Murlikant Petkar has won the first Paralympic gold medal for India. He has also set a world record while doing so. He has a bullet lodged in his spinal cord.
This man, who is resilience personified, who is the true definition of never-give-up, is not even acknowledged by his neighbours for his accomplishments.
“But I don’t blame them. When I came back from Heidelberg after winning India’s first-ever Paralympic gold, that too with a world record, not even a single person from the then government came to receive me. They didn’t even acknowledge my medal,”
says Murlikant Petkar, the man who won gold in 50m freestyle swimming at the Heidelberg Paralympics in 1972. He swam with only a stump for a hand, and that too in record 37.33 seconds.
However, this is not the only reason why we should look up to this man and idolize him. There is MUCH more to his inspiring story than just this.
Petkar was a pro at many sports Be it boxing, swimming, javelin, shot put, table tennis or wrestling, Petkar could beat the best of their players.
Boxing was Petkar’s first love. He won many medals in boxing while representing the Indian Army. He also won the national title in 1965. His seniors asked Petkar the reward he wanted for his achievement. He wanted to go to Kashmir on a vacation. So his wish was fulfilled.
“I was 18 then and was excited to see Kashmir. But when I went there, war broke out between India and Pakistan. I was not trained for war and was sleeping in my bunker when an emergency alarm rang. I thought it was an alarm for a tea break and went out of my bunker. But then suddenly I saw Pakistani fighter planes raining bullets at us,” says Petkar. He was hit by seven bullets. He further adds, “Six bullets were removed, one is still there in my spinal cord.”
That year, Pakistan had launched Operation Gibraltar. It was an attempt to separate Kashmir from India and incorporate it into Pakistan. The war was the biggest that India had witnessed since Independence. Also, it was the world’s largest tank battle since the Second World War.
But this was not the first adventure that Petkar faced in his life. His recruitment into the Boys’ Battalion of the Indian Army was also an adventure, albeit of a different kind.
At the age of 12, Petkar defeated the son of his village (Kanderi) head in wrestling. It was a public bout and the villagers took this defeat as an offence. They started to chase Petkar in order to teach him a lesson. Petkar fled and “jumped in the first truck” on the highway and reached Pune. “I went for the Boys’ Battalion recruitment and was selected immediately,” claims the veteran.
The injuries sustained by Petkar in the war of 1965 put a drastic end to his boxing career. The lower half of his body was paralyzed and he was bound to a wheelchair.
However, the war did not take away his fighting spirit.
“I was admitted to an army hospital in Colaba, Mumbai, and JRD Tata came to visit the army men injured in the war. He asked me how he could help me. I didn’t ask for cash, I asked him for a job at Tata’s. I was offered a job of a supervisor at TELCO in Pune,”
Now, Petkar took up swimming, javelin, slalom racing, short put and table tennis, each with equal dedication and vigour. He was selected to be a part of the Indian Paralympics squad at the 1968 Paralympics in Tel Aviv, Israel. He participated in table tennis that year. In spite of not performing that well, Petkar continued to strive hard. His primary focus, though, was swimming.
“Swimming gave a new meaning to my life. I trained harder and participated in the Paralympics after doing well at the national level,” he says.
In 1972, Petkar was again included in the Paralympics squad of India. He finished as a finalist at the men’s precision javelin throw, the javelin throw, and slalom racing. And of course, he won an individual gold for India.
However, India never kept official records of medallists until 1984. So, recognition is still not given to Petkar’s achievement.
“Until today, I haven’t got any recognition from the Central Government for my medal. My application for the Arjuna Award was rejected too.”
Murlikant Petkar received a cash prize of Rs. 15 lakh from Sachin Tendulkar through the Go Sports Foundation. He was also felicitated by Rahul Dravid at the launch of Sanjay Sharma’s book on Indian athletes with disabilities.
“The late Vijay Merchant helped me after my injury. Later on, Bishen Singh Bedi, Kapil Dev, and other cricketers continued to help me. In fact, they also wrote recommendation letters for my Arjuna Award,” says the legend.
He feels that one day “every Indian will know” his story. I hope the same.