Siraj took a valiant stand in Sydney. We should stand up to racism in Indian stadiums too
When you’re in Melbourne, you are bound to hear in detail, from various people you meet, why their city is better than Sydney.
Sydney-siders, on the other hand, seem content in their certainty of who’s winning that battle. They may have a point. Every time I’ve been in Sydney, the comparisons that come to mind are other great cities: I think of London. New York. Even Mumbai, especially if we’re talking about real estate prices.
I think of these places because they represent cultural melting pots of humanity (yes, even Mumbai). In London I’ve been invited to volleyball matches with strangers where no common language was spoken on court. In Mumbai I’ve bonded with cricketers hailing from different faiths and all corners of our country. And in Sydney I’ve felt more at home than most other Australian cities, partly because of the diversity of cultures I saw around me. One minute you’re strolling through downtown admiring the University of Sydney’s architecture. The next, you’re in Chinatown with its buzz of restaurants and heady aromas; then you’re tucking into pani puri, chatting in Hindi, and missing and feeling at home at the same time.
Sport integrates you into society, especially in Australia. Ask Marnus Labuschagne (emigrated from South Africa). Ask Lisa Sthalekar (look up her incredible life story!).
So, it’s no surprise that Australian sport, and Sydney sport, can be even more inclusive than their society. You can see it in their most visible cricket clubs: Sydney Sixers were the first BBL club to host a Pride Party weekend, promoting participation in sport from the LGBTQ community. And the opening game of the T20 Women’s World Cup last year, Sydney Olympic Park had more Indian supporters than Australian, located as it is in a suburb where many migrant families reside.
But the melting pots are also where the flashpoints occur most often, as the Sydney Test reminded us. While it is yet to be determined exactly what was said to Mohammed Siraj and Jasprit Bumrah, it was serious enough for an official complaint, a stoppage in play and an eviction.
Multicultural cities allow opportunities for an expansion of perspectives. Imported traditions mingle with those of the adopted land. Borders are blurred and passports are many coloured. Multiple loyalties find space to coexist within one person and one community. This expansion threatens those who resent a change in established order, who see it not as an invitation to grow, but as an invasion of what they know. And in response to this expansion comes the most reflexive form of reduction: racism.
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Racism seeks to reduce a human being to their physical attributes. Dark or light skin. Narrow eyes. Broad lips. As if the person’s entire being, his or her humanity, is defined by a set of physical features.
It is a sign of the evolution of Indian identity that Mohammed Siraj had the courage to stop play, rather than ignore the jibes, as Ashwin confirmed later, that generations of Indian cricketers have before. It is also a sign of the world we live in, that last year seemed to have passed an inflection point in its tolerance for racism.
While all of India is looking enviously at the Australian spectators, watching live sport seems a distant reality for us. Irrespective of whether the slurs were racial, it is clear that some spectators are taking their privileges for granted. The coming investigation will provide answers, but also raise questions: Where should we draw the line on what is acceptable? Racism is certainly not, but is non-racist abuse alright?
It’s a tricky question, especially considering the behaviour of Indian fans in stadiums. I remember playing a game for India where a teammate asked me to swap places with her, because the sparse crowd on the boundary line was heckling her. If crowds are allowed into the stadiums when England men tour India, we would not be left with too many people if we evicted every spectator who hurled abuse at a player.
Having seen the Indian cricket community rise up as one against the errant fans, I hope we’re also as accountable when we hear dark skinned team-mates nicknamed ‘kaaliya’ or a white skinned player called ‘gora’. Racism in India is more casual, and probably more pernicious, than in Australia. It’s laughed off by perpetrators as harmless, shrugged off by victims with self-deprecation. But as comedian Hannah Gadsby said in ‘Nannette’: “You do understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it's humiliation.”
I’ve seen it. I might even have been unthinkingly guilty of it in the past. There is only so much we can do about the old guard and their old ways. But the world has changed. And we, the next Indian generation, must too.