Sixteen tribal girls from the north eastern state of Sikkim who, until a few years ago, couldn’t even spell ‘basketball’ in English, are the reigning two time CBSE national school champions. Prior to winning the latest 2013 edition, the Ekalavya Model Residential School (EMRS), Gangyap had been runners up in 2012 and maiden winners in 2011. From constructing the school basketball court with their bare hands to getting invited for international tournaments in Bhutan and Nepal, the ‘Girls of Gangyap’ have become an unlikely powerhouse basketball dynasty. This is their story.
The Great Himalayan mountain range towers over the Indian sub-continent, stretching from the Karakoram peaks in northern Gilgit-Baltistan across the entire face of India to Bhutan, 2400 kms in the east. The Himalayas are deeply rooted in South Asian culture and form the fulcrum of two of the world’s oldest religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.
The harsh purity of the region is reflected in its cloud dwelling pahaadi people— whose piercing eyes cut through the thin air, their wrinkled spotted fair skin has hardened over the years against the icy cold winds that howl and beat constantly against the unyielding, granite surfaces of the world’s youngest rock formation.
The pahaadis have historically been cattle and yak herders from different tribes. In 2007, as part of a policy initiative by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, 72 ‘Ekalavya Model Residential Schools (EMRS)’ for tribal students were setup in remote villages across India. 37 year old Sidharth Yonzone was appointed the first Principal of the EMRS that opened in the Gangyap hamlet of the Tashding hilltop village in remote western Sikkim. The school follows the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) syllabus for students from classes VI to XII.
“I actually felt disappointed to see the school. There was no proper building, no playground, nothing. The school was to be run in a tiny four roomed house. The students looked frightened and were very raw. They had had no English education and we were to begin with them in class six! But they did look interested. The atmosphere, well, to be very honest, there was no atmosphere … we had to build one,” Principal Yonzone begins narrating his experience via an exclusive email interview, that he manages to send us despite frequent electricity outages.
52 students (28 girls, 24 boys) enrolled in the co-ed school in the inaugural year. Eventually quite a few dropped out and only 33 students from the first batch graduated from class XII this year. All of them come from very poor farming families that on an average earn between Rs. 3000 to 5000 per month. 85% of them are first generation learners.
Principal Turns Coach
Outside of regular classes, as an extra-curricular student activity, Yonzone surprisingly introduced basketball and not football. “The school is still under slow construction, so our options are limited. One always sees football everywhere in Sikkim and though I enjoy the English Premier League, I cannot coach or play football. Basketball was like taking the road less traveled.”
The principal himself doubled up as the coach. “I love basketball. While I was in college, I got interested in the Utah Jazz from the time Jeff Hornacek won the 3-point competition in the All Star Game in the late 90s. I remember watching John Stockton & Karl Malone all the way up to the NBA Finals. I soon started asking my friends and relatives for NBA jerseys from the USA…that’s all I used to wear at that time. Later I grew interested in the Indiana Pacers…” says Yonzone, reminiscing about the good old days.
At Gangyap, few had heard of basketball before, which led to some hilarious introductory lessons. “I brought along two of my players from my former school, but apart from them nobody was familiar with basketball. I wanted to show them the game on TV but there was no electricity. So when I began they were absolutely clueless as to what was happening. There were girls running around carrying the ball in all directions. Since we had a very tiny space initially we had put up just a single post. So when we went to play a friendly game after a week the girls just did not know what the post at the other end was for!”
Laying the foundation
Slowly, the girls team began to separate itself from the boys, winning a series of local tournaments from 2007 to 2009. “When I was working in my old school I actually had started a boys team and we used to play a few tournaments. But the problem I was facing was the same team of boys also had football and volleyball commitments. Moreover they did not seem to win too much. I felt it was because they were not spending enough time on one game.”
With basketball added to the mix, the daily routine became hectic. Initially the schedule was 5 – 7 am practice (“except on days when there was NBA on TV or when it rained.”), classes from 9 am – 3:30 pm. Evening practice from 3:30 – 6:30 pm followed by post practice talks and night study from 7:30 – 9:30 pm. During the spare time in between, the girls head home to finish off domestic chores like milking the cows, cutting fodder from the fields, cooking and cleaning.
On top of this grind, playing basketball in the hills came with its own set of challenges. The undulating terrain had to be flattened and the girls built the court with their own hands. “From breaking and carrying the stone chips, to cementing the floor, they did everything.” says social activist Diki Yangchen in an arresting short video documentary published on YouTube last year:
Having proved their worth in the north eastern circuit, it was time now for the Girls of Gangyap to take part in their first ever national competition: the 2010 CBSE basketball championships.
About the CBSE Basketball Championships
The Central Board of Secondary Education is India’s oldest and largest boards of secondary education, with approximately 15,000 schools across the nation affiliated to it. The CBSE organises sports meets between its affiliate schools in various disciplines like basketball, football, volleyball, table tennis and athletics.
In the area of physical education and sports alone there are 4,500 registered schools comprising a mammoth two lakh students. (add link: http://cbsesports.in/) These schools are divided into five zones: South, East, West, North I and North II. Outside India there are also foreign zones that include 19 countries across the Middle East, USA, Africa, Russia and south east Asia. Many of these zones are sub-divided into smaller ‘clusters’.
For a school to be crowned CBSE national champion in any sport, it has to first be among the top two in its cluster, then finish again in the top two of its zone, and finally win the national inter-zonal championships.
The Ekalavya Model Residential School belongs to Cluster I in the East Zone that comprises all CBSE schools from the seven sister states and the Himalayan state of Sikkim.
EMRS’s upward swing from 2010 to 2013
EMRS registered for its first CBSE Tournament in 2010. The starting five was led by Captain forward Nima Doma Bhutia, guards Tshering Eden Bhutia and Diki Doma Bhutia, centre Nim Lhamu Bhutia and forward Rinchen Doma Bhutia. Pem Choden Lepcha, Bimochan Tamang, Manita Subba, Lakchung Lepcha, Norzum Bhutia, Kinchumit Lepcha, Binu Hangma Subba, Pema Lhamu Bhutia, Deechen Bhutia, Kinzang Chomo Lepcha and Tashi Tshering Sherpa completed the line up.
EMRS cruised through the East Zone and qualified for the Nationals in Chhattisgarh in December 2010. Its first game in the Nationals was against Jharkhand and second against PSSB, Chennai, both of which it won very easily. Word of its exploits began to spread. “We started attracting quite a crowd to our games. There were already a few whispers that we were the favourites to win.”
Everything changed in the next two matches though and it was a bitter learning experience. “Our third game against Rai, Haryana was to ensure we’d emerge as pool toppers but there were quite a few shocking referee calls. We lost by three points and met Yuganter Public School, Chhattisgarh, the host school in the pre-quarters. We lost to them too in controversial circumstances, with our points not getting added and them fielding players who were not even regular students of the school.”
The next year, EMRS bounced back at the Vellamal International School in Chennai beating the traditionally strong APS Noida team 47-30 in the finals. In 2012, the girls suffered a reversal against the very same APS Noida squad to finish runners up. In December 2013, Gangyap reclaimed the title at the John Milton School in Agra.
Through all these tournaments, the Coach’s strategy has been simple. He relies on his pahaadi players’ natural lower body strength, agility and counterattacking ability. “When it came to competing against the bigger girls from major cities, I knew my team, especially Nima Doma, was quicker, aggressive and determined. Now some of the other teams are threatened by us. Many schools and clubs in Sikkim and the neighbouring hills of Darjeeling do not invite EMRS anymore for their tournaments!”
The prodigal team returns
On each triumphant return to Sikkim, the reaction was mixed. While the team and its well wishers (mostly friends & family) were over the moon and greeted them on the way back, from many others “there was nothing”. But the girls didn’t care. “We were happy and the people who mattered were happy. The media in Sikkim and a large number of strangers too supported the team.”
Local press came up with interesting wordplays (“doing it the Gangyap Style”) and the team was awarded Rs. 50,000/- twice by the Sikkim Chief Minister in appreciation of their two national triumphs.
Invitations to neighbouring countries like Bhutan and Nepal followed. “We visited Thimpu in 2013 at the behest of the Bhutan Olympic Committee to provide exposure to the local teams. We played around four games and won all of them by over 40-50 points. Earlier this year we were invited to Kathmandu for a tournament by my own friends who wanted to help the girls financially.”
The Broader Issue of Sikkim’s non-affiliation
Having established themselves as the best among CBSE schools, it was natural for the team’s star players, notably three-time national most valuable player (MVP) and captain Nima Doma Bhutia, to aspire to represent their state and country at the junior level.
However, for reasons unknown, Sikkim is still to register itself with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), which is the precursor to participate in the national basketball championships. “It’s not that BFI is refusing affiliation to Sikkim. On the contrary Sikkim Basketball Association has not approached the BFI. But recently a new association called Basketball Association of Sikkim is trying for affiliation, so let’s see what happens. Most of the other North Eastern States, with the exception of Arunachal Pradesh perhaps, are already affiliated.”
Interestingly, once coaches from other states got wind that Sikkim’s star players were up for grabs, offers poured in. “I remember Haryana, West Bengal, Assam, Delhi and Mizoram have asked me to loan my players to their respective states.”
However, a loyal Yonzone wishes for his students to wear the Sikkim jerseys only and declines these offers. “I feel it’s unfair that they have not yet represented India, especially when they were younger. They have played against other girls who have been on the Indian team in the under 16, under 17 and under 19 categories and beaten them all.”
Five players from EMRS’s championship winning squad completed twelfth standard this year. Among this recently graduated class, Nima Doma is the brightest prospect, and has now joined the Lakshmibai National Institute of Physical Education (LNIPE) in Gwalior. “Basketball is all she lives for. She dreams of playing for the WNBA. When I introduced the game to her, she took to it so naturally. I knew there was something good in her.”
With the ‘core’ group of seniors having moved on, Yonzone admits it will be difficult to continue his team’s dominating run of form. “The biggest help that the EMRS team could get is if Sikkim becomes affiliated to the BFI. Then my players can go further.”
However laudatory the achievements of its basketball team may be, perhaps the most heartening development at the Sikkim School comes from within the classroom. “From just 52 students in our first year, we now have 358.” Yonzone ends with pride.