“It was never about medals or awards but a journey of Ability beyond Disability”

Deepa Malik is the country’s pioneering female para-athlete and adventure sportsperson. In 1999, she got paralysed below the chest following a spinal cord tumour, and has since been using a wheelchair. She has previously won various medals, awards and accolades. She was recently awarded with the country’s highest sports honour, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. Senior Correspondent of Organiser Nishant Kr Azad met the legend on her recent visit to Delhi. In a candid conversation to Organiser, Deepa discussed her whole life and the journey from being a paralysed person to a paralympian. She said with her sporting achievements, she aims to challenge the stereotypes surrounding disability. Excerpts:
How do you feel about being awarded the country’s highest sports honour, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award?
It’s a tremendous feeling for any sportsperson to achieve the country’s highest sports honour. It is like a validation of the entire hard work; and on a personal note, huge source of happiness. This will be the 5th honour I will be receiving from the first citizen, Hon. President of Bharat. On a larger scale, if I look at it, this Khel Ratna is way beyond a sports honour. It reflects the new Bharat; it reflects the acceptance and inclusivity of our Bharat; it reflects that now there is awareness towards Paralympic sport.
Para-sport is slightly different in terms of selection process and quota allocation system. There are various disability categories and it is difficult to get your disability category in various sports. What makes my Khel Ratna special is that the jury and the Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju under the guidance of Prime Minister Shri Modiji have made an effort to learn about these medals and kept them at par at the point system. So, as I said it is way beyond an individual Khel Ratna, it is a step forward for the entire para-sports movement in Bharat.
You are the first female para-athlete to receive Khel Ratna Award. How is it different from winning other awards?
See, my major change in the identity and empowerment actually happened when I decided to turn into a sportsperson. I hold Limca World Records in adventure; whether it is biking or rallying or swimming, they are all nothing but an extension of my sports training. After paralysis of the lower half of my body, I could gain the strength and make my upper body strong enough only because of sports.
It’s a special feeling to become the first woman para-athlete to win this Award. Sport has been majorly my support to change outlook of the society, the journey of Ability Beyond Disability that I set out on. I never thought that it is going to be a journey of medals or awards. It was always a journey where I wanted to change the outlook of people towards disability.
How do you see your journey from being paralysed to a Paralympian?
It has been a journey of lot of hard work and unending challenges. It is a 20-year long journey. In 1999, I got paralysed below chest at the age of 30 and now in 2019 I got the Khel Ratna. The process was very much emotional to begin with, then rediscovering and reclaiming my life and then a journey of self-belief and lot of will power. Because it took a lot for this body to get up in the morning and go for the training, especially two decades ago when there was no infrastructure for the para-athletes and more importantly there was no acceptability in the society. There were taboos around disability. Now, everybody is celebrating my being the first, but it took Modi Government, his thought, and policies to enable a paralysed woman empowered enough to deserve an award like this. So, there is a paradox. I always say that I am happy to make a page in the history, but this page should have been added way before. A journalist misquoted me that “Deepa ne ye kaha ki ye bahut pehle ho jana chahiye tha”. It was not meant for me as an individual but it was a reality check for the society that such less females have been able to come forward in sports in disability category.
In an interview, you said disability brought “your life into focus.” What do you mean by that?
I realised that there are so many challenges. We as a citizen of Bharat have become consumers; we only talk about our rights but forget our role of duties and giving back to the society. Till the time I got paralysed, I was more of a consumer. The day I became paralysed and I got sensitised to the actual ground situation where so much more can be done in our country to make it a better place, that’s when I realised my role as a citizen. I got my focus. I set out on my journey where I wanted to give back to my country. Whether it is changing the stereotype mindsets around disabilities or it is about women empowerment in its real definition or it is about some contribution in policy making for disability sports or winning medals for the country.
All this also made me a better mother, because I learnt what actual human values and what values as a citizen I have to give to my children. Earlier, what was missing was a feeling of giving back, or adding value to the society, by my being in it.
You spoke about stereotype. Which types of stereotypes did you have to fight?
There were stereotypes in every little thing, right from the beginning. For example, how a mother of two children will go out to play. A woman on a wheelchair should not step outside the house. The biggest thing I faced is people questioned how a woman who doesn’t have bladder control will ever leave her home. Because there is so much ambiguity around the possibilities in various physical challenges, people don’t discover or create alternative methods.
Earlier there were no infrastructure for people on wheelchair but thanks to the strict rules, now every mall and stadium has a ramp for disabled person. This whole discarding and typecasting was the biggest challenge. Now a disabled person can easily have access to the public places which was missing earlier. For me, age, body and social thought were also barriers.
In recent times, female athletes from remote villages and North-East Bharat have brought laurels for Bharat in different games despite financial and other difficulties. How do you see the rise of women in sports?
The moment our Prime Minister said ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, Beti Khelao’ and not just he said it, he implemented it. He ensured that his theory reaches to the remotest corner of our country. And you can see the impact. The mindset is changing now. People started seeing girl child as a blessing. Now equal amount of focus, nutrition, health care and opportunities are being given by the parents, care takers and society to the girl child. When I say opportunity, constitutionally it was equal but now the special focus is being given for this equality. Thanks to these initiatives, now female athletes, despite numerous difficulties, are bringing laurels for the country.
While reading about you, I came to know that your first love is biking. Even there you have made many records in your name.
You will be surprised that in quest of becoming a biker, I became a swimmer. To strengthen my upper body to be able to ride a bike, I was introduced to a refresher course of rehabilitation. Indian Spinal Injuries Centre introduced me to the international style of rehabilitation where I realised that people sitting on wheelchair can also do weight exercise. They should also do gym exercise and hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy meant I had to do water exercises. The moment I was put in water I could float and swim without any help. So my trainers suggested continuing with the swimming as it is the best exercise in spinal cord injuries where you will not even hurt yourself, unlike weight lifting. When I entered the biking world I did not see too much opportunity because mine was not a regular bike but a customised one. Getting it legally registered was also an issue. Till date we don’t have four-wheel bikes registered in Bharat.
I did role model bike riding under special provision from RTO but that couldn’t have become a practice. While swimming, I found a formalised, proper method of participating and winning medals. If I had been a biker it would have been an individual win. The moment I became a sportsperson, my win belongs to 130 crore Bharatiyas. And I could impact the entire nation with the concept of women playing in disability at the age of 49, winning national & international medals and holding Asian and World Records!
You’re a mother of two, an accomplished swimmer, a biker, a Paralympic silver medalist. What keeps you so motivated?
Maine zindagi ko tyohar jaise celebrate karna seekh liya hai (I have learnt to celebrate my life like festivals) and I have also come to learn that ‘life is the only festival that you can celebrate every day, you do not have to wait for dates’. “Taariko ki mohtaz nahi hai zindagi, aaj hai abhi hai”. I have seen many accidents in my life. I have seen my elder daughter (Devika) fighting for life. I have seen her becoming a Divyang. You get only one life so don’t waste it, work as much as you can.
I wanted to say it out loud that I am okay on a wheelchair and I’ve learnt the skills needed for my new body. It made me upset when someone has said that she is Viklang, which is not even 5 per cent of Bharat. I want to ask that person what he means, does he want that every household should have a physically challenged person! I really feel sad for such people. I want to say, yes, we are physically challenged but when we win, we bring glory for the entire nation, not only for ourselves or only for Divyang community. I am thankful to PM Modi that he is doing a lot to change this mindset.
Who has been your guiding force and whom do you credit your achievements to?
I want to give credit to my parents for inculcating dedication, hard work, discipline, time management and positivity in me. My brother got the Sena medal and I got the Padma Shree in the same year and that was the same year we lost him. My father made us understand that what we get, take it as blessings. So, we should cherish it and ensure that we work hard. He taught me to find solutions rather than cribbing about problems. My mother was an NCC cadet in 1960s. She was a shooter in Maharaja Karni Singh’s team.
I am a person who needs help 24/7. Even if I drive, someone has to put me on the driving seat and then pick up my wheelchair and put it in the boot. So, if I say that this journey has been all on my own, it would be very wrong. Every step of my life, I have had someone pitch in which includes my husband and daughters.
You were raised in an Army family and later married to an Army person. How do you see the Modi government’s decision to abrogate Article 370?
I am absolutely with it and stand by his side. We have seen it very closely. When I was fighting with paralysis, my husband was fighting the Kargil war. It is very important to correct the blunders which had happened in the past. It is important to bring J&K on track. True integration of J&K by abrogating Article 370 and 35A was much needed.
With a year for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics to commence, how is your preparation?
It is very unfortunate that I am not able to participate in 2020 Paralympics because of the nature of my disability. Unfortunately, in 2020 Paralympics, the only event being offered in my disability category is discus, whereas my training is in javelin & shotput. I did my best to learn discus and won a bronze at the Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta. But, unfortunately now the side jerk with discus is causing injury in my cervical region. My spinal cord injury is very high. The jerk of discus is not suiting my body; hence doctors have asked me not to take the risk.
However, I am thinking of doing sea swimming this year and will prepare for 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Many sports personalities are taking position on key national issues and you are one of them.
I think, we have learnt to be citizens and our current Prime Minister has become the driving force of the youth. Why so many medals, because the policies are now going in the right direction. Women athletes are feeling empowered. Talent was always there in Bharat but it was not nurtured earlier. Give and take is a very strong law of nature. So when the action is good, ultimately the reaction will be good. When you don’t wait for the government to do anything, you become the government. For once you realise that this is by the people, for the people and of the people and there is a selfless dedicated leadership showing you the right path, you feel responsible.
What has changed in the field of sports after the formation of Modi Government?
See, the Khel Ratna that I have received today is for my number of medals that I have won between 2014 and 2019. That itself tells the story. The funding, the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, the inclusivity and the Accessible Bharat Campaign under which assessment of the playgrounds has been done are the things which make the field of sports better. When a Prime Minister speaks about ‘Divyang’ rather than ‘Viklang’, when a PM upgrades the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act recognising twenty one disabilities over the previous seven, when a PM speaks about accessible toilets, when a PM in his ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme hails the achievements of Divyang sportspersons, when a PM includes the entire funding of disabled sports at par with the able bodied at the Union Government level; it sends a clear message. No Prime Minister has met disabled sports team or player earlier. Now every time we return from any big tournament we are greeted by the PM himself.
See, in any country sports power depends on the playing population of the country. States like Haryana always had a good sports culture, which is now being more refined under Modiji and the state government led by Manohar Lal ji through policy initiatives.
I am happy for the new policies the present government is adopting to bring indigenous sports to the fore. Movements like ‘Khelo India’, ‘Fit India’, are really changing the national scenario of sports. I must say that the present government is doing this which was missing in previous regimes, including for the sports infrastructure.
We need more coaches, physiotherapists, trained ones to handle various disabilities. One thing the government has done is really appreciable is making Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR wing of various companies) fund to use in sports. The companies should also come forward and adopt para-sports.
What advice would you give to the women athletes?
I would say that you (women athletes) are lucky to have a positive environment and several opportunities which were not available earlier. Today, Bharat is ready to accept you and celebrate your wins as heroes. Choose any passion and you will find a direction. Especially in sports we have such beautifully talented emerging role models. We have now everything (infrastructure) available to win medals. Your gender should not become an excuse of not delivering the best. Rise above your inhibitions and negativity. And I must say there is no shortcut to success. Make use of the opportunities which are being served to you.