Earlier this week, Abab Sangdo sealed his spot for the Asian Games. That, for the karateka, was the easier part. Now begins his anxious wait to see if he can actually travel to China.
For, the last time karatekas from Arunachal Pradesh were to travel to China, they were sent back from the Delhi airport itself.
The reason? China, which claims territorial rights over Arunachal Pradesh, has consistently denied visas to people from the state, or issued stapled visas, despite Indian objections.
So, it isn’t surprising that more than qualifying for the Asiad, Sangdo was more preoccupied with the thought of getting to Hangzhou, the Chinese tech capital that will host the Games from September 23 to October 8.
“It’s a concern, yes. I know this is an issue because our Master (Sensei Likha Tara) could not travel to China as a player as he didn’t get a visa. I don’t know whether I will get it, but that’s beyond my control. My focus was on qualifying for the Asian Games and now I will give my all to prepare for it. I am sure the relevant authorities will take care of the rest,” Sangdo told The Indian Express.
Sangdo is one of three karatekas from Arunachal Pradesh (the others being Mesom Singhu, kata, female; Johny Magnkhaiya, kumite, female, +68 category) who have qualified for the Asian Games following the selection trials held in New Delhi by the Indian Olympic Association and the Sports Authority of India.
Another athlete from the state – taekwondo player Rupa Bayor – too has made the cut for the Hangzhou Games while Rikpy Nyodu has been kept on standby.
By the time the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) sends the Indian contingent’s entries to the Asian Games organisers, on July 15, there could be more athletes from Arunachal on the list. “Having worked so hard, we hope to be on the plane,” Sangdo says.
For decades, people from Arunachal – be it government officials, bureaucrats or sportspersons – have faced trouble securing valid visas for China due to the border dispute.
In 2011, a 45-member Indian karate team was to travel to Quangzhou for an Asian Championship. Most of them got their visas days in advance except five members – three players and two officials – from Arunachal, who were stopped at the IGI Airport in New Delhi. The reason? The Chinese Embassy, after much delay, issued them stapled visas.
“We were told that the Chinese Embassy would not give us visas because we are from Arunachal Pradesh,” Tara, who heads the Arunachal Pradesh Karate Association, says. “At the airport, one immigration officer showed us a home ministry directive which said Indian citizens from Arunachal must not be allowed to travel to other countries with stapled visas.”
Tara says he pleaded with the government officials, who subsequently held talks with their Chinese counterparts, but in vain.
In 2016, Bamang Tago, who was a manager for the Indian badminton team, was denied a Chinese visa reportedly ‘on the grounds of Arunachal domiciles’.
Tara is optimistic that the three karatekas who have qualified for the 2023 Asian Games will not face the same fate because of the nature of the event. “It’s a major event, a proper ‘Games’. So I don’t foresee any visa troubles this time,” he says.
An Indian Olympic Association official, too, downplayed the concerns. “At an event like this, athletes do not have to apply separately for visas and their official accreditation is usually enough as a travel document.”
But Sangdo has his fingers crossed, like many of his teammates.
Arunachal has a history of producing top martial arts athletes, which Tara says is down to an entrenched culture and a scouting system that ensures talent at the village level is spotted early.
“We hold district- and village-level tournaments routinely to keep an eye on upcoming players. The cream of the talent is selected from these tournaments and brought to the academy run by the association in Itanagar,” Tara says.
Sangdo, who began practising the sport in 2010, is a product of this talent hunt system. The son of a farmer, the athlete from Arunachal’s East Kameng district says he took to karate because “everyone around him did”. Just like Johny, a two-time national champion and Commonwealth gold medallist, and Singhi – the third karateka from Arunachal to have qualified – who is also a national and Commonwealth medallist.
“This (karate) is all we have; it’s in our blood,” Sangdo says. “For us, the Asian Games could be life-changing.”