Indian cricket's refusal to acknowledge caste privilege cannot mask reality of its pervasiveness

The Indian cricket community views itself as being a part of a post-caste sport that functions solely on merit.

Kieran Lobo November 05, 2020 10:00:52 IST
Indian cricket's refusal to acknowledge caste privilege cannot mask reality of its pervasiveness

REUTERS/File photo of Indian cricket team in 2019

Since the 14 September rape and subsequent death of a Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, India has seen widespread protests against caste-based atrocities and institutionalised discrimination. However, when Mumbai Indians’ Hardik Pandya took a knee during an Indian Premier League match on 26 October, it was in support of the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement (which gained global attention after the killing of George Floyd in the US this May). Pandya’s decision to support a movement against racial injustice, while remaining silent on caste-based atrocities in India, is reflective of his caste privilege and reveals a hypocritical performative engagement with “popular” social justice movements in the West.

It would be unfair to solely blame Pandya. The Indian cricket community is complicit by their failure to call out the hypocrisy in his actions or to publicly comment on the #DalitLivesMatter movement. This is ultimately unsurprising, given that they, for a long time now, view themselves as being a part of a post-caste sport that functions solely on merit. This is reflective of a privileged Indian upbringing, where caste is not necessarily addressed within the family unit and outside, with the belief that they live in a caste-free society if they do not speak about it or actively discriminate. Therefore, if they do not “see” caste, it does not exist.

This reluctance to recognise caste privilege has been recently reflected by cricket players in the public sphere: Sachin Tendulkar posted pictures of him wearing the “Janeu,” a thread worn by Brahmin males that is considered a symbol of oppression; Ravindra Jadeja wields swords to emphasise that he is a "Rajput boy;” while Yuvraj Singh was recently criticised for flippantly referring to his former teammate Yuzvendra Chahal as “Bhangi,” and later claimed he did not have any knowledge of the caste implications.

Why is Indian Cricket so Caste-blind?

Even when the cricketing fraternity is questioned on the upper caste composition of the team and administration, they flatly reject any notion of a bias, even though only four Dalits — Eknath Solkar, Karsan Ghavri, Vinod Kambli, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar — have previously played international test cricket for the country. How then, does Indian cricket sees itself as a “post-caste” sport? One reason could be that India’s Dalit cricketers have refrained from publicly commenting on their caste, either to emphasise their “Indianness” and professionalism above all else or because they did not believe in, or see, an upper-caste hegemony in the sport. Either reason reveals deep structural issues in making cricket accessible to socially underprivileged classes.

The belief that cricket is indeed casteless is reinforced by the sport’s stalwarts. Saurav Ganguly’s comment that one must “look beyond surnames” in cricket administration takes a narrow opinion of how merit is earned, while Harsha Bhogle has flatly denied caste playing any role in the selection process, saying that he was unaware as to what proportion of the Indian population were Brahmins — if he did, he would recognise the gross imbalance. But perhaps no one emphasises the post-caste nature of the sport more than Sunil Gavaskar, who takes a dim view on how socioeconomic realities shape one’s destiny: A Brahmin by birth, Gavaskar as a baby in hospital was accidentally exchanged with the child of a fisherman. By his own admission, he could have very well been an “obscure fisherman,” but instead grew up to be one of India’s finest cricketers. Ironically enough, he still claims that caste-based privilege has “no influence at all” in selecting the best cricket players. Nevermind that his uncle, Madhav Mantri, also played for the Indian cricket team. Ravi Shastri, too, considers the dominance of Brahmins in cricket a coincidence. “It's just that you are good enough to play for your country, and that's why you are picked,” he says. Ugly instances, such as when Kambli was heckled with abuse and caste slurs after performing poorly, are brushed under the rug. Observers then attempted to downplay the situation by claiming the insults were only racist in nature, inadvertently underlining the deep prejudices in Indian society.

The savarna nature of the cricket team is reflected across the cricketing landscape. While there may be numerous talented cricketers in rural areas, few have the resources to pursue the sport as an occupation. Proper equipment and access to coaching is almost exclusively available in urban centres, and both are morbidly expensive. Even if someone from the disadvantaged classes were to make it to an established centre, the lack of a support structure could be reason enough to drop out. Males typically tend to be the sole breadwinners of families that are socially and economically marginalised, and do not have the luxury of devoting all their time to training (even if transferring to urban areas is possible). Thus, they often face the societal pull of being forced to return home and take care of the family. In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly 50 percent of the Indian cricket team consisted of players from the cities of Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Kolkata. While this number has reduced to 39 percent since the 1990s onwards, this is more due to the “small town” revolution — increased urbanisation of tier II and tier III cities—rather than the adoption of inclusive policies meant to encourage budding cricketers at the lowest levels. The argument of meritocracy, therefore, is moot, because promising players are unable to even showcase their skill.

Additionally, corporate patronage of cricket in India has historically also played a defining role in entrenching upper caste domination. Companies hire promising players and support their sports careers, while ensuring they receive gainful employment once they retire from the sport. However, conditions for corporate patronage have been restrictive: apart from concentrating the development of cricket infrastructure in urban areas, cricketers’ “employability” was judged based on their education level, meaning that the better-off benefitted from such sponsorship.

Moving Forward, is Reservation the Answer?

Pushing the trope of merit, Salil Tripathi, a noted journalist, has argued that choosing a caste-based squad results in a substandard team: “Choose someone for reasons other than merit and the wrath of a billion people visits the selection committee,” he says. This doesn’t factor in, however, that nearly 17 percent of India’s population is Dalit, and close to 80 percent is Bahujan. Many of them would like role models they can relate to. For Dalit, Adivasi, and other minority lives to truly matter to the sporting elite, there needs to be fairer representation.

More importantly, a selection quota — and there are ways to implement one — does not mean an inferior team. The case for reservation in national sports to increase diversity is perhaps best made by the South African Cricket team. By implementing a racial quota, the playing 11 must include six players of colour, of whom two must be Black. While criticisms of a “talent drain” have been levelled at the South African administration, the team is consistently placed in the top six of ICC rankings, marginally below India. Moreover, the racial quota has forced a change of cricketing structures at lower levels, where previously most cricketers came from a handful of elite, white-dominated secondary schools. These have since opened up to accept more black students — thereby breaking through the class and income barrier. In India, the quota debate has been previously brought up by Union Minister Ramdas Athawale in 2017, when he called for 25 percent reservation for Dalits and Adivasis in cricket and other sports.

While the nature of a reservation quota would need to be debated by an expert body, at the very least it would lead to better Dalit representation in the domestic cricket circuit. Already, the positive effect of reservations can be seen in the composition of India’s women’s cricket team, which went on to reach the world cup finals in 2017. The women’s team, which draws from support provided by state bodies — namely the Indian Railways — consists of several Bahujan women. This can be put down to the fact that women’s cricket in India is largely dependent on inter-railway tournaments. Consequently, 10 out of 15 players in the 2017 squad were employed by the Indian Railways. Here, reservations in employment organically led to a more diverse team, dispensing with the notion that Bahujan players are not “good enough.”

A level playing field, therefore, can go a long way towards ensuring equal and fair representation in the sporting world, and in repealing our inherent caste biases. It is to be hoped, then, that activism against racial inequalities in America can find a little space for advocating for such a level playing field here at home.

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