Controversy October 20, 2007

No room for bigotry

Our virtue as a nation is that we committed ourselves to an inclusive pluralism

In Baroda and Bombay, Andrew Symonds, the only non-white, Afro-Caribbean member of the Australian side, was heckled by spectators who called him a monkey, and made ape-like motions in case he hadn't got their point. The Sydney Morning Herald published a photograph of two middle-class, middle-aged Indian men making like monkeys. Symonds, his captain, his team mates, and Australian newspapers thought this was as patent a form of racism as you were likely to witness on a cricket field and said so. The ICC wrote to the BCCI expressing concern.

Sharad Pawar said he hadn't received the ICC's letter. He borrowed the theme of cultural difference that Ricky Ponting had used earlier in the series in another context - that of sledging - to make his point. In the days that followed, this became something of an Indian theme: the Australians had misunderstood the crowd's gestures. There was no racism intended. The police commissioner in Baroda even supplied an alternative explanation: the monkey chants were no more than the spectators invoking the simian god, Hanuman.

The non-official reaction was similar. The newspapers were slow off the mark. Some suggested that Indian crowds had always jeered combative cricketers like Symonds; the monkey business was volatility, not racism. Indian crowds had been known to call West Indians "kaliyas" or "hubshi" and English cricketers "goras" because they were, respectively, black and white. The implication was that Symonds with his dreadlocks and face paint, more or less invited the heckling by turning out in a contemporary version of blackface. Looked at reasonably, it was possible, the argument ran, to see it as no more than a kind of empirical teasing where unsophisticated spectators named what they saw: gora, kaliya, bandar.

Some opinion pieces struggled with the large question: are Indians racist? And if they are, are they racist in the same way as white people who are racist? Critics referred to the Indian obsession with being light-skinned, a preference happily specified in classified matrimonial ads and further borne out by the sale of fairness creams. One writer described this preference as a form of "soft racism", an attitude similar to notions of white superiority in western societies, but different in two ways: a) there was no republican history of state sanction for racist prejudice, unlike in white settler colonies like Australia and South Africa in the past b) the variation in skin colour within networks of caste and kinship in India made "hard" bigotry, genetic racism, difficult. Others made the point that caste discrimination, specially the practice of "untouchability" was as vicious a form of discrimination as apartheid or segregation.

As the days passed, a pattern emerged in the public response to the taunting of Symonds. The reaction after Baroda was defensive. After the Bombay match, where Symonds was booed at the prize-giving, and where the monkey taunts were repeated, the Indian response changed: the police evicted the worst offenders and charged them in court, Pawar denounced racist behaviour as unacceptable, and newspapers carried editorial mea culpas. It was Hamish Blair's brilliant photograph of two middle-class Indian men in the Wankhede stands, trying to look like apes and succeeding, that swung Indian public opinion away from denial towards an acknowledgment that there was a problem that needed to be named.

And its name is racism. It's silly and deluded to look for anthropological explanations that will turn racist behaviour by Indians into something subtly different. Cricket writing by Indians in English sometimes makes the mistake of thinking of the "average" Indian fan as non-English speaking and therefore naïve and unsophisticated. This assumption makes it possible for "us" to explain "their" behaviour away as a kind of unschooled brutishness that is unfortunate but not wicked. This is why Blair's photograph is so important: it shows you upwardly mobile men - who probably discuss the virtues of one malt whisky over the other, who possibly holiday abroad, whose children certainly go to private schools that teach in English - using one of the many international codes they've learnt in their cosmopolitan lives, the Esperanto of bigotry. The mudras they're making aren't derived from Kathakali : they're straight out of the international style guide to insulting black men.

It's hard for Indian fans to cede moral advantage to an Australian team. They are so much better at the cricket that outrage is often the only consolation we have. It's hard to fault the Australians' behaviour on the Symonds affair: they've made their point, done the BCCI the favour of not lodging an official complaint, been appreciative of the board's belated denunciation of racism, and have signalled their willingness to move on. The Indians, after a slow start, have redeemed themselves by booking the bad guys. To keep up the good work, we need to do the same again. And it doesn't have to be a racial insult the next time round: it could be, given our versatility in the matter of prejudice, a religious slur.

To say this isn't to concede some civilisational defect but merely to point out that we can't enjoy the glow of self-righteousness without the rigours of self-examination. Our virtue as a nation is that we committed ourselves to an inclusive pluralism. Our aim as a cricket-playing nation ought to be to live up to that ideal.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi