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Why PM Modi Has Renamed India's Biggest Sporting Award After Hockey Legend Dhyan Chand

Members of the Indian team wait for the referee's decision on a video referral.
© REUTERS / BERNADETT SZABO

Dhyan Chand is widely regarded as the greatest field hockey player in the sport's history. Popularly known as the 'Magician', Dhyan Chand single-handedly won gold medals for India at three consecutive Olympics in 1928, 1932 and 1936.

The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, India's highest sporting honour, has been renamed as the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Friday moments after the Indian women's hockey team suffered a heart-breaking loss as they fought for a bronze medal against 2016 Olympic champions Great Britain in Tokyo.

Taking to Twitter, PM Modi said that his decision to rename the award was based on the demands of the country's citizens, who have long held that the hockey legend should be honoured for his great contribution to Indian sport.

The renaming of the award comes at a time when India's hockey teams (both men and women) have made history at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Despite their disappointing defeat in the bronze medal game, the women's team rewrote history books, qualifying for a medal match for the first time in the Olympics.

On the other hand, the Indian men's team ended their 41-year-long wait for an Olympic medal after they captured a bronze medal, beating Germany 5-4 in a thrilling encounter on Thursday.

Although 29 August, Dhyan Chand's birthday, was declared India's National Sports Day back in 2012, there have been demands from various sections of Indian society to honour him with the nation's highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.

However, the federal government hasn't responded positively to those demands, emphasising that just like Mahatma Gandhi, who was not given the Bharat Ratna, Dhyan Chand cannot be conferred with the country's highest honour because his legacy is much richer and far bigger than the award.

However, former hockey player Devindar Walmiki applauded Modi for fulfilling the wishes of millions of Dhyan Chand supporters.

Walmiki, who was part of India's national men's team that took part in the 2016 Rio Games, also criticised those who were questioning Modi's intentions behind renaming the Khel Ratna award.

"I don't see a political motive behind the PM's decision. The legendary Dhyan Chand has been rightly honoured by the government as I believe the country's highest sports award should be named after its greatest sporting icon. Other than Dhyan Chand, who can be regarded as the greatest in India?" he asked Sputnik on Friday.

The Political Significance of Dhyan Chand in Uttar Pradesh

Although a number of Indians echoed the same sentiments as Walmiki, there were others who claimed that Modi's decision to rename the Khel Ratna was a well-calculated move, considering the ruling party was trying to consolidate the votes of the Kushwahas [the caste to which Dhyan Chand belonged] during the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh (UP) state polls.

There was a lot of chatter on micro-blogging platform Twitter, with a few taking Modi to task and calling his move a "political gimmick".

They argued that it was part of a larger Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strategy for the elections in UP, scheduled to be held early next year.

Dhyan Chand was born in the tourist city of Agra in the state, where the world famous Mughal monument Taj Mahal is. According to a few political commentators, BJP could reap the benefits of Modi's decision in the polls because Dhyan Chand is still a hero among the Kushwahas.

However, political expert Sandeep Shastri didn't completely agree with them before saying "a wrong has been righted".

"Is this done to gain political mileage? It's too early to say. People associate Dhyan Chand with sports and not the caste or the community he belongs to," he told Sputnik on Friday.

"I think we will be doing the greatest disservice to Dhyan Chand by limiting his appeal to a particular caste. He was a national hero, and by saying that a national hero was being honoured to placate a particular caste group would be a great injustice to his name," Shastri added.

"I would resist the temptation and desire to impute political motives to why it happened. I believe a wrong has been righted and I do hope many such wrongs will be righted," he concluded.

The caste system in India has four major categories - Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (soldiers), Vaishyas (skilled labourers) and Shudras (non-skilled labourers).

These are further divided into sub-castes which include Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes and Other Backward Classes.

Kushwahas belong to the Backward Classes.

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