The first step had been the hardest for Devendra Jhajharia — stepping out of the house soon after his forearm needed to be amputated when he got electrocuted as an 8-year-old. On a day when he became India’s first para-athlete to be conferred the Khel Ratna, the 36-year-old recalled the dread he’d felt leaving the house for the first time after the doctor had performed the procedure. “I was afraid of going in front of people. You can imagine as an 8-year-old, all the fears of being taunted — most of which happened. But it’s what my mother told me that day that’s gotten me the Khel Ratna. Parents with a child with disability would’ve gotten protective and said — sit at home and study hard. My mother told me — start going out and playing a sport,” he says.
It was this reinforcement from the family that gave him the confidence — the self-assurance with which he declares: “I won a gold medal with a world record in 2004 at the Athens Paralympics, and I did it again at Rio. I knew even back then that I deserved the Khel Ratna. In fact it’s come 12 years late,” he says, having beaten strong Chinese contenders both times for the top podium. “China ko haraane ka mazaa kuchh aur hi hai. They are strong opponents on the sports field, and strong rivals otherwise,” he says.
While the awarding of India’s highest sporting honour to the javelin thrower signifies the ultimate mainstreaming of para-sports in society, making it a seminal moment for sports — for champs with disability, Jhajharia’s Khel Ratna is also an apt recognition of his sheer sporting excellence. Just like India’s only gold medallist in able-bodied Games Abhinav Bindra sought the best technical training in Germany, Jhajharia showed the intent to pursue excellence by travelling to javelin’s greatest training centre — the Kuortane Olympic Training centre in Finland.
“Many people doubted whether I’d be able to win gold again after 2004. I was older and not in my 20s, but I decided to work harder and trained with the world’s Top 10 elite athletes. Competing with them I learnt a lot, and the whole awareness of Paralympics and the reach of social media ensured that when I won again with a world record, it was a delightful experience to be recognised. The Khel Ratna caps it all,” he added.
A naughty child who liked climbing trees, Devendra was not allowed to think his act of hanging off a tree-trunk had cost him his forearm. “I was taught to think differently by my parents and coach. I had to meet difficulties head-on. If I had different challenges — I had to think out-of-the-box in my training and approach too,” he said. This included using dumb-bells instead of a bench-press to compensate for the missing weight training and exercises he and coach RD Singh devised.
“Everyone faces difficulties. Growing up, my idol was Milkha Singh who didn’t have proper shoes to start with. Then I took inspiration from Sachin Tendulkar — who showed determination to play long and win the World Cup. I want all kids — able-bodied and disabled to remember that if they decide to win, nothing can stop them,” he said. Much has changed for para-athletes since 2004 when Jhajharia, a lean unassuming javelin thrower who had started out in the sport with a ‘bhala’ he’d carved out himself, clinched gold. He recalls playing a lot of table tennis with para champs from Argentina and Kenya, and keeping those friendships alive. While the national anthem rung out for the first time at the Games, back home it hastened the Paralympics Committee of India getting official recognition in 2006 on the back of a gold and bronze in power lifting — one of the last acts ensured by then sports minister Sunil Dutt.
Jhajharia promises to take the disability rights movement further and a day before the announcement, was busy talking to activists about the Rajasthan High Court order. “Even yesterday he was enquiring about details of the discrimination in government jobs against those with disability,” said Pradeep K, a Delhi-based activist. “Even sporting federations think that by building a ramp they’ve done everything for ensuring accessibility. But that’s just the first step. With Devendra’s award, we’re sure he’ll take the message further.”
Para powerlifting coach Munishwar, who went to Athens with Jhajharia, recalls a time when persons with disability couldn’t even say they had “rights” in the 1980s, and would often go to MLAs and MPs or take loans to travel to international meets. “A lot has changed since then, but not Devendra’s humility,” he recalls. “Jhajharia had often said that the real challenges in sport were faced by those on wheelchairs or who were unfortunately completely blind. He said those will be our real big medals, and we should help them,” Pradeep adds.
Jhajharia recalls telling a bunch of kids who were taunting him that there was nothing he couldn’t do, and that one day he’d be world champion. “They became his instant cheerleaders. It shows you need to believe in yourself,” says brother Rajendra.