His story is their story. A young boy born and raised under the shadow of conflict. Many are the same age as him, yet there is respect and wonder as they listen to his instructions. For it is him that is wearing a crisp blue jacket, the word “India” emblazoned across it. It is him that has flown in an aircraft. That has crossed the sea. It is 5.30 in the evening, and the stories of his travels will be told later. But right now, it is time to focus on that which has made 16-year-old Suresh Hemla soar, and makes them dream. The sport of softball.
In 2016, the district administration of Bijapur, one of India’s worst Left-wing extremism-related violence-hit districts in the country, decided to invest in sports by opening a sports academy in the district headquarters, to bring children out of the cycle of violence. The sports being played were ten in total, including football, archery, badminton, volleyball and softball.
Hemla knew none of these sports three years ago, born and brought up as he was in the village of Gangaloor, 40 km away. In these parts, his village is a symbol of bloody violence. The 40-km road from Bijapur to Gangaloor was built over many years, and cost many lives.
“I am from Gangaloor. I didn’t know anything about sports and just used to study in my village. There were some teachers that came in 2016 and said the Bijapur sports academy would be opening.”
Hemla’s first choice was volleyball, but the slots were full. So he watched the others, and picked softball. It is a choice that he does not regret, given that last year Hemla represented India at the under-17 level, part of a team that won bronze at an international event. “I first played for the state in 2016, then played for the nationals, and then went for the India trials in Telangana, and then there was a camp in Rohtak. I had never stepped out of Bijapur district before any of this. Never even been to Jagdalpur,” Hemla said.
Hemla is not the only player from Bijapur though who has represented the country. Two 16-year-old girls, Aruna Punem and Sunita Hemla, from Gangaloor also flew to the Philippines to be part of the under-17 women’s team. As the three of them talk about their experiences abroad, their faces light up. There have been so many firsts. Their first flight, their first sighting of the sea. And of world-class athletes.
Aruna Punem said it was this that their parents had dreamt of when they were sent off to hostel as part of the Bijapur Sports Academy. “My parents didn’t stop us at all. They wanted us to get out of Gangaloor and play sports, and move forward. Softball was a new game, and when we saw it played, I loved it,” she said.
But for coaches like Sriram Yadav, who teaches football at the academy, being in Bijapur brings its own set of unique challenges. Very few children have access to television, especially in their hostels. And therefore, even as peers from the other cities are brought up on a steady diet of Premier League or La Liga football on television, Yadav makes do with a projector and some old CDs.
“I try to do as much as I can that they get the same level of coaching that a child in Delhi gets. But the advantage a Delhi child has is that they have chances to compete with each other, there are many tournaments available,” Yadav said, adding: “So I use a projector, and some CDs and I show them famous games.”
Yadav has been a coach for 22 years, and has been in Bijapur for the last three. He left an eight-year career as a PE teacher in Jagdalpur, Bastar’s largest city, because it required him to focus on all sports and not just football. “It is my life. But it makes me happy that though I never got the chance, one of my students last year travelled to France and met Maradona in a programme by the Tomorrow Foundation. It makes me so proud. When they have these experiences, in front of my eyes, mindsets and confidence levels change. Their movements become quicker, their concentration and strategy,” he said.
But as with all things in Bastar, the sceptre of violence is never far behind. Across multiple disciplines, the Bijapur Sports Academy has begun to make waves, winning accolades at the national level with students traveling through the country to compete. That has brought discomfiture to the Maoists, who have now begun to ask people to refrain from sending their children to the academy.
One student said, “After they found out I played at the national level, they came looking for my parents in the village. They said the path I was on would lead me to join the government or the police one day. They warned us. But I am still here until my parents tell me to leave.”
There are many children in the Bijapur Sports Academy that have lost family members to violence. Hemla, for instance, rarely visits his home in Gangaloor. “There was a lot of danger because my father was a constable. The Maoists killed my bade pitaji (father’s elder brother) because my father is in the police. They killed him in 2007,” Hemla said.
For coaches, that brings its own challenges. “My children have seen a lot of violence. I try and keep them with me, and get closer to them. I try and fulfil small needs that they might have. I invite them for breakfast, lunch. Then they start opening up. And once they do, there is a trust that begins to develop. I feel very proud when I talk to them. I try and ask about their families,” said Yadav.
Yadav says 90 per cent of the children have lost at least one family member to violence. “To bring them here, and for them to stay on, has been a challenge. In the first year, children wanted to leave and even I couldn’t understand what they wanted. It took three months to understand each other. Even family problems.”
In a conflict zone, even small actions are often misconstrued. Multiple students said that given the arduous hours of physical activity, their body structures begin to improve. Muscles tone and a return home will see accusations from the Maoists that they are training to join the police.
“We have to repeatedly tell them that the NCC is not the police. Sometimes they even have doubts if our hair is cut a certain way,” a student said. There are other challenges too, and the state is not blemishless. “I don’t know if the senior officers know, but there are policemen from the thana who ask us to give them information. We always refuse because it could mean the end of our lives. But it has happened,” added another 15-year-old student.
Proximity converts coaches like Yadav from mere sporting mentors to life confidantes and there are many occasions when their pupils bring these problems to them. Yadav elaborated, “When they say something like this to me, I talk to the children, and then to my senior officers. I try and tell them to convey inside that what they are doing is not wrong. That they are not preparing to go into the forces. I do physical activity for five hours. Naturally there will be changes in my body. I study for eight hours, and so my mental capacity increases. I am around a hundred people all the time, so my confidence increases, who have seen the world. But that does not mean I am joining the police, I ask them to tell anyone who asks.”
As they travel to represent their country, Hemla, Punem and Sunita Hemla have all been asked by other teammates about Bijapur and Maoism. Sunita Hemla said, “They ask what it is like. How we have reached where we are? They ask us if we have seen violence.” Yadav, who often travels with his teams throughout the country, has children coming to him seeking solace after taunts are thrown at their wards sometimes. Yadav said, “It happens when I go as well. People say, what will you do? You guys are backward, you are from Bastar. For the kids it is even worse, of course. I only tell them. There is no need to justify anything. Your game will speak for you.”