The mood is sombre in the Dhankhar household at Shiv Nagar, Sonepat. Menfolk, lighting bidis and sipping tea, sit on chairs arranged in a semi-circle in a narrow lane in front of the house. The women are inside dimly-lit rooms. The conversation among the close-knit family is tinged with anger and sadness.
The last of the visitors have left after attending the terhvi, a ritual held on the thirteenth day after death. The family waited for only eight days after Sagar Dhankhar, the eldest boy and a wrestler, passed away on May 5.
The grief of losing a 23-year-old was too much to bear.
After Sagar’s death in a deadly brawl, Sushil Kumar, one of India’s most successful Olympians, went into hiding.
Sushil’s alma mater, Chhatrasal Stadium has acquired notoriety since Sagar, a former junior national champion and a 97-kg Greco-Roman wrestler, died after being attacked within its premises.
Among those who attended the terhvi on Thursday were wrestlers who train at the famous Chhatrasal akhada in North-West Delhi. One of the pehelwans claims to be a witness to the alleged incident. In his words, he is lucky to be alive.
Floral tributes and a framed and garlanded photograph of Sagar is placed on a table at the entrance of the house. Emotions are running high with each retelling of the alleged brutal attack on the boy who loved his mother’s home-made dahi.
For Ashok Dhankhar, Sagar’s father, a head constable with Delhi Police, the events around the death of his son, which police claim is captured on a mobile phone recording, amounts to a betrayal by the ‘guru’.
“Sagar had been at Chhatrasal for nearly eight years. He considered Sushil as his guru. I handed over my son to Mahabali Satpal, who runs Chhatrasal akhada. They promised to make him a fine wrestler. He has won medals and represented India in international competitions. He was proud to be part of Chhatrasal. Par guru hote hue… (despite being the guru),” Ashok’s voice fades.
Once Sagar was inducted into Chhatrasal at the age of 15, his bond with the wrestling nursery became strong. Sagar would only make flying visits home.
If he stayed the night over, he woke up early to train at a local academy. “He never missed a day of training. He didn’t want to let down his mentors,” Ashok says.
Why is the question
Narendra Dhankhar, Sagar’s chacha, says the feeling among the clan is that the accused have gone too far.
“If Sagar did something wrong, they could have slapped him or thrown him out of Chhatrasal for good. They should have called me up or his father and told us what he was doing and why it could not be tolerated. We would have advised Sagar. But taking his life is unacceptable,” Narendra says.
Delhi Police, after conducting unsuccessful raids to nab Sushil, have issued a lookout notice against the two-time Olympic medallist over his alleged role in Sagar’s death. An FIR of murder, abduction and criminal conspiracy has been registered against him.
Sagar also seems to have been in the wrong company. One of Sagar’s friends, Sonu Mahal, who was injured in the brawl and is a key witness, has links with gangster Kala Jatheri, is what Delhi Police have ascertained. Sonu from Sonepat is a contract killer. He is also named as one of the accused who waylaid a police van in Jhajjar and murdered three undertrials and injured two policemen. A ‘highly desperate criminal’ is how Sonu is described in the criminal dossier. It was Sonu who informed the cops about Sushil’s alleged involvement in the brawl.
Sushil distanced himself from the brawl in the only comment he has made so far. “They weren’t our wrestlers, it happened late last night. We have informed police officials that some unknown people jumped into our premises and fought. No connection of our stadium with this incident, Sushil had told ANI.
Among those giving Ashok moral support is wrestler Ravinder, a Chhatrasal trainee, who claims he was with Sagar on the fateful night.
“I won’t be training at Chhatrasal anymore. I will cut all links with Chhatrasal. An akhada is like a spiritual place for a wrestler. With Sagar’s death, Chhatrasal is not the same hallowed place for me. There are other wrestlers who will leave too,” Ravinder says.
A news report about Sushil seeking refuge with a yoga guru in Haridwar is the topic of conversation in Sagar’s house at the end of the terhvi. The family has lived here, close to Mission Chowk, for three decades. They have deep roots in the area. Everyone has a Chhatrasal-Sushil-Sagar story to narrate.
Narendra talks about a bond between Sushil and his nephew.
“Till recently, Sushil took Sagar along when he stepped out of Chhatrasal Stadium for any work. Sagar was six-foot plus, close to 100 kilograms. He had won medals and represented India in international competitions. Having a wrestler of that size and power in your inner circle adds to your aura, even if you are an Olympic medallist,” Narendra says.
According to police sources investigating the case, the fallout happened when Sagar was asked to vacate a house near the stadium. Sushil didn’t like it when Sagar bad-mouthed him after being forced to shift, is the police version.
Narendra says the house issue did blow over. He points to another incident from a few months ago which had the potential to cause friction between the guru and shishya, but was settled.
A coach who was training Sagar didn’t see eye-to-eye with Sushil. He had to leave Chhatrasal. Sagar too had decided to follow the coach and join the academy he started in Narela. It was Sushil, Narendra believes, who convinced Sagar to stay back.
“Sushil is the one who offered Sagar the house close to the stadium. Sushil wanted Sagar to be part of Chhatrasal and train with the group even if he opted to stay outside. So, I don’t know why Sagar was attacked. As far as I know, he was happy to be part of the Chhatrasal set-up. Yes, there was talk of another wrestler being promoted over Sagar. Maybe that became an issue. We don’t know.”
Going by what family members say, Sagar wasn’t a tantrum-thrower nor lost his cool. “He never looked his elders in the eye. His gaze was always down. He gave everyone respect. It is hard to believe Sagar would have started a fight, that too at a stadium which has given him so much,” is how Dalsher Siwach, Sagar’s mama, describes the Greco-Roman wrestler.
Narendra is shocked by the alleged brutality of the attack. “He was beaten black and blue. A hit to the head resulted in his death,” Narendra concludes after reading the post-mortem report on his phone.
“Do you know that Sushil himself had visited Sagar’s home. They were close,” Dalsher claims.
Wrestling in the blood
Ashok harks back to the day his son, then 15, got the nod from Mahabali Satpal – the highly respected coach at Chhatrasal, an Asian Games gold medallist and Sushil’s father-in-law. Before Sushil, Satpal’s writ ran large at the stadium.
The father and son had travelled from Shiv Nagar to North-West Delhi eight years ago hoping to get an audience and a trial.
“One of the coaches spoke to Mahabali and he agreed to give Sagar a trial. Sagar had to fight for three rounds against three different wrestlers. Sagar’s eyes lit up when he saw Mahabali watching him. What more can a young wrestler ask for? He was selected,” Ashok says, recalling the day Sagar set foot in Chhatrasal.
“He wanted to be an Olympian and spoke about winning a big medal for the country, like Sushil. He had the potential because kushti was in his blood.”
The wrestling lineage comes from Sagar’s grandfather Rameshwar, a mud-pit wrestler and a popular name at dangals. It was Rameshwar who accompanied a nine-year-old Sagar to an academy at a local school. Rameshwar was an army man who became a sarpanch. His word was final when it came to big decisions in the family or the village.
“Sagar loved wrestling from the very first day. I don’t remember a single occasion he cribbed about training. He had a bright future in the sport, at least that is what we thought,” Ashok says.
Sagar’s accreditation cards from the Junior Asian Championships and the Junior World Championships in 2017 are treasured possessions for the family. So are his national-level medals and certificates.
His mother Savita is heartbroken. Omvati, Sagar’s grandmother, has been trying to console her. Savita watches Sagar’s wrestling videos uploaded on YouTube when she can’t sleep at night.
“Sagar’s mother is not eating properly. She was prescribed sleeping pills by the doctor. We are worried about her,” Dalsher adds.
The family wants those guilty to be brought to book but are running out of patience with each passing day. With the rituals over, Ashok plans to return to duty next week. Top police officials have promised Ashok swift action in the coming days. He is confident that his seniors will keep their word. “Those involved are big names. But we want justice. As a member of the police force, giving people justice is what I have tried to do all my life.”