October 20, 2007

No room for bigotry

Racism among Indian cricket watchers is alive and well and needs to be acknowledged, and then tackled ruthlessly

Making monkeys of themselves: the spectators who were ejected from the Wankhede © Getty Images

In Vadodara and Mumbai, 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 Vadodara was defensive. After the Mumbai 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.

It's silly 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

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 historian, novelist and essayist based in New Delhi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Prajay on October 23, 2007, 7:34 GMT

    James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, said that he did not think Panesar being called a "stupid Indian" was racist during England's three-day match against New South Wales at the SCG.(Ref. Cricinfo article November 17, 2006) "I don't think there's too much racist about that" and Symonds himself referred Sreesanth to a Goose "His carry-on in this series has been way over the top. We don't mind blokes having a go and standing up for themselves, but he has gone above and beyond what's acceptable. Information in this game travels and people remember when someone is carrying on like a goose." (Ref. Cricinfo article October 14, 2007). When professional people like Sutherland and Symonds who represent their countries do not understand what it is to be ridiculed then how can they expect the general public to act any better. Racisim, discrimination, ridicule exists almost everywhere in different forms. If its not based on race then based its sex, wealth etc.

  • Gautham on October 22, 2007, 14:43 GMT

    I think it was all much ado about nothing. I am for a minute not suggesting that racism doesn't exist in india. By god it does. For guys who don't believe, go look at all the african students in various parts of the country. They have been denied accomodation, made fun off and even searched by cops for drugs. Not all people with dark skin are drug peddlars. Indians are no angels but this is case of crowd hysteria (Jerks) and not really racism.

  • Joe on October 22, 2007, 11:13 GMT

    I find it amusing that some Indian cricket fans continually point at past indiscretions by some Australian players as somehow justifying the taunts directed at Symonds (and just a reminder that Darren Lehman copped it from the press here which is more than one can say for the Indian presses reaction). All this denial just makes it worse. Even more ridiculous are claims that Indians aren't racist - I've spent years working in Fiji, and some the Indians there certainly aren't adverse to refering to the Indigenous Fijians in a racially offensive manner. Racism exists in all societies - accept it. And we'll all enjoy giving you a hiding in the Test series this summer!

  • Logan on October 22, 2007, 9:15 GMT

    Its all the mistake of two cricket teams who failed to show good relationship between them from the beginning of the series. Its started by Andrew when he commented on the welcome given to Indian team. Its their wish to celebrate their own victory in the home. Second it became the word war when ponting expressed his views on our victory (that too in our country) and our players replied them aggressively. These continues to happen in the game infront of 30000 audience. Our indian peoples just supported our team and expressed their emotions. I will promise that if both team were maintained close & good relations the our peoples might encouraged the visitors for their play. We are all human and we need to learn for the happenings (both good and bad)

  • Pablo on October 22, 2007, 4:57 GMT

    So far the responses to Mr Kesavan's timely article have either been (a) the moronic 'They are racists so it is ok for us to be racists back'; or (b)the more reasonable 'one should not generalise about all Indian fans from the actions of a few bigots. As an Indian cricketer and a fan who has played and watched the game in India and England, I can assure you that racism and other forms of bigotry are present among significant numbers of Indians whether they are cricket fans or not. Those fans who were caught on camera in Mumbai were performing a racist action. All forms of racism should be legislated against, everywhere. People trying to excuse it, as opposed to analysiong it, are also aiding and abetting racism. No excuses. End of story.

  • jinesh on October 22, 2007, 4:44 GMT

    Mukul.it seems you are party to the rationale that aussies seek respect and dignity from fellow teams when they themselves are averse to part with it. Its travesty of justice at its very best. Australian allrounder Symonds by his churlish comments at the onset of the tour fomented trouble. It was not his domain to comment on Indias celebration upon Twenty twenty triumph or indian players appearance in television commercials.Its nobodys case that indian crowd is a bunch of saints but symonds well and truly played into their hands. The aussies are poor losers and its high time that indian media stop short of singing hosannas for white skin. Glancing through australian media reports during the unsavoury episodes its ludicrous how low levels they stoop to glorify their team and players. We too need to salvage pride for india and an young ,aggressive team promises just that. Kudos india.

  • ari on October 22, 2007, 3:50 GMT

    Indian crowds racist??? We only found a way to categorize entire communities and treat them like crap for 2000 years. We generalize populations and treat individuals like caricatures of that generalization. You don't believe this occurs, see what happens in a hotel or store owned by an indian when a black man enters. So those of you who still feel that these chants were not racist, try that in one of stadiums in America and see how many would make it out alive.

  • Nathan on October 22, 2007, 3:05 GMT

    It is disturbing to read the numerous responses here that condone and excuse racism when it is perpetrated by Indians. Racist comments are made by Australians at sporting events, but in Australia it is recognised as a problem by the organisers and attempts are made to stop it. Compare this is to the attitude of complete denial by many Indian fans and officials.

    It is also ridiculous that some comments here compare India and Australia by stating that India is a country where many various religions live side by side in peace, with the implication that this is not the case in Australia. We know the history of Hindus and Muslims in India, and there are no race riots in the streets of Australia as some seem to want to believe, so I do not see any validity in such comments.

    People also need to understand that merely being abusive or insulting, without mentioning race, colour or culture, does not equate to racism. It may not be nice but being confrontational does not make one a racist!

  • Sai on October 22, 2007, 2:29 GMT

    Wonderful article, Mr. Kesavan. What irks me most about some of the Indian fans is that they cite past racial abuse directed against them as reason to racially abuse another person. They are foolish to ignore that such abuse was directed against them by some ignorant white men (certainly not all), and not by black men! To racially abuse Symonds, whose ancestry appears to be partly black, is simply an act of cowardice of these characterless few. All said and done, Indian players in the past have held up admirably against hostile treatment dished out to them which have ironically spurred them to greater heights. Youngsters like Sreesanth ought to learn from the examples set by the heroic Rahul Dravids, VVS Laxmans and Sachin Tendulkars.

  • H on October 22, 2007, 2:25 GMT

    I very much support what all other guys have written above. The media is making a mess of the whole episode. I believe its foolish to think that making faces is racism. If that is the case - then all the people in the world are racists. Remember, all of us at some point of our life might have made faces towards our family member or friends. Was that wrong ? Was it racism? Come on Aussies and Media please grow up! Just dont make some small pranks a big issue. If at all there is racism - then the White people r practising it. Ofcourse we all know how umpire Hair treated asian players (that was a perfect racist behaviour). Yes - The masti at Mumbai could be a little bit under control. I agree with that. Remember, our players also will go abroad to play. Symonds provoked the Indians n he deserved it. I hope Aussies learn something now - They want to do all the talking,bullying,sledging etc- and they dont like it if someone gives it back to them. Pretty Childish! Thank Ven

  • No featured comments at the moment.