Dangals of Crime, two-part docuseries on Discovery+, shines a light on the mafia embedded in Indian wrestling
Olympian Sushil Kumar's recent arrest was not a case of a bad apple. It was a symptom of something systemic — the inextricable links between wrestling and organised crime in Delhi-NCR and adjacent regions.
Wrestler Sushil Kumar’s arrest in May 2021, after being on the run for nearly three weeks, sent shock waves through the nation. One of India’s most decorated Olympians and the recipient of a Padma Shri and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, he was now being photographed flanked by policemen, with a towel around his face.
Headlines and commentators termed his arrest, on charges of murder, abduction, and criminal conspiracy, as a ‘fall from grace’ and 'a blow to his legacy.' There were two things at stake — Kumar’s own image as an Olympian, and the sense of respectability his legendary win had lent to a sport long stereotyped.
Kumar’s arrest brought into sharp focus the Chhatrasal wrestling academy — an institution known to produce medal winners. Stories abounded about pehelwanji, as Kumar was known, and how he wielded his power at the academy. It was here that he was allegedly a part of a violent clash that led to the death of a fellow wrestler, Sagar Dhankhar. News reports mention that the incident was filmed too. Kumar and Dhankhar were both students of coach Satpal Singh; not only would Kumar go on to take Singh’s place in the academy, he would also marry his daughter.
The headlines about a fall from grace were followed by news investigations about the connection between wrestling and organised crime in India — the “seedy underbelly” of the sport, as it was termed. Kumar’s links to Neeraj Bawana, one of Delhi’s most notorious gangsters, and the presence of anti-social, criminal elements at Chhatrasal, become apparent. This was not a case of a bad apple; it was a symptom of something systemic.
The inextricable links between wrestling and organised crime in Delhi-NCR and adjacent regions is the subject of Dangals of Crime, a two-part docuseries. In the course of his research and shoot, director Niyantha Shekar met wrestlers who spoke candidly about not making it in the sport, and becoming involved with criminals "without quite realising it initially."
In an interview to Firstpost, Shekar says it was heartbreaking to hear of the circumstances that led them down this path; the wrestlers in question found a way out through interventions at the hands of friends and family, but this is not the case for every individual.
Haryana and Delhi were hubs for wrestling before organised crime could take root in the region. “What we learnt from talking to people on the ground was that as money came into the region in a huge way with the property boom that began in the ‘90s, crime grew as well. Criminals looked to muscle power to sort out property disputes, and one of their sources for muscle were wrestlers in the region who hadn’t made it in the sport. And over the following decades, organised crime further took root, the links grew deeper,” says Shekar. The docuseries informs the viewer that the mafia and political class are among the most moneyed patrons of akhadas.
The parental investment in their wards’ time at the akhadas is reminiscent of Kota and the cottage industry of engineering coaching centres that emerged there. Shekar says that wrestling is an integral part of this region of the country, and for many parents, sending their children to one is not even a question. “They see it as a safe space for their kids to grow up in, a space where values of discipline and hard work are instilled, and with Indian wrestling’s rise on the world stage, it’s also seen as a space that could unlock their child’s full potential,” he says.
The average child who signs up at an akhada or wrestling centre comes from modest means, such as from farmer families. Even if the child does not win laurels at world championships, their parents pray that they might achieve success at the national level, which could potentially lead to jobs after wrestling.
The aspirational nature of wrestling and the promise of rewards that can be reaped through it has created a vicious cycle — one that begins with the wrestlers’ financial backgrounds, and ends with the involvement of the mafia.
This makes wrestlers — especially those who cannot make it — indebted to their patrons. And thus, a steady supply of muscle power is created.
At the akhadas, a high level of discipline is encouraged, and aspirants are cut off from the outside world. They also do not receive the more well-rounded kind of education imparted in schools. This is to ensure unwavering attention and dedication towards the sport, but it inadvertently leads to a tunnel vision. Could this lopsided development through their childhood and teenage years result in a proclivity towards crime?
Shekar says the tunnel vision could possibly be a factor, that coaches he met spoke about how the lack of a Plan B contributed to a wrestler’s susceptibility to crime. “Wrestlers who had fallen into crime spoke about how their innocence, naivete, and need for money [sometimes just in order to maintain their daily diet expenses] were aspects that criminals preyed on to pull them towards the dark side,” he added.
Through intimate, raw depictions of wrestlers — covered in mud, deep in focus, nose to the ground, locked in combat — Dangals of Crime portrays the spectacle and event that wrestling is. We learn that hundreds of dangals take place each week, and each dangal brings together the village where it is held — indeed, organising one is a matter of pride. “It’s almost like a carnival, so it’s a sport that is very rooted in its ruralness,” one of the subjects remarks.
As a viewer, it is also difficult to dismiss the role that may be played by the aggression inherent in the sport and the masculine aesthetic that marks dangals and training centres. At one point in the series, one of the subjects says that wanton violence goes against the principles of wrestling — but what does this notion mean, in the face of organised crime? Speaking from personal experience, Shekar says that he never witnessed the aggression spill over after the bouts at akhadas ended, despite the extremely competitive and physical nature of these bouts.
“Wrestling is a combat sport but it is supposed to operate within rules of fairness and chivalry [for example, wrestlers clasp each other’s hands before starting a bout]. But one of the journalists we spoke to mentioned that owing to the numerous bouts and the rigorous training, many wrestlers develop incredible fighting skills and very little fear of physical pain because it is just part of the daily ritual of being a wrestler. And these very same attributes that are essential to succeeding in wrestling become immensely valuable to criminals as well,” Shekar explains.
Considering how vested interests stand to benefit from the situation as it currently stands, one wonders if akhadas and wrestling training centres will be regulated. “I’m not sure if there’s a silver bullet solution here, but bringing education into the akhada system was something that many in the wrestling community proposed to help combat factors that criminals prey on. They felt that a wrestler who is more aware of the red flags and the approaches from people to be cautious of would have a better chance of not stepping into the quicksand of crime,” Shekar explains.
India’s success at the Olympics has led to a resurgence of the sport, prompting a greater number of young aspirants to try their luck. This, Shekar says, is what makes it even more important to protect them from those who seek to exploit them.
Dangals of Crime is streaming on Discovery+.
Neerja Deodhar is a writer and researcher based in Mumbai. She tweets at @neerjadeodhar.
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