After the death of the country’s first Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964, several hockey lovers working in the Government of India decided to start a national level tournament in his memory. One of the aims of this intended tournament was to help revive the golden days of Indian hockey.
In the summer of 1964 the pride of Indian hockey had been dented. India had lost the Olympic gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, losing 0-1 to arch rivals Pakistan. Two years later in the 1962 Djakarta Asian Games, India was humiliated 0-2 by Pakistan in the final.
The founding fathers of the Nehru hockey tournament were visionaries. They wanted to start a high calibre domestic tournament, which would provide quality competition to the leading teams of the country and help to unearth new talent. The men who planned and executed this dream were the former Union Law Minister Ashok Kumar Sen (President), Bhakt Darshan (Vice-President), G.C. Kapur (Hony. Secretary) and Shiv Kumar Varma (Joint secretary) who later served as Hony. Secretary from 1965 till July 2011. The late Shiv Kumar Varma was the longest serving member of the Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society (JNHTS) and played a stellar role in making it the most popular hockey tournament in the country.
The initial idea was to launch a high profile tournament, so that it could receive extensive media coverage. Delhi was considered an appropriate venue, as all the national dailies were based here. In those days the top hockey outfits of the country were from the Railways, Services and Police teams so the organizers were confident of using central government influence to ensure participation of the leading hockey playing sides.
By the time the tournament started in December 1964, the situation of the national team had changed. In October 1964, India regained the Olympic hockey gold medal by beating Pakistan 1-0 in the final with right half back Mohinder Lal scoring the match winner off a penalty stroke. The players returned as heroes and received the adulation from the fans reserved these days for cricketers only. The inaugural Nehru hockey tournament in December 1964 was the first domestic competition in which all the 18 members of the Tokyo Olympics gold medal winning team participated. The crowds turned out in large numbers to watch these heroes, and the tournament got off to a flying start.
The momentum of this well organized tournament got further enhanced by the dignitaries who attended the final and opening ceremony. Mrs. Vijaylakshmi Pandit inaugurated the first edition of the Nehru hockey tournament. The final was attended by the then Prime Minister of India, Mr. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who gave away the prizes. The next year the President of India, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan awarded the trophy to the captain of the winning team, Olympian Haripal Kaushik of the Sikh Regimental Centre. The Guest of Honour at the final was a future Prime Minister of India who was then the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.
Through the passing years the stature of the tournament got further uplifted as several distinguished guests like Presidents of India, Dr. Zakhir Hussain, Mr. V.V. Giri, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, R. Venkataraman, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, Gyani Zail Singh and Dr. Shanker Dyal Sharma, Vice-Presidents of India, G.S. Pathak, B.D. Jatti and Krishan Kant and former Union Home Minister Y.B. Chavan graced the final.
Since its inception in1964 the Nehru hockey tournament has not only achieved pre-eminence by attracting the best teams within India and some from abroad, but has also unearthed much talent. The Beighton Cup in Kolkata, the Aga Khan trophy and the Gold Cup in Mumbai are older and more historic tournaments but have got eclipsed by the Nehru Hockey tournament. This has happened because creditably the organizing committee (JNHTS) has not rested on its laurels but has continuously expanded its horizons by introducing age group tournaments.
After the senior tournament the far-sighted tournament committee started the Nehru Junior (U-17) Hockey tournament in 1972. This was followed by the sub-junior (U-15) Nehru tournament in 1983. The champion college team of each state participates in the Nehru Champions Colleges tournament, which started in 1993. The current secretary of the tournament committee Kukoo Walia, along with N.K. Sharma, were the umpires in the final of the inaugural Nehru Champion Colleges tournament in which N.A.S. (P.G.) College Meerut prevailed over Pachaiyappa’s college Madras.
The Champions College tournament has over the years given the country several outstanding players including Deepak Thakur, Gagan Ajit Singh, Prabhjot Singh, Devesh Chauhan, Ignace Tirkey, Sardara Singh and Sandeep Singh. To promote women’s hockey in the country, the Nehru Girls (U-17) Hockey tournament was started in 1994. Prize money is provided in each of these tournaments.
The Nehru hockey tournaments have grown in stature and are now an integral part of Delhi’s sporting calendar.