Sport is often called art but not many works of art evoke emotions that are simultaneously personal and collective. The joy of seeing a Rembrandt painting does not increase if you see it with a gang of friends, the joy of watching a Messi goal does. That is why watching the clip of a Sachin Tendulkar masterpiece makes you want to share it with friends who were by your side when you watched it live. It happens to everyone and it happened to me this March, on the anniversary of his tragic 136 against Pakistan at Chepauk. Some archivist tweeted the video of that innings. I sent the link to two or three friends who had run away from our hostel with me that day to watch the match at a nearby club. The accompanying message was “Remember this?” Everyone did, but I never knew one of them had a memory which was much more bitter than India’s defeat that day.
“How can I forget?” was a Muslim friend’s reply. “Heart-breaking. It was also the day when one of my friends told me ‘Congrats, you won’.”
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Let’s be honest enough to admit my friend’s experience was not singular or extraordinary. Doubting an Indian Muslim’s loyalty to the country is common today, but it always existed. And when India played Pakistan on the cricket field, it was time to say it loud. The doubt was not confined to the fans alone though.
During the glory days of cricket at Sharjah, when Pakistan regularly gave India a pasting, the popular target used to be Mohammed Azharuddin. Tendulkar could honestly score a duck, Manoj Prabhakar could go for runs by just bowling a bad spell, Kapil Dev could drop a catch because of lapse in concentration, but Azhar’s failure was suspect. So, it would be hypocritical of us, therefore, to sermonise racist England fans for the attack they have unleashed on Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
It is easy to say there was no Islamophobia involved in doubting Azhar as, subsequently, he was found guilty of malpractice. We insinuated because we knew, or so we would attempt to justify. But facts suggest otherwise.
Ramachandra Guha writes in his book A Corner of A Foreign Field: “Once, when Azhar scored a hundred and India won, Bal Thackeray announced that he was a ‘Nationalist Muslim’. While campaigning for votes before the 1998 General Elections, Lal Krishna Advani, the leader of the Ayodhya campaign, told an audience of Muslim youths that they should follow the example of Azhar and AR Rahman.”
Guha points out: “These compliments were poisonous in the extreme. They carried the insinuation that other Indian Muslims were not patriotic. And what if Azhar was bowled first ball for a duck? Did he then forfeit his status as a ‘Nationalist Muslim’?”
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We know the answer. We also know fans never doubted Ajay Jadeja or Nayan Mongia, who were also implicated or accused in the match fixing scandal. More importantly, the doubting did not end with Azhar.
Team India under Sourav Ganguly reversed two trends in the new millennium: of losing to Pakistan often, and of being meek losers overseas. Muslim cricketers had crucial roles in both. Who can forget Irfan Pathan’s hattrick in the first Test in Karachi (2005-06) or Mohammed Kaif’s undefeated 71 (77 balls) in the fourth ODI in Lahore (2003-04)? India were five down for 162, chasing almost 300. Kaif’s partnership with Rahul Dravid (76 not out) took the team home. Kaif will forever be remembered for his innings in the Natwest Trophy final at Lord’s.
Meanwhile, Zaheer Khan was carving out a niche for himself as Javagal Srinath walked into the sunset and Ashish Nehra’s injuries got the better of him. Apart from being part of the trio that took India to the brink of glory in the 2003 ICC World Cup, Zaheer bowled India to memorable Test victories.
That did not change some things for Indian fans. Nowadays, we shudder when children complain about who eats meat in their class or discuss class friend’s caste. But during Kaif’s Gaddafi Stadium innings mentioned above, I saw a teen say “He won’t let Pakistan lose. It’s his team after all.”
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Again, it can be dismissed as anecdotal evidence. Sadly, too many people have such anecdotes. Moreover, seeing social media ignoramuses tell Irfan to go to Pakistan for speaking out on the discrimination he has faced as a Muslim, leaves no doubt about the fact that there were enough such teens who have now become parents.
To be fair to cricket fans, they are not alone in blaming someone from the minority community when things go wrong. Had hockey fans been bigger-hearted liberals, Chak De! India could have done without the social ostracization of its protagonist Kabir Khan. As the film shows, the bitter truth about Indian society is that if a Muslim sportsperson is ever believed to be on the wrong foot, he has to do something doubly heroic like Kabir to redeem himself. That must be what those racist English fans are demanding of Saka, Rashford and Sancho — bring home the World Cup from Qatar perhaps.
The last resort of people in denial of the Indian reality could be: racism and communalism are two different things. Fair enough, but do we regard racism as a bad thing? Did the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) take any punitive action against Ishant Sharma when his racist comments were pointed out by Darren Sammy? The West Indies cricketer, at least, got an apology from Ishant. Did anyone from the establishment apologise to Abhinav Mukund or Dodda Ganesh for what they had gone through because of skin colour? Saka, Rashford, Sancho at least have the English FA by their side. They also have their captain Harry Kane tweeting he doesn’t want fans who are racist. Former greats like Gary Lineker have also spoken up for the trio.
Wish Wasim Jaffer had such support. Earlier this year, when a few officials of Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association tried to settle scores using his religion as an excuse, neither the Board nor his illustrious former teammates spoke up for Jaffer. Domestic greats like Amol Muzumdar condemned the act and denounced the troll army triggered by it. But the board, led by an iconic former cricketer, behaved like Mahatma Gandhi’s monkeys.
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Nevertheless, the outrage of Indian sports enthusiasts about online racist abuse of the trio deserves praise. Because it is an improvement. They did see how the West Indies and England cricket teams took a knee against racism way back on July 8, 2020, when international cricket resumed amid the pandemic. But they did not outrage when the Indian Premier League (IPL) did not follow suit, long after it had become the norm in sporting events world over, including the Indian Super League. The 2020 IPL began on September 19 but only on October 26 did a cricketer take a knee. He was Hardik Pandya, out of personal choice, not by IPL governing body’s suggestion or instruction.
To now take the moral high ground in a case of racism feels like hypocrisy but why blame only the sports fanatic for it? The recently-released ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ report by Pew Research Center does show that most Indians prefer to stay within their own community. Why bother about who is discriminated against? We are hardly a country of fairness, we are a country of fairness creams.
(Pratik is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. He loves to write on politics, society and sports.)
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