been another issue for us. Moreover, if we are employed in private companies, the expectations of us are different,” he tells The Bridge.
However, Gangolli is still a proud man and is not looking for charity. Instead, the para-athlete wants to ‘earn his living’ using his skills. Sadly, it is those skills, which have been consistently overlooked in the past.
“We don’t want any charity. We are ready to return whatever we owe to them. Nevertheless, the first step is recognising the sport,” he reaffirms.
Two of Gangolli’s fellow chess players- Ashvin Makwana and Himanshi Rathi– paint a similar picture. They too agree that the people in charge have massively ignored blind chess. Nevertheless, the two are still hopeful of a change, which they feel is right on the horizon.
“The requirements for normal and blind chess are very different obviously. However, I feel that there is partiality towards the normal version of the sport. I feel as if we have not been treated equally before. But maybe that will change after the Asian Para Games,” believes Himanshi Rathi as she pours her heart out during a conversation with us.
Furthermore, Ashvin Makwana, a national champion himself, admits that the blind chess players have to go looking for help again-and-again. However, he reveals that there has been support, but only a little.
“We still have to ask the government to support us constantly,” says Makwana, “However, to say that there is no support would be wrong. But still, it is not as much as we would like. Our association, All India Chess Federation for the Blind, has been a big help for us. They have been working hard to promote the sport for the last two decades. And I believe, it is because of their efforts that a little aid has been directed towards us.”
As mentioned by Makwana, the All India Chess Federation for the Blind has been working tirelessly to promote blind chess in India for more than two decades. They currently are affiliated with fifteen states and have held around twenty zonal tournaments. Without any doubt, it is their efforts which have reaped the rewards for the sport, however scarce.
But Ashvin Makwana is hopeful for the future, nevertheless. He understands that there is still a long way to go but can see the sport progressing, especially since its inclusion in the Asian Para Games roster.
“There are still some gaps that need to be filled. For example, we still have to pay for our visa. Nevertheless, there has been an improvement in the last few years. I hope that there will be even more positive changes shortly,” he says.
For the first time, Blind Chess has been included in the Asian Para Games. Its inclusion has given a lot of para-athletes a renewed hope, as conveyed by Ashvin Makwana. And so, a small contingent of blind chess players will soon be on its way to Jakarta, Indonesia in the hope of breathing new life into the sport.