Wednesday, November 25, 2015

India's Holy Cow Vigilantes

By Jason Overdorf

Newsweek (November 2015)

Outside the 150-year-old Tangra Slaughter House in Kolkata, India, a line of cows stretches down the lane alongside the arched, colonial-style building. There are no fixed prices for beef here, so the noise of a dozen shouted negotiations fills the air. But it's not all business as usual. Photography is prohibited, at least for today, and I'm allowed inside only after agreeing to keep my notebook in my pocket and not ask any questions. The beef-and-leather business is sensitive in the country where “holy cow” is not a throwaway phrase.

“People are scared,” says Syed Faiyazul Haque, a supervisor at a Kolkata tannery. “There’s an atmosphere of fear.”

That’s because at least three Muslims suspected of eating or transporting beef have been killed in recent weeks. Hindu nationalists have been campaigning for a countrywide ban on slaughtering cows, which they consider holy animals, and religious tensions are rising.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed the issue of cows to the center of its campaign for elections in the northeastern state of Bihar during October and November. The aim seems to have been to consolidate the Hindu vote by casting Muslims as the chief enemy, and thus counteract divisions among high- and low-caste Hindu voters who favored the party’s opponents. Yet Modi’s party suffered a crushing defeat. The BJP and its local allies took just 58 out of 243 assembly seats in the Bihar polls.

Muslims and many secular Hindus across India celebrated the election result, expressing hope that the prime minister who came to power preaching economic development, not Hindu triumphalism, would return to that message. But for beef and leather traders, and perhaps for India’s bid to attract more foreign investment, it may already be too late.

Traders involved in the leather and beef industry in Kolkata say vigilantes have stopped large numbers of trucks transporting cows, hides and carcasses since the anti-cow slaughter campaign accelerated last month. Many transporters are reluctant to take the risk, after a trucker accused of carrying cattle carcasses was killed in October by a Molotov cocktail in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Because one carcass or hide looks much like another, not even the unrestricted buffalo trade is safe. And the charged atmosphere makes it all too easy for local police and inspectors to demand payoffs.Despite the cultural taboo on killing cows, slaughtering them for meat and hides is legal in five of 29 Indian states, including West Bengal, where Kolkata, the former capital of British India once known as Calcutta, is considered the center of the trade.

“This is a reflection of anti-Muslim propaganda in India,” Udayan Bandyopadhyay, a political scientist affiliated with the University of Calcutta, says of the recent attacks. “In order to gain mileage, the [Hindu nationalists] are making a partition in society between Hindus and Muslims.”

Even in ordinary times, the country’s meat-and-leather trade is a strange business. Last year, India, which is 80 percent Hindu, emerged as the largest beef exporter in the world. Combined with leather, the industry is worth some $10 billion. How's that possible?

It is partly because under a system drawn up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the meat of Indian water buffaloes, which Hindus do not consider holy, is classified as “beef.” Exporting cow meat is banned, though cowhide accounts for around a third of India’s leather exports. Yet in Kolkata, tannery workers say the mix of buffalo hide to cowhide has fallen from 50-50 to 80 percent buffalo in recent weeks. Since the first attacks on transporters in September, buffalo-processing factories have also been facing shortages.

“Our drivers are stopped while they carry buffaloes. There is fear among drivers,” says DB Sabharwal, a Hindu, who's secretary of the All India Meat & Livestock Exporters Association.

In most states, and sometimes even in Kolkata, that's technically illegal. Along with bans on cow slaughter and the consumption or possession of beef, various states have made it a crime to sell or transport cows out of their jurisdiction if they are destined for the butcher. In states where cow slaughter is legal, a “fit-for-slaughter” certificate is required to document that the animal in question is more than 12 to 14 years old or “permanently incapacitated for breeding, draft or milk due to injury, deformity or any other cause,” according to the Ministry of Agriculture. But that rule too is frequently flouted, according to people opposed to killing cows.The domestic market is more complicated. While cow slaughter is permitted in only five states, the animals are everywhere. There's no separate meat industry. But a mammoth dairy industry and the traditional use of draft animals means there are more than 190 million cattle in India, compared with about 90 million in the United States. As tractors replace bullocks in agriculture, around half of these animals are becoming a drain on the farmers' resources. And while Hindu nationalist organizations have set up nursing homes for hundreds of thousands of superannuated cows, it's no surprise that many farmers prefer to sell them rather than put them out to pasture.

The result is a tortuous path of payoffs, smuggling and don't ask, don't tell. The not-quite legal nature of the business means there are no large firms buying cows and shipping them to Kolkata—or smuggling them to Bangladesh. Animals pass through a chain of transporters before they’re sold for slaughter. Then middlemen collect meat and hides into the larger consignments needed by the leather businesses and other industries that rely on tallow and other by-products, says Shahid Akhtar, managing director of a leather goods manufacturer called Elrich International. “Those people will have problems now,” he says. “The police or vigilantes will confiscate the items, then corruption will increase. This has started to happen.”

It's not clear how devoted to the issue Modi is, or how beholden he'll be to the larger, parent organization of the BJP—a uniform-wearing cadre of activists called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose second “supreme leader,” Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, was an admirer of Adolph Hitler.

It's not all Hindus vs. Muslims. Middle-caste Hindu merchants dominate the leather export business. Some lower caste Hindus eat beef, though many have adopted high-caste food taboos in a bid to avoid discrimination. So do many of the country's dozens of indigenous tribes. Many self-declared secularists and atheists partake too—some viewing it as a badge of tolerance or rationalism. Yet Hindu nationalists and some ordinary Hindus look on killing cows much the way devout Muslims view drawing cartoons of Muhammad—something they say Indian secularists would never countenance.

Modi's critics still blame him for the tardy police response to the 2002 riots that killed at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus when he was chief minister of Gujarat, his home state, though he was exonerated in court. Opponents have taken him to task for delayed and wishy-washy public statements in response to attacks on churches, belligerent statements from Hindu nationalists and the recent cow-related violence. For instance, he waited 10 days to speak out against the September 28 lynching of a man wrongfully accused of eating beef.

Arun Shourie, once one of the BJP's most respected leaders but now marginalized under Modi, believes the prime minister’s silence was deliberate—and it was interpreted as a green light by rowdier sections of the movement. After an incident of inter-religious violence occurs, other members of the BJP and affiliated organizations keep it alive by making provocative statements, Shourie said in a televised interview with a national channel. Only after weeks pass does Modi comment, and then it is to say something cryptic. “It almost comes out as if it is by design,” said Shourie.

Supporters reject such criticism. “To defame Modi, a negative campaign is coming from the so-called secularists,” says Surendra Kumar Jain, All India Secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu nationalist group leading the push for a national ban on cow slaughter. Vigilante action has to be understood in the context of the failure of law enforcement, he says. “Suppose a woman is being raped? Will you stand by and wait for the police?”

It's not only the beef and leather industry that is at stake. India has climbed in the World Bank's ease of doing business rankings and has replaced China as the most popular destination for foreign direct investment since Modi came to power in 2014. But both the devastating loss in Bihar and the flirting with sectarian strife could further derail his plans for the economy.

The vituperative atmosphere will make it more difficult to reach a consensus with the opposition. And the election loss itself means Modi is drifting further away from a majority in Parliament, where several proposals for big bang economic reforms have already withered and died.

“Along with a possible increase in violence, the government will face stiffer opposition in the Upper House as the debate turns away from economic policy,” Moody's Analytics said in a November report. “Modi must keep his members in check or risk losing domestic and global credibility.”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Blood, guts and glory: India's boxers hit pay dirt

They got India's first pro-boxing event off the ground. We go behind the scenes with the man who may well be the Don King of India
By Jason Overdorf
GQ India (November 2015)

An hour after the scheduled start time, Jaisingh Shekhawat, the 30-year-old chief organizer of India’s first professional boxing event, burst into the improvised pre-fight green room in a panic, his brow beaded with sweat. “What the hell’s going on?” he snapped at coach Mahavir Singh, busy supervising a last-minute briefing of the nine Indian match judges. Shekhawat caught me watching him and winced. “Mismanagement,” he said ruefully, juggling his portfolio and walkie-talkie.

All around the green room – repurposed from the drivers’ waiting area in the basement parking garage of Delhi’s Select Citywalk Mall – the fighters displayed a monastic calm. Punjabi heavyweight Gurlal Singh, to fight Haryana’s Vikas Hooda in the first of four scheduled matches, stood in the corner like a B-movie Hercules as three hangerson laced up his groin protector. Thai super bantamweight (55.3kg) Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth was taping the hands of American super middleweight (76.2kg) Clinton Smith, while Smith’s opponent for the night, 13-time national champion Dilbag Singh, casually slipped on a glove and sunk a joke-hook into a friend’s belly to test it out, punctuating the punch with his devilish, 100-watt grin.

If anyone here had reason to sweat, it was Shekhawat, a slim, slicklooking guy with brushed-back hair and gold hoops in both ears. The delayed start put his newly formed North Indian Boxing Association (NIBA) at risk of failing to complete the programme before 10pm, when the permit for the outdoor plaza upstairs would expire. If the authorities shut them down before the end of the main event — a 12-round contest between Indian Neeraj Goyat and Filipino Nelson Gulpe, competing for the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) Asian Welterweight Championship - the dream of bringing pro boxing to India would be confirmed a fiasco.
Already, one of the biggest news stories to emerge from the farcical pre-fight press conference the day before was a Hindustan Times article headlined “Nothing professional about pro boxing’s India debut”. And tonight, WBC Asia head Patrick Cusick was still fielding basic questions from the judges and referees about pro-level rules and scoring – which differ widely from the amateur game.

Maybe it didn’t show, but more than a year-and-a-half of work hung in the balance.

Jaisingh Shekhawat was always a boxing fan, and participated in a few state-level tournaments before getting into the marble business in his home state of Rajasthan. He had long thought there was a potential market for professional boxing in India, but it took the drive of his old trainer Mahavir Singh (best known as the coach of Olympic bronze medallist Mary Kom) and Neeraj Goyat (arguably India’s keenest pro) to get the idea off the ground. With six professional fights in China and Thailand, as well as a brief stint in India’s Mixed Martial Arts Super Fight League, 23-year-old Goyat had made connections with foreign managers and WBC officials while he was abroad. So when he emailed WBC head Cusick about a licence to hold events in India, he got a response.

Slowly, things came together. Ruling out a stadium – fearing nobody would turn up – the team decided on a free, open-air event that would draw a crowd from passersby. They convinced Cusick they weren’t just blowing smoke, and completed the paperwork to obtain the WBC licence. Handshakes were made with top boxers whose amateur careers were over and who wanted to go pro. Rahul Gokhale of Serendipity Marketing Solutions was pulled in to manage the event. Most importantly, Rakesh Naudiyal, a former international amateur boxer, convinced Kashmiri Marbles to come on board as their major sponsor, contributing around ₹10 lakh rupees – about a fifth of the event’s total budget.

Yet, when Naudiyal told me about it all, I was skeptical — not least because they were approaching me for advice.

I’ve been a hack boxer since learning the basics in a Beijing gym that doubled as a karaoke bar and brothel in 1998, picking up trainers in Boston, New York, Hong Kong and Delhi as I’ve moved around. I’d also venture I’m probably the biggest boxing fan on the Subcontinent. But that’s where my expertise ends. (Full disclosure: Naudiyal has been my friend and training partner since 2005.)

The idea wasn’t to get rich, everybody agreed. It was to give Indian boxers an opportunity to showcase their talent. Most of the team had volunteered their time, and apart from outside contractors like Gokhale, nobody expected to make a rupee off the event. Shekhawat certainly had no illusions he was going to be the next Don King — the notorious American promoter who dominated professional boxing from 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman through the reign of Mike Tyson in the Eighties — known as much for his slimy business deals as his lightning shock of hair and hi-glint smile of pure evil.

“At the India [amateur] camp, there will be 40-some boxers in every weight class,” said trainer Mahavir Singh. “But only the top one gets the chance to compete in the Olympics. The second, third and fourth guys don’t ever get an opportunity. We want to provide a platform for them.”

My first meeting with Shekhawat, in April this year, was like a Chinese fire drill. Naudiyal was late, so Shekhawat, Mahavir and I stood around in the blazing sun outside the PVR Cinema hall in Basant Lok Community Centre. Neither was comfortable with English, so I was stuck with my “idhar se left, udharse right” taxi Hindi until Kamaljit and a few others turned up. Finally, we tramped up four flights of stairs to a stuffy office that was smaller than an aloo tikki cart. A steady string of beefy guys filled it up until Naudiyal arrived, whereupon we hit critical mass and moved downstairs again. Scouts were dispatched to find a more suitable spot, which turned out to be a McDonald’s. So I viewed the crew’s laptop PowerPoint presentation and dispensed my wisdom, such as it was, over fries and a Coke at a curvy first-floor banquet table.

“As they like to say in America, ‘styles make fights’. You don’t want two match technical boxers who’ll spend the whole night playing defence,” I told them, among other non-pearls.

With that meeting as context, my experience of the pre-event press conference was very different from that of the Hindustan Times writer. I was just gobsmacked that they had actually done anything. “With no money!” exclaimed Naudiyal’s friend Arun Kunal, owner of Add on Entertainment, who’d volunteered to handle public relations.

Patrick Cusick looked out over the audience of reporters gathered at The Lalit hotel. “We’ve been watching the development of boxing in Asia for the last 15 years,” he said. “Ten years ago, we went to China, and now they have their first world champion. We believe India can progress as quickly, if not faster.”

Ninety minutes after official fight time, after countless announcements that the first bout was going to start “in a few minutes,” the announcers were running out of material. “Hurry up and light the lamp,” said one, once they’d wrangled the obligatory-but- not-really-important VIPs onto the stage. When tapers were finally put to the aarti, Shekhawat looked like his doctor had just informed him that his biopsy was negative.

Despite the delays and the 40-degree heat, the crowd hadn’t given up. The 350 ringside chairs for invited guests were full. By the angles of their noses, seemingly every boxer in North India was in the house. Curious onlookers were lined up 20 rows deep in the plaza beyond the guest area, and another dozen rows packed the mall’s first floor balcony.

A hesitant cheer went up as the first fighter, Haryana heavyweight Vikas Hooda, was announced. A thin plume of fog sputtered from the smoke machine, then nothing, as Hooda jog-stepped through the archway and raised his fists in the air.

The thing was finally underway. Somebody must have told Hooda and Gurlal Singh that the fans wanted a knockout, because they hammered hooks to each other’s ribs with no more thought to defence than a couple guys chopping down trees. With the first big blows to the head – sweat flying like shooting stars under the lights – the crowd was hooked. After four workmanlike rounds, when Hooda, in his pro debut, was announced the winner, the emcee didn’t have to exhort the crowd to cheer.
Next up, 13-time All India amateur champion Dilbag Singh squared off against American Clinton Smith. It was the kind of mismatch typical for a top amateur’s debut in the pros – where the idea is to get your guy some easy wins and build up his reputation. Smith was listed in the programme as having 18 wins and 5 losses, but in fact he was a Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts fighter. A gristly, tattooed 39-year-old with a shaved head and goatee, he’d told me in the green room that he had five pro Muay Thai bouts, two MMA, but he’d “more or less never boxed before.” Once Dilbag figured that out, it was a matter of Smith being tough enough to avoid a knockout. By that measure, he acquitted himself well. Between rounds, a freshly mohawked Dilbag winked at the ring card girls and grinned at his buddies in the peanut gallery. Smith barely laid a glove on him.

By the time Delhi’s own Balbir Singh was introduced for his super bantamweight bout with Thailand’s Khunkhiri Wor Wisaruth, a veteran of 11 pro fights, the crowd had gotten into the swing of things. The loudest roar of the night rose as Balbir pranced out of the now functioning fog.

From the opening bell, it was clear Balbir didn’t think the stringy Wisaruth had the punching power to keep him off. He bullied the smaller Thai around the ring, winging wild punches and pushing Wisaruth to the ropes, until the Thai drew him into a clinch to get his bearings. When the Indian referee separated them, Balbir let go a hook that caught Wisaruth on the chin. The Thai stumbled back and dropped to the canvas, and the crowd went wild. Even by professional boxing’s more liberal rules, “hitting on the break” is illegal, and Balbir’s punch had the look of a premeditated, flagrant foul. But the Indian referee acted like nothing had happened and gave Wisaruth an eight count when he popped to his feet. For a second, disbelief passed over the Thai’s face, then the realization that he was in the stewpot for a bit of “home cooking” – a staple of professional boxing.

A minute later, Balbir floored him again, this time with a shoulder block, and again the referee pretended nothing was amiss. Wisaruth tried to stick and move after that, but Balbir put him on his back with a straight right in the second round, and seconds later, another right put Wisaruth down and out.

India’s first pro boxing card had its first KO.

Now for the main event: Neeraj Goyat vs Nelson Gulpe for the Asian welterweight championship.

A good-looking and charismatic kid with an easy smile and a mop of curly hair, Goyat was the reason the programme had come together. Unlike most Indian boxers, who quit the game as soon as they get a sports quota job, Goyat was hungry. Though he didn’t have the pedigree to match Dilbag and Balbir, at just 23 he had more years left in his prime. With six fights in China and Thailand, he was already India’s most experienced professional. And along with Dilbag, he’d inked a deal with Las Vegas-based Guilty Boxing to cover his living and training expenses. On the other hand, with two wins, two losses and two draws, he didn’t have the kind of record for people in the fight game to call him “a prospect”. And he hadn’t done anything to merit being invited to fight for the WBC’s vacant Asian welterweight title apart from being born in India. (At 8-4-0 and 3 KOs, Gulpe was a little more legit.)

“I’ve been fighting at super lightweight (63.5kg), but there was no vacant title in that weight class,” Goyat had told me a couple hours before fight time, tucked up to his chin under the blankets in his hotel room, Mujhse Dosti Karoge blaring from the TV. “That’s why I played welter weight this time.”

In the greater scheme of professional boxing, it’s a meaningless belt. The WBC Asia is to the WBC what Italian basketball is to the NBA, and even at boxing’s highest level, an alphabet soup of competing sanctioning bodies plague the sport (the World Boxing Association, the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Organization and on and on).

“It’s just to get India on the map,” said Kiwi referee Bruce McTavish, a veteran with more than 100 title fights on his resumé. “It’s showbiz.” But for Goyat, a win would mean an end to being treated like Smith or Wisaruth: “an opponent”, expected to lose. “After this event, people will come to me to fight,” Goyat told me. “Organizers will ask me to come to their countries. Sponsors will come to us.”

A victory might even earn Goyat a fight in Vegas. His promoter, Guilty Boxing chief executive Puneet Dureja, a non-resident Indian with 25 years experience in movie and television distribution, has purportedly signed a deal with America’s CBS Sports Network to stage a series of international fight cards featuring boxers from ten different countries over the next 12 months.

From the opening bell, Goyat took the fight to the taller Filipino, whose punches looked sluggish. Goyat pushed Gulpe back to negate his longer reach, but let Gulpe control the distance and ate a couple four-punch combinations for it. But in the end, he went back to crowding the Filipino, ducking and weaving when Gulpe tried to fire back. The strategy worked.

Compared to Balbir’s knockout, Goyat’s lopsided technical win, drawn out over 12 three-minute rounds, was an anti-climax. But in other respects, it was exactly what Shekhawat’s NIBA and the WBC needed.

When the scores were announced, Goyat’s supporters lifted him onto their shoulders in the centre of the ring and thrust a microphone into his hand.

“I’m India’s first professional boxing champion!” he shouted out in Hindi.

“If the fighters come prepared and the main event is handled in a professional manner, then it will be a success,” Cusick had told me the day before, and at that moment, a success is what it was. It was only a day or two later that the real cracks started to show. Rumours swirled that one of the main sponsors had reneged on a promise to provide ₹15 lakh and Shekhawat hadn’t been able to pay the fighters. Then Rahul Gokhale, of Serendipity Marketing, wrote me to accuse Shekhawat of stiffing him on two of the agreed ₹5 lakh fee for arranging the venue, promotional materials and managing the event.

“NIBA used my office infrastructure, manpower and consultation services for two months, and apart from that the event cost is also not paid. All commitments regarding the payment failed, and now everyone is absconding,” Gokhale wrote in an email.

Shekhawat took my call a few minutes later and assured me he was not absconding. He was very much in town, and had sent Gokhale a WhatsApp message offering to meet.

“I haven’t disappeared. I’m very near his home,” Shekhawat said.

He didn’t deny that they’d agreed on five lakhs. But he said he was withholding the final two lakhs because he wasn’t satisfied with the job Gokhale had done. Among the issues: Gokhale had promised an aluminium scaffold for the light system, but had provided an iron one; and the LED lights hadn’t been functioning for the first match. The crux of the matter, though, was the delay.

“The show was 90 minutes late. I was searching for him, where is Rahul, where is Rahul? He was nowhere to be found.”

Gokhale disagreed. “As far as I was concerned, the event was quite seamless,” he said. “Nothing went wrong.”

According to Cusick and McTavish, none of the foreign fighters complained that they had not received their money. However, it wasn’t clear if those amounts matched the sums that the team had bandied about in their discussions with me – which included match fees of as much as one lakh and post-fight bonuses ranging from₹50,000 to 5 lakh for the winner of the main event.

“As far as my purse I was given exactly what I was promised, no haggling,” Smith wrote in an email. “I am not at liberty to discuss [the] total... But I will say I hope they call me again.”

When I called Goyat, he was more cagey. The organizers had given a cheque for his match fee and the ₹5 lakh bonus for winning the title to a friend in Delhi. But he wasn’t bothered about cashing it, he claimed.

“I didn’t fight for the money. I fought to make history,” said Goyat. “This is the first professional boxing championship to be held in India. I don’t want it to be the last.”

Unpaid bills, dodgy match-ups, an incompetent-if-not-crooked referee — to the uninitiated, all that might sound a bit, well, unprofessional. But to the boxing cognoscenti, where this sort of scheming is more common than not, it may be a hint that Shekhawat and India’s newborn pro boxing industry may already be punching above their weight.