Indian Cricket in Denial of Racism?
Arsh Ajmera, Undergraduate Batch of 2021
From Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds’ infamous “monkeygate” scandal to Darren Sammy’s racist nickname by IPL teammates, racism in Indian cricket continues unabated and dangerously unacknowledged. Darren Sammy continues to await an apology from the teammates he played within the 2013-14 IPL season for Sunrisers Hyderabad, a just demand since then dropped. But what he does not know is that Indians are self-certified non-racists. He should have known this fact from the Monkeygate scandal, wherein Harbhajan Singh called Andrew Symonds a “monkey”. Let alone an apology; he called Symonds a fiction writer. In a video posted on Instagram, Sammy claims that he now knows the meaning of the word “Kalu” that his teammates called him and how it is a degrading term for African Nationals. What he does not know is that Indian nationals with a dark complexion have also been called Kalu, Kaliya, or Kallu at least once in their lifetime, the derogation apparent.
An Instagram post from Ishant Sharma in May 2014, where he refers to West Indies cricketer, Darren Sammy, as “kaluu”.
The outright denial is what is staggering, and yet unsurprising. It’s not just Indian cricketers but a majority of the Indian society that seems to be content looking the other way at racism, insistent at the fact that Indians are discriminated against on skin color abroad; as if that absolves us of any similar incrimination at all. Some even try to defend it by invoking the Almighty. In April 2017, then BJP MP Tarun Vijay had said that calling Indians racist is the “most vicious thing”, because “we (Hindus) worship dark gods, Krishna is dark”, and even had the audacity to ask “if Indians are racist, why do we live with (South Indians)?”. This statement is further strengthened when these people cite India as “the land of Gandhi”, the man who fought against apartheid in South Africa. He himself was racist, a fact that has been conveniently brushed under the carpet with sly aplomb. In the context of the Sammy controversy, Indian cricketers and Sammy’s former Sunrisers teammates, Parvez Rasool and Irrfan Pathan, in an interview with the Indian Express said, “If something like that would have happened then it would have come to notice or a team discussion would have happened on the topic. I am not aware of any such incident and he (Sammy) has to take responsibility for his comments”, Pathan said. Rasool concurred by saying that the team had a healthy environment and it’s very hard to believe something of this could have ever happened. The erasure of the incrimination was complete.
What’s interesting to note in all these cases is that one will never find any “dark-colored” depiction of Lord Krishna. In the same interview, Pathan and Rasool acknowledged racism in cricket but only in the domestic circuit and that too not from fellow cricketers but fans. This statement is a distinct callback to Abhinav Mukund’s post in 2017 about racism and how ‘name-calling’ toughened him. Pathan and Rasool seem to be selectively appalled by racism.
A lot of cricketers like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo have come forward to support Darren Sammy. It’s not the first time cricketers have been abused on the basis of color, religion, home life; this was social media trolling in the days before social media. Darren Lehmann, Australia’s head coach, faced a five-match ban for using a racial slur against Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakarra. During a recent live video chat with cricketer Virat Kohli, Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri was racially profiled by an Instagram user, who wrote, “Ye Nepali kon h (who is this Nepali)”.
As the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has intensified across the world, the West Indies and England Cricket Teams, playing in the first international cricket series since the lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, delivered a resounding statement to the world about equality and the Black Lives Matter movement by taking a knee before every Test match. Shannon Gabriel, the West Indies opening bowler, called it “a great moment” that showed “racism has no part in cricket”. During the first Test match, it was followed by an interview with Michael Holding, who spoke about the “dehumanisation of the black race” in history and society’s failure to address this. On the other hand, a bunch of Indian cricketers recently expressed their dismay at the tragic death of a female elephant in Kerala. Many make themselves readily available to the media at ‘giving back’ to a Pakistani cricketer having made outlandish political remarks. Such low-risk, performative activism has many takers in India. But addressing the societal root of casual racism is a bridge too far for most and cricket thus remains plagued by it. It is a widely accepted notion that things said within private confines between friends somehow should not qualify as objectionable.
Cricketers representing the England and West Indies Cricket Teams take a knee before the start of the First Test at the Hampshire Bowl, England on July 8th, 2020. (Source: Metro)
This is not to preach, but to acknowledge, and to unlearn the rampant racism in Indian sport. There are no two ways about it and it’s time to realize this in earnest. Sport is the perfect arena for this because it is a part of our social fabric. It is important to understand that the convergence of sports and celebrities can have a powerful influence on everyday politics. With the monkeygate scandal, Indian cricket had a golden opportunity to draw a line in the sand with respect to dealing with racism a little more than a decade ago. Darren Sammy has given another chance for all Indians to come clean. Our sportspersons and our sports audiences need to have this conversation, and our society at large needs to take cognizance of our racist ways, and how they offshoot into further social inequalities we’re all too happy to entertain.