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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on February 15, 2008, 4:22 GMT

    I have been watching cricket for a few years now. I know that there is a very good player called Symonds in the Australian team, but till this issue came up I never know what race he belongs to. I think not many fans will go into the intricate details of the players.

    Next,in India, we abuse others by calling them dogs, pigs, monkeys etc. So what the crowd did was essentially a form of abuse.

    Then, why abusing a player is not considered as bad as a racist comment? If the australians (or the rest of the world) is hurt by racist comments, I am hurt by abusive language.

  • testli5504537 on December 6, 2007, 16:49 GMT

    it is not fair what happend to symonds (b, cause he is also belong?1/2 ly to a nation severly illtreated by whities) but there are must be a time australians and other so called whiteies should feel how they had treated asians africans and native ammericans not only in cricket but through out the world history. indians may be impulsive but are not 1/2 racist as them. and im not a indian

  • testli5504537 on November 15, 2007, 19:55 GMT

    Such an emotive subject. However, there is no doubt that Symonds was targeted, there is no doubt that it is totally unacceptable behaviour, and there is no doubt that this is deep in the Indian psyche - we love lightskinned people, there's no denyng it. I enjoyed reading Mukul's column; the good thing in the end is that we do have right thinking people in our country, and hopefully, the Authorities will come down hard on this sort of behaviour, and put the fear of God into potential offenders!

  • testli5504537 on November 15, 2007, 18:06 GMT

    Hey all Indians out there! We have two issues being discussed here. One is sledging and two is racism. Both involves using derogatory terms to the individual. (Some of the sledging is actually witty) Racism is condemned becuase you are basically using a person's race against him. This is not acceptable anywhere in the world. People like Javed are confusing the two issues. You can call me stupid to offend me. Or you can call me a black/brown/white stupid. In the second instance you are implying that I am stupid because of my race. If used repeatedly to offend, a word or jesture, which is initially benign can acquire derogatory connotations. The word Madrasi is an example. Initialy a word for a person from Madras, now it means a less than equal south indian. The ape gesture is an unacceptable derogatory behaviour towards any African or Afrocarribean person. I want Indians to be more exposed to the rest of the world. I expect no racism against me and I expect myself not to be a racist. I can take a personal taunt but not a racial taunt. And I want everyone to know the line between a personal and a racial taunt.

  • testli5504537 on November 15, 2007, 8:42 GMT

    Mukul Kesavan has a very valid point on the myth of show of racism by uneducated people. The photographs do tell a tale and a big one at that Real shame that the so called educated middle class is the one which is indulging in this when we are at thereceing end , we make a big fuss about racism.It is deeply embedded in India Psyche. We are color/caste conscious. we are hypocrites. we will not put up with racism when we are the recipienst and will happily insult others

  • testli5504537 on November 11, 2007, 8:30 GMT

    Beating India in India on a Diwali Night after scoring 321, was our Sweet Revenge for defeating us in T20 Final in Ramadan ;)

  • testli5504537 on November 9, 2007, 22:34 GMT

    My understanding is that these poor spectators merely have arm peculiar action when applauding caused by a deformity from birth. The associated speech impediment cause a flexion of between 10 and 15 degrees of the tongue which causes the cheering to sound remarkably like monkey noises. There you have it ... a simple answer for what would otherwise be unthinkable ..... a racist who is not white. This form of applause should immediately be declared acceptable and any rules, regulations etc should be amended to accommodate this position.

  • testli5504537 on November 5, 2007, 22:40 GMT

    anoop, don't embarrass yourself. everybody knows that we (Indians) are the most racist people in the world.

  • testli5504537 on November 4, 2007, 2:33 GMT

    Mukul, We respect your writings alot. We know who always do the racism. What about umpire darell hair. What about people in australia noballing murali. What about ponting pushing Powar. What about australian PM calling murali a chuker. Man define racism. mike denness charging 6 Indian players in India-South Africa match. Racism is always done againt a race. Indian crowd booed against 1 player not against entire australian race or team. You cant ask the crowd to just shut up and watch the game. It is done every where. Being an Indian cricket fan, I never like Pakistani cricketers and Inzamam, but what Inzamam did by standing up against hair "the ra****" is simply great. Pakistan might have to forfeit the match and Inzamam might have to serve match ban but he set a great example for all Indians/Pakistanis/Srilankans/Bangladeshis what we can do. Mukul you have a great power of writing. Please please support us Mr. Mukul. Show the true picture. Get up Stand up Write for the right. Please Mukul.

  • testli5504537 on October 31, 2007, 9:25 GMT

    @ Dilip - The monkey chanting incidents happened in Baroda and Mumbai, hardly 'North' enough.

    So, stop this north - south bashing among Indians and go and dig a hole somewhere and bury yourself.

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