Even as India hails the Olympic bronze medal won by Manipur's Mary Kom, one cannot help but wonder whether this win will go some way in breaking stereotypes about the North East region in general and the North Eastern women in particular.
CNN-IBN Deputy Editor Sagarika Ghose posed the question to a panel of experts on her show, Face The Nation.
Sagarika Ghose: Hi there. Yes, India has fallen in love with Boxing champion MC Mary Kom. As a newspaper put it this morning, she may have lost her bout yesterday but she has won all our hearts. The new Amul advertisement even says ‘Ham kisi se Kom nahin’ as its new line. Mary Kom has got an Olympic bronze medal. Can the success of Mary Kom break the stereotypes that the rest of the country holds about the North East in general and of North East women in particular, we're exploring that question tonight.
Joining us tonight, Binalakshmi Nepram, Manipuri activist and writer. Kiran Bedi, Former IPS officer, she is in fact joining us as an avatar of Tennis Champion, she has won Asian Lawn Tennis Championship in 1972. She has also served in Mizoram as DIG police. Joining us Diana Eduljee, Former Indian Test Cricketer and Madhu Kishwar, Professor of CSDS.
Binalakshmi let me start with you, over 4 lakh people come from North East states to the other states of India to live, to work; they face this discrimination, abuse, and alienation. You were on our channel last night when you said that the success of Mary Kom may just break such stereotypes.
Binalakshmi Nepram: Absolutely Sagarika, we are just thrilled at what she has achieved and I hope that the memory of this glorious Olympic medal will not just be a short lived memory. Mary Kom also said in her interview, learn from by story. Mary Kom’s story is a story of how she achieved glory, daughter of a farmer, and how she became an Olympic medallist. It is a hope to 45 million people of the North East and entire country. And definitely, we saw how she bunched her way through bronze medal… it is a historic moment for the North East, and a historic moment for Mary Kom and a befitting reply to those who are listening to this telecast that you will think twice before committing violence against women, in particular women of North East of India. We should celebrate. I am surprised that the Manipur government has not come up with anything for Mary Kom.
Sagarika Ghose: When it comes to North East women now, Bina as the Amul add says ‘Ham kisi se Kom nahin’ so you think against violence North East women you know you have got a big punch landing on your jaw. Kiran Bedi as a sports woman, as someone who has served in the North East. Mary Kom has been a boxing champion, she has won many boxing championships. But representing India in the Olympics and winning that bronze medal at the Olympic that carries a symbolism that is surely unparallel. The woman from the North East capturing the hopes of the entire Indian nation, surly that is a symbolism that is very potent.
Kiran Bedi: Absolutely Sagarika, I having worked in Mizoram as right mentioned and I have travelled in the entire North East. I think the entire North East is full of Mary Koms. I have seen girls and boys very fit. There is a very special reason of being fit, because of the terrain. They are walking up the hills, they are running up the hills and some of them have got goat feet, they have a nice footwork. They have good sharpshooters. I have seen all this happen in North East. They have got a lot of talent and they are fit. The entire North East, look at Manipur, Mizoram even parts of Assam, they have very fit girls. We can promote boxing there, Kudo, Karata will be excellent. Some of the games which are tribal linked, we must promote these games. Every girl is so fit, so thin, very light on her feet. So I think, the entire North East is full of Mary Koms. They eat well also, their diet is mostly non-vegetarian, it has high protein. So I think we need to capitalise on this hidden talent. Of course a person has to be mind, body and support system because every women additionally need body an huge support system. Which comes from official sources and family. You need money, you need coaching, you need infrastructure. So I think the entire North East is an untapped resource. So Mary Kom could probably lead in North East, become an ambassador and she could create may Mary Koms.
Sagarika Ghose: She could create a revolution of Mary Koms in the North East. Can we the rest of India learn from the North East women because it is unfortunate as Kiran Bedi is saying they are fit, they are active, matrilineal societies. And yet we have the stereotypes that women from the North East are shop assistants, we see them as students, as fashion plates, they are not that they embody so much strength.
Madhu Kishwar: You just have to visit any of these North East states to realise that women are the mainstay of the economy through in politics they are marginalised. I don’t know what is it about modern democratic politics. Now even where women are not housebound, there is no parda… and these are matrilineal societies, Manipur in particular and they dominate the economy. They are not just working in the fields they are active in marketing, in trading, everything. And all that Kiran said is 100 per cent true.
Sagarika Ghose: What she also represents is that there is no false dichotomy between not being a wife, mother and being a boxing champion. You are a mother, you are a wife, you are located in the family and you are a boxing champion. So you don’t necessarily have to forgo your family duties, in order to reach heights of your profession.
Madhu Kishwar: No but also it is an extended family. They have taken care of the kids and the husband is not embarrassed a bit. But the conditions, under which she practised, didn’t even a proper sporting ring. She had to practise right outside her house. And she has already won so many medals. We are quick to celebrate because Indians have a very low self-esteem and the moment somebody in the west celebrates us, our hormonal balance gets upset. But then it comes down and we tend to forget. She needs support for a sports academy. It is not enough to be world champion, to win Olympic medallist, to just do it on your own. She needs a lot more support and I do sincerely hope… she made us cry.
Sagarika Ghose: This is the time to support her. She certainly made us all cry. Diana Eduljee, let me bring you in here. As Kiran Bedi is saying, as Madhu Kishwar is saying, is this the time for India to prove that India deserves Mary Kom, Mary Kom deserves all those medals but does India deserve this truly lion hearted champion, who apologises and says she could not get the gold which really made us all cry. Is this time then to make the most of this opportunity and really invest so that many more athletes from North East as Kiran Bedi is saying they have so much potential.
Diana Eduljee: I agree with you Sagarika because… let me first congratulate Mary Kom for her great performance. But I would like to share a secret with you there are so many good sportspersons from Manipur in the women hockey, in the men hockey, in cycling; all of them have shifted from Manipur and come to Mumbai. They are working with me in Western Railway. We have had Asian champions; we have had commonwealth champions from Manipur. Its not that they have not been able to make a mark like Mary and gone to the Olympics… but Manipur is a good bed of hot sportspersons be it men or women. They are very good, and are very talented. I think Manipur is a hot bed for sports and we must invest there.
Sagarika Ghose: We should invest in Manipur. Binalakshmi, you know, the tweets about Mary Kom - Amitabh Bachchan has tweeted, “Mary Kom you are a champion.” Sachin Tendulkar Tweeted, “Mary Kom you are an amazing woman.” Harsha Bhogle tweeted, “Bravo Mary Kom.” 27x7 cameras are at Kangathei village in which Mary was born. That is normally not a place were media goes. We never go to Manipur, we never go to Kangathei village but there we are 27x7. Is this an opportunity to develop much more awareness in other part of the country towards the North East?
Binalakshmi Nepram: Absolutely. This is again a very important historic moment.
Sagarika Ghose: But are you worried though that the cameras will be switched off and then all will be forgotten and once again Manipur will slide back.
Binalakshmi Nepram: No, I think, it has awaken a lot of people not just in the media but people from different walks of life. But let me just go to why, as Diana Eduljee has said, Kiran Bedi has said, why is Manipur such a hub for sporting. Because it is a place which as go a long legacy of sporting history. Not just in proper games like boxing or football, but Manipur is a place where polo was born, it has got many other indigenous sports like Kang which is not included in many categories. Manipur has got a huge sporting history much before many of the modern Olympic events came into existence. And as Kiran Bedi said diet in North East has something to do with good athletes. North East India has send 12 athletes this time in Olympics. May be for te first time people will appreciate our diet.
Sagarika Ghose: This is the time for the rest of the Indian states to start appreciating the North East diet, the North East sports culture. Madhu Kishwar rightly said that the North East matrilineal society permits this kind of athlete women to emerge. Let’s now look whether Mary Kom has broken stereotypes about women athletes in general. Kiran Bedi let me put it to you, I know, you feel passionately about this subject. Do you think the success of Mary Kom, the success of Saina Nehwal will encourage that kind of sporting culture among girls?
Kiran Bedi: Why not, it is the way we promote them now. If the government supports them and has a promotional plan and they be made brand ambassadors for sports it will. But if they leave them on their own they have other responsibilities and they will go back to their own preparations. If they have a budget for their ambassadorship, they reaching out to universities and colleges from time to time, instituting scholarships in their name … I would love to see scholarships in their name. Saina’s name and Mary Kom’s name, I think, it would go long, long way. We must promote their name now, we must promote them as ambassadors now around the country and give girls scholarships in their name. Secondly, I would love to see Mary Kom appointed as officer on special duty with sports ministry but works for North East. Let her become a brand ambassador for North East. Let her tap boxing talent in girls; let her be given a boxing academy in Imphal and ask her to produce next Olympic champion. Setup a boxing academy in Imphal for Mary Kom and name it Mary Kom Boxing academy.
Sagarika Ghose: There is already one but there is no boxing ring in that academy, it has very few facilities. But let me put Kiran Bedi’s point to you Bina, the fact is Mary Kom is showing us a different face of the North East. You know, we have seen Irom Sharmila the face of resistance, the face of protest. We have seen the face of political violence. Now we see this happy smiling woman with a heart of a champion. In fact she is a champion, she is Kiran Bedi says a new image of North East. Would you like to see her as the ambassador of the North East.
Binalakshmi Nepram: I think she is an ambassador of the entire country. She won Olympic for the country and not just for the North East. So we will like a bigger role for her and not just the brand ambassador of the North East India. As I said Manipur has a very long history of women, not just as you rightly pointed out – two women’s war of Nupi Lan and the struggle of 12 women who protested in the Manorama case. So each show the grit of women in my home state. And we have we women’s market, com and see that place. So it is not only in sports alone but in all spheres of society.
Sagarika Ghose: So other women in other Indian states can learn from our sisters – the seven sisters. They have achieved a lot in terms of their dignity and freedom. Let me quote to you Diana Eduljee the views of Minsan Pa who has written, "The most ingenious component of China’s Olympic winning strategy is to give more attention to female athletes. As a result China’s female athletes are more successful than male colleagues. Of all international events won by China in last 30 years roughly 60 per cent belong to female athletes." China has realised it can’t compete with the men but women can compete. Are women athletes the way to go for India?
Diana Eduljee: I fully agree with you Sagarika because it is high time that people realise that the women in sports are really doing wonders. We definitely like China have better performance then the men leaving aside men’s cricket. You take the commonwealth games, the Asian Games; the women have been performing at the main stage. I agree with the China theory, I will tell you a little bit more on women’s cricket. China wants to promote cricket but they not concentrating on men cricket because they know they can’t breakthrough there. But they are concentrating on women’s cricket.
Sagarika Ghose: The role models that Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, what they represent to the modern Indian woman today.
Madhu Kishwar: Even in so called conservative Haryana look at the way women are taking to sports including Wrestling. Just near my house there is this Chandgi Ram akhara set by Chandgi Ram’s son. With such small resources in civil lines. And I was so humble to see young girls from Haryana villages come and live there learning Wrestling. All with facilities with the personal investment of Chandgi Ram’s son, who himself is a Wrestling. Now the government says we have no money for them, apart from a piece of land which Chandgi Ram got. Imagine from so called conservative Haryana, the society, the parents, entire villages support these women. Our government needs to wake up and it needs to invest.
Sagarika Ghose: Kiran Bedi just a last word to you, these new heroes we have now, we have Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom, Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, we have these heroes. Is this something new, is this revolutionary in India because these are the role models that the young will look at.
Kiran Bedi: Two thinks we could do, announce al least 1000 scholarships in their name in every states for girls. That will encourage girls and prepare them for the news Olympics four years from now. And I think that is preparation. I think we must announce scholarships in their name and start preparation for the news Olympics now.
Sagarika Ghose: We have to make these our heroes. Mary Kom is a role model for every Indian girl. That adversity that she has endured has made her a champion. Binalakshmi Nepram, Kiran Bedi, Diana Eduljee, Madhu Kishwar, thank you very much indeed for joining us.