New Delhi: As he walked the ceremonial red carpet, his chest swollen with pride, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s Durbar Hall to be conferred the Padma Shri by President Ram Nath Kovind, a trail of memories flowed through the mind of the retired Indian Army subedar.
But Murlikant Rajaram Petkar, 71, quickly shook off the flashback and stood upright in front of the President, greeting him in military style. The crutches tied to his forearms prevented him from offering a cracking salute to the Supreme Commander of the Indian armed forces.
Indeed, March 21, 2018, was a far cry from the day way back in 1982 when the government rejected Petkar’s claim for an Arjuna Award. Petkar is India’s first paralympic gold medallist, winning the 50 metre freestyle swimming event at the Summer Paralympics held at Heidelberg, Germany, in August 1972.
Earlier, at the 3rd Commonwealth Paraplegic Games at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1970, Petkar had bagged a gold in the 50 metre freestyle swimming, a silver in javelin throw and a bronze in shot-put.
“I have put all that behind me. I am glad that the government finally recognised my achievements. I did feel disheartened when I was denied an Arjuna Award on the ground that I was a disabled person,” Petkar told IANS soon after he was conferred the Padma Shri.
“I made a bundle of all my certificates and medals and stashed them away, resolving never to make any application for any award again. Then, on January 25 this year, I got a call from the government that I had been shortlisted for the Padma Shri,” he said.
The story behind his disability begs to be told. It is a tale of the man’s grit and determination. And what deserves rousing accolades and greater appreciation — mlore than his sporting achievements — is the man’s spirit and resolve to beat the odds life has thrown at him.
Petkar doesn’t recall the exact day. It was some time in September 1965 when a bloody war with Pakistan was raging. Petkar was with his unit somewhere in the Sialkot sector when, around 4 p.m., a Pakistani bomber attacked their position.
He took nine bullets — one is still lodged in his backbone — and was bedridden for over two years. He also lost his memory for some time.
“All I remember now is that we were just resting after having our lunch. Suddenly the Havildar Major came shouting. Some of us, half asleep as we were, thought we were being called for tea. I remember there was some confusion and some jawans just went outside and were killed,” Petkar said.
A long hospital stay followed. When he recovered he found himself disabled below the waist. An ordinary soul would normally have taken years to recover from the trauma but not the sporstman in Petkar, a recipient of the Raksha Medal in 1965.
Before he was discharged from service in 1969, he had participated in the Maharashtra State Athletic Meet in 1967 and became state champion in shot put, javelin throw, discuss throw, table tennis and archery.
In the early 1970s, the Tatas came forward to rehabilitate maimed soldiers. But Petkar refused monetary help and instead asked for work.
“They were very happy and I was given a job at Telco in Pune where I worked for 30 years,” Petkar said with a tinge of well-deserved pride.
Born on November 1, 1947, at Peth Islampur in Sangli district of what is now Maharashtra, Petkar has been a sportsman from childhood. Even before the debilitating encounter in the 1965 war, he would participate in sports. He was selected to represent India in boxing at the International Services Sports Meet at Tokyo in 1964.
Petkar was conferred with Maharashtra’s highest sporting award — the Shiv Chhatrapati Award — by the state government in 1975. But the man has never rested on his laurels and has always striven to better his own previous records.
“I had never thought I would get a Padma. I don’t know who nominated me for this honour. But I do believe that this award would inspire other para-athletes,” said Petkar, who is mostly wheelchair bound.