Chronicling the intriguing era of Indian hockey under the legendary Ashwini Kumar

Novy Kapadia
Modified 24 Oct 2015
The late great Ashwini Kumar

At the prime of his career, the late Ashwini Kumar (died recently at the age of 94) was a man of many parts. He was an influential, hands-on policeman who chased and nabbed notorious dacoits and the killers of the Chief Minister of undivided Punjab, Pratap Singh Kairon. Later he became the Director General of the paramilitary outfit Border Security Force (BSF). He excelled in his profession but his first love was hockey and sports administration.

History will remember him as a suave, articulate and efficient sports administrator. Always dapper, Ashwini Kumar was also a man of many contradictions, loyal but ruthless, efficient but opinionated. He took over Indian hockey from Naval Tata, when India got eclipsed by Pakistan in the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games and the 1960 Rome Olympics. He ruled with an iron fist for fifteen years till forced to resign in 1973. He was witness to a turbulent period in Indian hockey.

The sixties saw Indian hockey’s hegemony being challenged first by Pakistan and later by Australia and erstwhile West Germany. Ashwini Kumar’s fans say that during his reign the Indian hockey team never returned from an international competition without a medal. The highlights of his tenure as administrator was India winning the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games. However for the first time ever India slipped to the bronze medal position in the 1968 Mexico and 1972 Munich Olympics. In the inaugural World Cup in 1971, India finished third.

Why did this occur? Was it because of a paucity of talented players in India or had world standards improved? A careful perusal of Ashwini Kumar’s reign as the helmsman of Indian hockey reveals several contradictions. Undoubtedly India still got medals in international competitions but mainly silver and bronze.

Hockey in that era was still played on grass. The rules were not tilted in favour of the stronger and faster European nations. Standards in other countries had improved but India had an array of talented players. Sadly though, the selection was whimsical.

The primary charge against Ashwini Kumar was that he allowed the canard that Indian Muslim players were always under immense pressure and would not play their best against Pakistan to persist. In that era an India vs Pakistan final was considered inevitable. It was just over a decade after Partition and the wounds still festered.

The ultimate pity was that the finest dribbler of his generation; the incomparable inside left Inam-ur-Rehman became a victim of arbitrary selection. He was omitted from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics squad and Bandu Patil who was not even a regular in the Services team chosen instead.

In the same 1964 Olympics Ali Sayeed was the choice for outside left. However due to the phobia of playing against Pakistan, Ali Sayeed barely got a chance to play and centre forward Darshan Singh was made to play as outside left. In 1964 India still had many talented players and the heroics of Shanker Laxman as goalkeeper led to a 1-0 win over Pakistan in the final.

Four years later Inam-ur-Rehman was at the peak of his career. Yet his selection was in doubt despite the pleas of many ex-Olympians that he should be an automatic choice. Like many of his ilk the late Ashwini Kumar ruled with an iron fist and brooked no opposing views. Hence at selection committee meetings even a legend like the late Dhyan Chand was hesitant to speak his mind.

For the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Inam was again on the verge of being dropped. A rare outburst by Dhyan Chand led to his selection. It is believed that after several drinks with local journalists in a Delhi hotel, Dhyan Chand expressed his disgust at the selection of the team. Urged on by some journalists, Dhyan Chand finally mustered courage, phoned Ashwini Kumar and said he was unhappy with the selection of the 1968 Olympics squad and would express his views to the media about it.

Fearful of a media backlash, Ashwini Kumar relented and allowed Inam to be selected. However, Inam was played in only one match against Japan, when India’s progress to the semi-finals was in jeopardy. He did not play in the semi-final, which India lost 1-2 to Australia.

There is another side to the Inam-ur-Rehman-Ashwini Kumar imbroglio. Like many of his ilk, Ashwini tended to be slightly authoritarian. When he took over as DG of BSF, Ashwini formed a formidable BSF hockey team, choosing some of the most talented players in the country. He asked Inam-ur-Rehman to join BSF.  However, Inam did not want to become a policeman and preferred to play for Mohun Bagan and later secured a job with Indian Airlines. His refusal to join BSF was also seen as a cause of resentment.

Like many of his generation, born in the pre-Partition era, Ashwini Kumar had good relationships with many across the border. When Pakistan won the inaugural World Cup in 1971 he drove down from Amritsar to the Wagh border and sent a note of congratulations to the President of the Pakistan Hockey Federation. He was also well versed in Urdu and often quoted from Mirza Ghalib in his interviews.

A versatile and articulate man, it was a pity he tended to be rigid. He needlessly sidelined dashing winger Balbir Singh (Railways) who scored the match-winner against Pakistan in the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games final. Balbir’s misdemeanor was minor.

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, after India lost the semi-final, Balbir started hobnobbing with some of the Pakistani players and wished them luck for the final. In those days, an India vs Pakistan hockey match was played in a war-like atmosphere. It was frowned upon to have congenial relationships with the opposite camp.

The unpredictable Balbir was needlessly sidelined at the peak of his career. He was not chosen for the 1971 World Cup and a novice like Rajwinder Singh got selected. Rajwinder made no impact and never played for India again.

Ashwini Kumar wanted “Yes” men around him. He did not like people who challenged his opinion. His long-standing feud with penalty corner expert Prithipal Singh was another sore point. Prithipal deserved to be captain in the 1968 Mexico Olympics but instead went as joint captain with Gurbux Singh.

The feuds with players affected his popularity and he was forced to resign in 1973 as IHF President. His reign could have been more successful. Ex-Olympian Ashok Kumar strongly believes that India could have won the gold medals in three successive events –  the 1970 Bangkok Asiad, the 1971 World Cup and 1972 Munich Olympics if they had fielded their best forward line.

According to Ashok, the best quintet of forwards then was Balbir Singh, Ashok, Harbinder Singh/BP Govinda, Inam and Shahid Noor. However this dream forward line never played for India due to interference from the IHF.

During his 15 years stint as IHF supremo Ashwini Kumar did a lot of good also. He was loyal to players from Punjab and ensured good hockey players from the region got jobs in either BSF or Punjab Police. He ensured that the Indian hockey team got a lot of practice and many countries visited India for test matches.

When matches were held in Punjab he always fielded a talented Punjab University player in the playing eleven to give him experience. This is how outside left Harcharan Singh was discovered. As a University student he was played in a test match against Kenya at Jalandhar and his potential was noted.

Ashwini Kumar mellowed with age and excelled as a sports administrator with the International Olympic committee (IOC). He was nominated to the IOC in 1973. Ten years later at a session in Delhi, he became the first Indian to be elected as Vice-President of the IOC. During his stint with IOC, he did his best to prevent boycotts of the 1980 Olympics by the USA and their allies and the 1984 Olympics by erstwhile USSR and East European nations.

He was Chairman of the Radio Commission of the IOC and later had several meetings with the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung to ensure that the 1988 Seoul Olympics were held peacefully. The IOC supremo Juan Antonio Samaranch was impressed with Ashwini and appointed him as first member security. His administrative acumen will always be remembered by the IOC.

He lived life to the full. After retiring from BSF he started his own import-export business. History would have remembered him more kindly, if only Ashwini Kumar had been a little more conciliatory and tolerant.

Published 23 Oct 2015
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