Dr Rahul Raj: From Gold Medal in Armwrestling to being a Lucknow University topper

rahul raj, armwrestling, pro panja league

Dr Rahul Raj is one of the most prominent faces in Indian Armwrestling. Hailing from, Varanasi, Rahul is a senior referee and he has been a part of Pro Panja League for quite some time. Rahul is a multiple time State Champion and he has also medaled in the Nationals.

Not only is Rahul one of India’s top referees and players, he is also a professor in Banaras Hindu University.

The Sports India Show had the opportunity to catch-up with Dr Rahul Raj to talk about his passion in Armwrestling and also academics.

armwrestling, rahul raj

Q1. Tell us something about your arm wrestling journey.

Ans. “Wo bhooli daastan lo fir yaad aa gayi…” Unfolding the past about my arm wrestling journey is like rewinding an old music cassette which has long been lost in the tide of time but the melody still lingers afresh in the memory. It all started in the classrooms of my alma matar Colvin Taluqdar’s College at Lucknow way back in 1985-86. The Panja (arm wrestling) happened to be the surest way to demonstrate superiority over the fellow classmates in my teens. I soon realized that this sport is meant for me, and a paradigm change happened which was no less than a miracle for me. Being an introvert since childhood, the entry of arm wrestling in life altered not only my personality traits but it also reframed my life permanently. Because of the Panja’, the psychological boost in self-confidence and realization of self-esteem heralded a new era before me. From an introvert guy I soon became active in various sports and cultural activities of my college, but it was only in 1993 when I first participated formally in a local arm wrestling event at Lucknow. The table was of sitting variety at that time and strict rules were followed. I got no place at first but I learned various major tips to excel in the game. The very next year I snatched gold medal in 7th UP State Arm Wrestling Championship in below 65 kg. My parents who were very strict for my studies never knew that I practice this sport, but when my name was published in the sports page of newspapers the next morning, they were shocked. It was a magical moment for me watching their reaction. My father, realizing my passion for Panja, agreed to allow me for the game only on the condition that I would not compromise over my studies, for which I readily agreed.

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Q2. How many competitions did you participate in?

Ans. I played my first nationals in 1994 at Jalandhar where I saw the standing table for the first time. In U.P. only sitting tables were prevalent in those days. A year after, I took part in an ‘All India Arm Wrestling Championship’ in 1995 at New Delhi in which I won a silver medal. I continuously participated in nationals held at Guwahati, Jabalpur and Irinjalakuda (Kerala). I retained my gold in the state consecutively for four years apart from getting top place in more than a dozen district level and other arm wrestling events.

It is noteworthy that at the very same time in 1997, another story was emerging to shape up the path of my life. I topped University of Lucknow in my MA in ancient Indian history & archaeology and bagged six gold medals of high academic value. Soon I joined Ph.D. there and I eventually landed at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi as an assistant professor in 2005. This forced me to discontinue the sport but I re-entered the sport in 2018 after a gap of more than two decades. The second inning earned me three silvers and one bronze at national level.

Q3. Your journey from an athlete to a referee?

Ans. The scenario started changing when a serious elbow injury forced me to discontinue the game in 1998 and subsequently, I became national referee of Indian Arm Wrestling Federation on the recommendation from my state unit in 1998. Their is also an interesting story behind my shift from an athlete to a referee. It was during Guwahati nationals in 1996 when I met the then gen. secy. of WAF and the president of AAF Sri Brij Baran Das ji. After a short conversation, he suggested me to come into the technical sphere of the game. Within few weeks of my return he posted the official WAF Rule Book to me. I was overwhelmed by this gesture and realized the hidden message of this act. So I translated the WAF Rules in Hindi language for better understanding of the game by Indian athletes. My work was probably the first ‘unofficial’ translation and publication of WAF rules in Hindi language. This inclination towards the rules eventually lead me to become an arm wrestling referee.

Q4. Please tell us something about your job? How do your peers react when they learn that you’re into arm wrestling as well?

Ans. Actually I have never thought of becoming a teacher. I was very much into other games as well such as wushu, kickboxing, taekwondo, karate etc. Even I have a national silver medal in wushu and regional open gold medal in kickboxing, but my career became destined to enter into academics after becoming the university topper in PG. My father once remarked that in India, everyone salutes only the rising Sun but there is no setting of Sun in academics and higher studies. After joining the department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology at Banaras Hindu University in 2005, I realized that being into sports is considered as a taboo by many and such person is perceived as a ‘non-serious’ in academic world. Therefore, I started focusing on my teaching job which included taking lectures at UG and PG level and guiding the Ph.D. research scholars. Since my expertise is on South East Asian History and Buddhist Studies, a number of foreign research scholars have completed their Ph.D. thesis under my supervision. My colleagues knew about my sports background, specially my madness towards arm wrestling and often they ask me about it.

Q5. How has arm wrestling improved since the advent of Pro Panja League?

Ans. I am reminded of the line of an old song – “Tum jo mil gaye ho, to ye lagta hai, ke jahaan mil gaya / Ek bhatke hue raahi ko, kaarwan mil gaya…”. Arm wrestling has never been so brilliantly popularized and glamourized as the Pro Panja League has done since its rise over the arm wrestling horizon of India in 2020. The co-founders of PPL Ms. Preeti Jhangiani and Mr. Praveen Dabas have literally left no stone unturned in planning and execution of coveted events such as Ranking Tournaments, Mega Matches, Promotional Matches, etc. This picture-perfect work culture of PPL has not only zoomed the euphoric craze for Panja across India and abroad, but it has also elevated the benchmark for the old school arm wrestling bodies thus forcing them to rethink about how arm wrestling is run in the modern times. To add feather in the cap of Pro Panja League, Mr. Pravin Dabas has received the Golden Medal from the vice-president of World Arm Wrestling Federation and the vice-president of Asian Arm Wrestling Federation Mr. Dzeenbek Mukambetov, which the sports fraternity regards as the highest recognition from the World Arm Wrestling Federation. Recently, the tie-up of Pro Panja League with Sony Sports Network just few months before the highly awaited First Season of Pro Panja League is sure to usher a new era in the quality and standard of arm wrestling in India.

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