By Sundeep Misra
The first time anybody had a glimpse of Sardar Singh and Ashpal Kaur Bhogal was at the 2012 London Olympics. Half a kilometer away from the Games Village is the Westfield Shopping Centre, a favourite haunt for the athletes. As I picked up Richard Moore’s ‘Dirtiest Race in History’ at WH Smith on the ground floor of the mall, I saw Sardar and Ash walk past.
Sardar fleetingly looked at the books displayed in the glass case outside, saw me looking at him, then slightly embarrassed with a half-smile, looked away.
It was around 8pm in the evening and the Indian captain should either have been in bed or attending a team meeting. But those were times of love.
Now, six months short of four years as another Olympic Games loom, Sardar’s life seems to have imploded. Love is over. Ash Kaur, instead of sending love notes on Facebook has filed a police complaint in Ludhiana that the Indian hockey captain, one of the world’s best midfielders, has “sexually exploited her. After promising to get married, he has dumped her”.
In the same complaint, she writes that she underwent an abortion in 2015 and even then “Sardar had promised to marry her.”
In fact, everything seemed okay at The Hague in 2014 when India played the World Cup with Sardar as captain.
Ash was seen at the stadium cheering when India played their matches and in a chat said, “I really admire him as a player.”
After the match against Malaysia, Ash ran across the second pitch, outside the main stadium, and kissed him on the cheek. Sardar seemed embarrassed. But love seemed to be blossoming.
It was a perfect match. Ash had played junior hockey for England becoming the first Sikh woman to wear England colours. But a knee injury had robbed her of moving up the ladder. Then Sardar happened and she found a soul-mate who not only played her position, midfield, but was also captaining India, her country of origin.
By the middle of 2015, things seemed to be purring along for both of them. She seemed completely taken up with Sardar, going for tournaments and even coming to India for short visits. Sardar’s family, too, seemed fine.
Ash was smart; her accented British English endeared her to the rest of the players. She was after all, the captain’s partner – his would-be wife.
Not known to many, the relationship crashed in Belgium when India were playing the World Hockey League semifinals at Antwerp.
I remember getting a text from her asking me to bring along an edition of The Caravan which published a story in which I had written that the Indian captain was the ‘Last of the great Sardars’.
I couldn’t fly to Belgium, cancelling my ticket a few hours before the flight. Half-way through the tournament, I was chatting with one of the support staffs on fitness and other issues in the Indian camp when he said the captain is having problems with his girlfriend.
I laughed it off saying, “Sardar must be stressed about the tournament.”
But when he said the management had to step in, I was puzzled and intrigued. Ash had arrived in Antwerp and there had been an argument in which Sardar, allegedly, had a scrap with her. Apparently, an angry and humiliated Ash decided to take matters in her own hands before the management did a firefight to handle the situation.
Things went downhill after that. The first sign was when she didn’t turn up at Raipur to watch India play the World Hockey League Finals. That was a sure sign that things had soured. It’s true that Sardar had wanted to marry her. He was in a relationship with her. A few players had commented that she was more serious about it than him.
But it was dismissed as just a snide remark because with all the travelling and training, it’s not possible for a player to be constantly looking at his iPad or smartphone. Ash was possessive. She did complain once in a while that Sardar ‘ignored’ her.
The accusations are serious, shocking and could be harmful. And someone in Sardar’s position, as Indian captain, needs to resolve it quickly.
Sardar needs to answer the questions asked. Not dodge them or dribble past. A woman’s respect and feelings are on the line. There can’t be a force more propulsive than a woman wronged and this episode should not degenerate into an Indian Crime Story: Ash Vs Sardar Singh.
(Sundeep has covered 7 hockey World Cups and is the author of ‘Forgive me Amma’, an unauthorised biography of Dhanraj Pillay.)