Lalita Babar was counting the days to her Olympics debut at Rio, training somewhere in Ooty, when she first heard of the brutal gangrape and murder of a 14-year-old in Kopardi, Ahmednagar. Babar remembers being jolted out of her cocoon for the first time in months, and feeling wretched about how girls were dangerously vulnerable when they stepped out of their homes.
A month and a half after finishing a laudable tenth in 3,000-metre steeplechase at Rio, Babar on Sunday joined the Maratha protests triggered by the July 13 rape-murder. She was part of a huge rally held by the community in Pune on Sunday.
“I walked in the march not as a member of any caste or a sportsperson, but as an ordinary woman still angry about what happened to the schoolgoing girl,” Babar said. “I came here as a normal girl who believes that such a crime should never happen again. As an international athlete, I’ve gotten out of that rural environment, though my parents still work in the farm. But that killing meant girls in villages across the country will think twice before stepping out of the house. I find it unbelievable that women should be made to feel so unsafe.”
In her official Olympic gear, Babar joined the protesters as they marched from Deccan Chowk to the Council Hall.
Marathas have been holding protests across the state demanding justice for the Kopardi girl, scrapping of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and reservation for Marathas.
Demanding that those who assaulted the girl in Kopardi be hanged, Babar said, “We talk about women having taken giant strides in the country, and at the Olympics I saw how much progress girls from any part of the world can make once they decide their goals. They can achieve impossible things. But after such an incident, I wonder if we are actually still back in the dark ages… What message did that incident send across? That girls can’t leave their homes? It’s terrible.”
On the Maratha demand for reservation, the athlete said, “Caste reservation is a rule and has to be followed. But when I see that after going to the Olympics and achieving good things internationally, like a top eight finish at the World Championships, I am still not eligible for promotions, and someone else gets it solely owing to caste, the system starts looking faulty.”
Asked specifically if Marathas needed reservation, Babar said she hoped that merit would be the only thing that would count one day, like in sport. “I just think everyone should be treated equally and on capability, and not because they belong to one caste or another. If I give my best, as I have, I shouldn’t be denied promotion because I’m the wrong caste.”
Her participation in the protest didn’t mean she was interested in joining politics, Babar clarified. “I joined the protest only because it was non-violent and there was no ruckus. I am firmly focused on sport. But when it’s time to speak up, I want to be there with those that need to be spoken for… I’ve been living in big cities for some time now because of sport. But life is tough for those living in small villages. If I am scared of stepping out in the dark in cities, imagine how bad it must be for those girls.”
Babar also wished that the politicians who had been seeking to meet her since she returned from the Olympics had been around to support her four years ago. “Who knows I could’ve come back with a medal. But in the future I wish leaders help those who need help early in their careers.”
The Maratha march, attended by around 8 lakh people as per police estimates, brought Pune to a halt for the better part of Sunday. Leaders from the NCP, BJP, Congress and Sena came for the rally, but made a quick exit as participants refused to let them hold centre stage.
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