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2000-2018: A meteoric rise
Tense on the starting block, Hima Das started slow and trailed on the home stretch, but her blazing run in the final 80m, where she overtook three rivals, saw her clocking 51.46 seconds.
JUST 18 months after running her first competitive race — an inter-district meet in Sivasagar, Assam — 18-year-old Hima Das has created athletics history. The daughter of a rice farmer from Dhing village in Nagaon district, she got India its first ever track gold at a global event by winning the 400 metre final at the World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland.
Tense on the starting block, Hima started slow and trailed on the home stretch, but her blazing run in the final 80m, where she overtook three rivals, saw her clocking 51.46 seconds.
In Guwahati, her coach Nipon Das says he wasn’t worried when Hima wasn’t among the top three at the final curve. “Her race begins in the final 80 metres. Her progress just shows how much potential she has. It has been just two years since she first wore spikes,” says the coach about her ward whose personal best is 51.13 seconds.
With this win, Hima joined an elite club of Indian athletes who have won medals at the World U20 Championships. But she is the only runner in a hall of fame that has throwers like Seema Punia (bronze, discus), Navjeet Kaur Dhillon (bronze, discus) and Neeraj Chopra (gold, javelin).
Those who have followed Hima’s meteoric rise had anticipated a podium finish at Finland. After clocking the fastest time in the heats and semifinal, the sprinter had the spotlight on her in a field dominated by runners from the powerhouses US and Jamaica. After her entry into the final, she had managed to a short comment. “I am enjoying,” she said. ‘Thank you for the happiness’ Twitter rejoices as Hima Das wins gold
Hima started off with football, kicking the ball with boys in the mud pits next to the rice fields. She was then advised by a local coach to take up athletics.
Soon, the teenager was spotted by Nipon, an athletics coach with the Directorate of Sports and Youth Welfare, during an inter-district meet. “She was wearing cheap spikes but she won gold in the 100 and 200. She ran like the wind. I hadn’t seen such a talent in ages,” Nipon says.
The coach asked Hima to shift to Guwahati, 140 km from her village, and convinced the youngster that she had a future in athletics. Her parents, Ronjit Das and Jomali, were initially reluctant to let the youngest of six children leave. But with Nipon not ready to hear a no, they relented.
Who is Hima Das? Profile of India’s first gold medallist in world track events
Nipon arranged for Hima to stay in a rented accommodation near the Sarusajai Sports Complex. He eventually convinced officials to induct her into the state academy, which specialised in boxing and football. “There was no separate wing for athletics but the officials were open to Hima being part of the academy after seeing her performances. Assam is not known to produce runners,” he says.
Nipon has been a constant guiding force. “I keep telling Hima only one thing: Dream big. Because only a few are blessed with God-given talent. My aim was to try and make sure she is part of the relay team for the Asian Games. But she has surpassed all expectations by winning a world championship gold in the individual event.”
Contributions to society
2018/ To end illegal migration
Golden athlete wants to end illegal migration in her native village in Dhing
The historic feat of an 18-year-old sprinter has fuelled hopes for the future of athletics in India. But it means much more in her birthplace, Dhing, that has been running from an “ominous” present after losing the race to save its golden past. Hima Das became the first Indian athlete to win a gold medal at a global meet: the IAAF World U-20 Athletics Championship 2018 at Tampere.
For Dhing, constricted by a land-eating Brahmaputra and an influx of migrants, it was the dawn of a new day. Hima has been at the forefront of a movement against illegal influx. The town and five of the last Assamese villages on its eastern edge had basked in a different sun — one with the cultural and literary glow — 55 years ago when Ratnakanta Barkakati became the 30th president of the 101-year-old Assam Sahitya Sabha, a moulder of opinions. One of those five villages is Kandhulimari, where Hima was born on the banks of the Leteri (dirty) channel of the Brahmaputra.
“Dhing has produced the likes of dramatist Basanta Kumar Saikia, actor Debananda Goswami and writer Anamika Bora. Yesteryear’s table tennis star Monalisa Baruah Mehta has her roots here. But Hima’s performance has given the place a new lease of life almost six decades after Barkakati lit up the place culturally,” Biman Hazarika, an archaeologist, told The Hindu.
Dhing, which sits off Assam’s axis of development along a national highway 30 km south, is at the centre of the State map. The place was the epicentre of a British-era movement considered the precursor to the BJP’s 2016 Assembly poll campaign — save jaati-maati-bheti (race, land, and homestead). Cultural activist Mahendranath M. Dekaphukan launched Khangrakkhini Andolan, a movement to save Assamese identity, when the British began settling Muslims from present-day Bangladesh along the banks of the Brahmaputra in 1936.
Centurion Rajanikanta Bora of Auni-Ati village, adjoining Kandhulimari, said there were only seven houses of migrants during Quit India in 1942. “Today, we are surrounded by migrants, both Muslims and Bengali Hindus, who tend not to interact with us,” he says.
Many Assamese families sold off their fields and homes because of migrant pressure and became urban migrants themselves.
“It breaks my heart whenever I visit Dhing, our ancestral town. It is a living example of how in one generation, one has to live as a minority in one’s own place. Dhing now has over 90% Muslims of East Bengal, East Pakistan and Bangladesh origin,” says Upamanyu Hazarika of Prabrajan Virodhi Mancha, or anti-infiltration forum.
Writing on the wall
The last Assamese who won the Dhing Assembly constituency were Motiram Bora and Beliram Das (jointly) in 1951. The locals saw the signs when the pro-minority All India United Democratic Front won the seat in 2006 and retained it in the next two elections. In between, Dhing had become a byword for conflict. During the language riots of the early 1960s, houses of many Bengali Hindus were burnt. And in the 1970s, the United Liberation Front of Asom’s Luitporiya (the Brahmaputra riverbank) wing was formed here to ‘liberate Assam from occupiers’. Most of the cadre were from the indigenous villages around Hima’s.
“Our first mission was against the migrant people of Radha-Ati, who were into armed robbery. Things changed after gunfights in 1983,” says Dipak Bora, coordinator of the Luitporiya wing.
Radha-Ati, just over a kilometre from Kandhulimari, used to be called Assam’s Chambal.
Ashafuddin, resident of the nearby Muslim village Khoirabari, trashes the influx theory. “It is wrong to call us Bangladeshis. We seem to be expanding because the Brahmaputra has taken away much of our land, forcing us to huddle in smaller spaces,” he says.
The Brahmaputra that used to be miles away is now flowing 3 km north of Hima’s village.
According to Tajmul Hassan, a sports secretary of AASU, Hima, as lifetime sports secretary of AASU’s Dhing unit, has locally been at the forefront of a renewed movement against illegal influx. She has also been vocal against Delhi’s bid to push the “non-secular” Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 that seeks to grant quick citizenship to non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, he said.
But some 190 families of Kandhulimari and adjoining villages know her more as an activist against social ills. In 2016, she led a group of women in dismantling an illegal liquor outlet at Auni-Ati. The outlet’s operator retaliated, filing a case against her father Ranjit Das, 52, and two others.
“The last hearing was on June 27. But I don’t mind appearing in court [at the district headquarters, Nagaon, 26 km away] for a daughter who has put me on top of the world,” says Mr. Das, a farmer who co-owns 45 ‘bighas’ [a land measure] of paddy field with three brothers.
“I had often protested her father letting her do whatever she wanted. I was protective, especially when she raced against a Sumo during her school days and won,” says Jonali Das, Hima’s mother.
It so happened that the driver of a passenger vehicle ignored her, while giving the other children of her school, 2 km away, a lift. She was so angry that she challenged the driver and beat the vehicle to her home. “I scolded and beat her, but her father took it lightly. I now know why,” Ms. Das says.
Hima’s uncle Sonaram Das, a retired employee of the Public Health Department, and aunt Puspalata Das, a retired teacher, also doted on her. They noted her flair for sports and entrusted her with Samsul Haque, an instructor at the local Navodaya Vidyalaya. Mr. Haque weaned her off football when she turned nine.
“We used to chase her away whenever she would grab the ball and play. But she was so fast that we could never catch her. We were very patriarchal, admonishing her for doing what girls are not supposed to; but in hindsight, we might have encouraged her to run,” says Ratul Bora, a local youth.
She practised running at the local field, a grazing ground, 50 metres from the house of their 17-member joint family. She practised before dawn when villagers would let their cattle loose, and after dusk when they would take them back home.
“She is a raw talent with energy and positive attitude that is contagious. She does not care about who her opponents are. She is just focussed on outrunning others,” says Nipon Das, her Guwahati-based coach for the last two years.
Bhogeswar Baruah, Assam’s first athlete to win an international gold medal (the 800-metre race in the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games), had once lamented that he might not live to see “another Bhogeswar”. “I was wrong. We have someone better,” he says.