‘You guys know who you are,’ Darren Sammy’s resounding voice made it clear that he wasn’t messing around and that it came from a place of hurt and confusion.
The recent cold-blooded murder of an African-American man named George Floyd by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, sparked mass protests and outbursts in multiple cities across the US and its domino effect reached many cities across the world. Discussions and protests on not tolerating racism any longer are now leading the way.
Racism, as a form of discrimination, abuse and social indignation has existed since time immemorial in some way or the another in society. There are barely any sections and spheres of living that they haven’t permeated to, and its toxic hold still grapples the world. The impacts and consequences of racism can take a severe toll on the lives and mental health of individuals and it is a grave danger to the existence of a healthy ecosystem.
In the aftermath of the Patriot Act episode where Hasan Minhaj talked about racism in the eastern part of the globe, Darren Sammy found out, in a horrifying realisation that he had been a victim of casual racial abuse during his IPL stint with Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2013 and 2014. The Saint Lucian cricketer took to social media to complain that he had been called ‘kaalu’ by both fans and his own teammates in India. It was only after watching that episode that Sammy discovered that the word did not mean ‘a strong stallion’ as he had previously thought, but had serious racial undertones.
Following this, cricket fans were quick to unearth posts where Indian pacer Ishant Sharma used that racial slur for Sammy in the caption of a picture of the West Indian, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Dale Steyn and himself from 2014. Ishant hasn’t commented on the matter yet and while former teammates of Darren at Sunrisers, Parvez Rasool and Irfan Pathan, denied having any knowledge of such an incident, the left-handed all-rounder did point at the seeds of racism at the ground roots level in domestic cricket in India.
“I have seen some issues in domestic cricket where our brothers from South India have to face chants based on their appearance when they travel up north. I think the real issue is education and society needs to learn.”
“We still haven’t talked much about racism in India. Sometimes we even call names to our brothers and sisters from the northeast. This problem is deep-rooted and will only go away when we start educating our sons and daughters and that needs to start with proper schooling and parenting,” said Pathan.
This exposes the light on something that isn’t discussed as much as it should be. We love to talk about racism and injustice, but only when it happens in the West. Racial abuses are casually passed off as banter here, and in most cases isn’t even taken seriously as a vice that needs immediate curbing.
In his Instagram Live chat with Rohit Sharma, former superstar and poster boy of Indian cricket, Yuvraj Singh made a casual casteist remark at Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Chahal calling them ‘bhangi’ and accusing them of being jobless. Sure, it was banter between individuals who know each other but that is also the point: where do we draw the line between a joke and malice? What example is being set forth to millions of followers watching it live? And more importantly, what does the refusal to accept criticism on it say about it?
Yuvraj’s response to the criticism on his remark by shrugging his shoulder and feigning a non-apology in PR speak is exactly the problem we’re dealing with in India, in Asia and in the sporting sphere that needs as much address as sharing a black picture for #BlackLivesMatter on Instagram to fit in with the trend.
If we don’t even attempt to understand how racist and colourist remarks are discriminatory and an issue that needs to be dealt with instead of passing it off as banter as a reflex, we can never really get to the root of the problem and solve it once and for all. Racism and colourism are so commonplace here in India, that it was hard not to miss questions like, ‘What’s wrong in calling a black person black?’ in the context of Darren Sammy’s frustrations.
The BCCI and its Committee of Administrators were called to the fore to ensure sensitivity training in light of the lewd remarks made on women by Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul in the Koffee with Karan episode and while that incident was blown out of proportion, Indian cricket’s highest governing body’s silence on the matter now is telling. It’s been a week since Darren Sammy’s allegations against the IPL and at the moment of writing, the BCCI and the IPL are yet to comment on the matter, let alone investigate and take strict action. And not a single Indian superstar from the current team has come out to empathise with the former West Indian cricket.
Like Sammy most recently tweeted, his motive right now is to educate and use this opportunity to let people know that it’s not okay to use colourist remarks on someone. And that is what we truly need at this point.
I can’t help but wonder about the opportunity that cricket in India missed so bluntly and ended up making one blunder after the other during the infamous Monkeygate scandal in 2008. Words were exchanged between Harbhajan Singh and Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds during the gritty eighth-wicket partnership during the second Test in Australia. Harbhajan had allegedly taunted Symonds with the word ‘monkey’.
The context must also be added behind this that Indian crowd had racially abused Symonds during ODI matches in Vadodara and Mumbai in 2007. He was jeered and monkey chants were hurled at him and not only did the Indian media vilify the Tasmanian, but they also went to lengths to defend monkey chants as not being racially derogative, all the while as the BCCI remained silent and refused to take any action.
In the 2008 incident, match referee Mike Proctor found Harbhajan guilty of offences related to racism but during the hearing, Harbhajan defended himself by claiming that he did not have any knowledge of the English language and manager Chetan Chauhan argued that it was ‘impossible for Indians to be racist.’ In his 2018 book, Proctor later revealed that Sachin Tendulkar who was part of that eighth-wicket partnership with Harbhajan did not offer any evidence in relation to the incident.
Harbhajan was banned by Proctor for three matches and that is when it got completely out of control and descended into chaos. As was his right under the ICC Code of Honour, Harbhajan appealed the decision but the Indian team threatened to walk out of the tour. In the appeals-hearing, Sachin backtracked on his comments and offered that ‘Teri maa ki’ was misheard as ‘monkey’ which led to Justice John Hansen of the ICC to dismiss the charge because of a lack of evidence.
The entire response to this was to treat the incident as a question of national integrity and not once did Indian media, the Indian team or the BCCI decide to take the moral high ground and set a template for political correctness. In the end, the suspension of the ban was celebrated as a huge ‘win’ for the country and we lost a glorious opportunity to teach young fans of the sport that racism shouldn’t be taken so casually.
Harbhajan got away with it easily after a cover story was made up and Sachin’s international fame and credibility was used to secure the victory. Andrew Symonds’ career virtually ended since that incident as he descended into a spree of alcoholism from the resulting depression of being led down by the system.
Symonds later revealed that Harbhajan did apologise to him when the duo were playing for Mumbai Indians in 2011 but for most Indian fans, that went unnoticed because all we remember is that we ‘won’ against Cricket Australia. That moment, if utilised better, could’ve set up a more vivid example for Sammy’s teammates in Sunrisers, including Ishant who was 19 at the time and on tour, to realise.
Chris Gayle recently spoke about how racism is prevalent in cricket as much as in football and it’s time we accept that the sport isn’t immune to it. From Dean Jones calling Hashim Amla ‘a terrorist’ because of his looks to Sarfaraz Khan calling Andile Phelukwayo ‘kaala’, discrimination based on religion, colour, caste and race permeates the game we love and the onus is on the governing bodies that function for the ‘supposed’ betterment of cricket to now lead the way.
Hefty financial sanctions and bans are not the answer to racism and as Michael Holding said, ‘it’s the plaster on the sore’. And while talking about the Amy Cooper incident in New York that went viral recently, Holding made a crucial point: the white woman genuinely believed she was doing the right thing by calling the police on an African-American man because that was the first thought that went into her head.
It is this deep-rooted issue of non-understanding that is the most dangerous head on the serpent and needs to be tackled responsibly. In his magnificent piece, It’s time we South Asians understood colourism is racism, Cricinfo Editor-in-Chief Sambit Bal writes, “We must first widen the scope beyond Sammy and Sunrisers Hyderabad. We are at an extraordinary moment in history where a black man being publicly choked to death by a figure of authority has not only sparked worldwide mass outrage, but has also created a heightened sense of awareness about discrimination on the basis of colour, and led to the re-examination of a wide range of social behaviours.”
“It can’t be emphasised more that racist utterances are no longer about intent, because intent is so organically and inextricably loaded into the words themselves that it is no longer acceptable to explain them away with “It was not intended to be racist, or to cause hurt or offence.” It’s for all of us to internalise, more so for public figures: offence not meant is not equal to offence not given or received.”
We are at a unique juncture in modern history, where slave traders and renowned racists regardless of the stature of their personality like Winston Churchill are now being denounced, and where white, black and people of all colour and origin and faith are now marching together and confronting an arcane and messed up system of social discrimination. Cricket, for its part, must not lag behind and needs to catch up as well. And the first step in order to do that is to accept everything that is wrong and to have a dialogue.
More men like Darren Sammy need to come to the fore and make us open our eyes and set the bar for re-education and reexamination, especially more so for our heroes, who we consider as role models and flag bearers of the sport. They, more so than ever, need to take a step back from their performative activism and need to truly educate and sensitise themselves on matters that plague the world.
The threat of toxic racism and colourism won’t go away in a single day. It is upon us to ensure that the outrage right now isn’t a temporal and that we do not go back to ‘normal.’