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Enduring irony

It was in 1900 that the first Indian, Norman Gilbert Pritchard, born in Kolkata, took part in the Olympics held in Paris. He won two silver medals. This time India sent its largest-ever contingent of 118 to the just-concluded Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. They brought two medals – a silver and a bronze.

There were claims that in Rio India would improve on its performance in London in 2012 when it won six medals. The drought in medals ended on August 18 when Sakshi Malik won a bronze in the women’s freestyle wrestling.

Another girl, PV Sindhu, gave some happy moments to a nation of 1.25 billion when she fought bravely and brilliantly against world number one Carolina Marin, a Spaniard, in the badminton finals to bag a silver medal. Both have suddenly become icons for a medal-starved nation which has produced only 28 medals in about a century.

While the country has marched forward in all sectors, sport is where it lags behind. What is significant is that it fell upon the slender shoulders of two young women to salvage the prestige of the nation. Otherwise, Team India would have returned empty-handed.

Sakshi Malik belongs to village Mokhra Khas in Haryana, a state which neighbours national capital Delhi. It is known as a pehlwan (wrestlers) village. It has many wrestling akharas (academies) but they are all reserved for men. Therefore, it was against great odds that she managed to win.

In sharp contrast, Nar Singh Yadav, a wrestler from the same area, caused dishonour to the country when he was banned for four years for doping. Worse, he was asked to vacate the Games village.

Both belong to Haryana where the gender ratio is heavily tilted against women with there being only 877 women for every 1000 men. The sex ratio dips further to 822 in the village the bronze winner belongs to. In other words, she comes from an area which has the worst sex ratio in the country. This happens because of the rampant female foeticide, described as “murder in the womb”. Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen once wrote about the “missing daughters” of Haryana.

Female foeticide is not exclusive to Haryana. The situation is only marginally better in Delhi. Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a national campaign called ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhavo’ (save daughter, teach daughter). He chose Rohtak, not far from the wrestler’s village, to launch the programme.

Earlier, the government had introduced a law to ban prenatal determination of sex by diagnostic centres. Though the law has been in force for two decades, there have been very few convictions under it.

There are different ways in which diagnostic centre owners reveal the sex of the foetus. Incidentally, female foeticide is practised mostly by middle class families. Nowadays, young men in Haryana do not easily get brides and they have to look for them outside of the state. The resourceful among them fetch brides from as far away as Kerala and the Northeast.

It is also true that such women do not get the social status of Haryana women causing many social and family problems. The bronze medal that Sakshi won has made her the darling of Haryana. Every person in the state wants to meet her and congratulate her. The state has showered her with gifts in both cash and kind.

Think of it, her first victory in life was not in Rio but in her own mother’s womb where she braved all possible dangers to come out alive. While launching the save-the-girl-child programme, the prime minister paid handsome tributes to Kalpana Chawla, a Haryana girl, the first Indian astronaut to be included in a Nasa Space Shuttle mission.

Today the whole country is proud of these two daughters of India, where women are often at the receiving end. Even in Kerala, which alone has a sex-ratio favourable to women, fewer and fewer girls are now being born, according to the last decennial census.

If anything this shows that even in a literate state like Kerala, female foeticide has been shamefully gaining ground. The two medal winners provide the nation a great opportunity to promote the idea that men and women complement each other.