Hockey India's anger over Sardar Singh investigation brings out ugliest bits of machismo, nationalism

By Sharanya Gopinathan

People love sports. Sports is great. It is important. But sports is not more important than serious instances of domestic violence and rape.

But that’s not at all what recent news reports would have you think. Last year, former Indian hockey captain Sardar Singh was accused in a serious case of rape and domestic violence involving his then-fiancé, a British-Asian hockey player (including an allegation that he forced her to abort her child). In numerous instances since then, this case has provided the perfect opportunity for Hockey India and the media to display their sexism in the way they treat him and the serious allegations — from highlighting his professional successes to asking him how he didn’t let “those issues” affect his game. And it isn’t over yet.

Indians have been uncharacteristically vocal in their appreciation of the Indian hockey team this week. That’s because the hockey team just provided the country with a nationalistic consolation prize by beating Pakistan at the Hockey World League (HWL) on the same day as the Indian cricket team's stupendous loss to Pakistan in the Champion’s Trophy final.

 Hockey Indias anger over Sardar Singh investigation brings out ugliest bits of machismo, nationalism

File photo of Sardar Singh. Reuters

There was lots of celebratory reporting around the hockey team’s win, and reports explaining why the players wore black arm bands during the match against Pakistan (to condemn attacks on Indian soldiers at the border).

What may have slipped through the cracks amongst this sudden discount-price hockey love is the fact that Sardar had been taken in for questioning by the UK police a few hours after that match, in an investigation into the domestic violence and assault cases against him. The media houses that did report on the incident focused on the Indian hockey officials’ anger at him being questioned in this case at this particular time. Mid-Day actually ran with the headline, “UK police questions Sardar Singh in sex assault case, team upset”.

“Team upset?” Oh, poor team!

Never mind that media houses think that the team feeling upset is worth sticking in their headline, isn’t it mind-boggling just what the team finds upsetting? The team was upset because he was called away for questioning in the middle of a tournament without being warned in advance. Neither said team nor Hockey India seemed too upset when they dismissed the domestic violence and rape charges against Singh as “a private affair between two individuals”, accused the victim of having a vendetta against Sardar, or when they recently decided to nominate him for the Khel Ratna, but apparently they’re feeling all the feelings now that the UK police didn’t schedule their investigation in a way that was conducive for Sardar to playing hockey conveniently.

Former Hockey India chief and current International Hockey Federation (FIH) president Narinder Batra took to Facebook to throw a minor tantrum over the fact that Sardar was called in for investigation. “I am saying this in my personal capacity that I condemn the move. How can you call an international athlete in the middle of a tournament without any prior information?” He also wondered why Sardar had not been called in for questioning 10 or 15 days prior to the tournament, postulated that the Indian High Commission wasn’t briefed about it beforehand, speculated on the outrage that would ensue if an English player was arrested on Indian soil, and went on to “request the Indian media to get the Ministry of External Affairs and Indian High Commission in UK involved”.

Then he quickly deleted the post from Facebook, maybe because he was worried he sounded like an imbecile, or because he was afraid of the repercussions (Hockey India cautiously distanced themselves from his opinion), or both. However, Batra told Hindustan Times that if the matter escalates, he will continue to be involved: “I cannot do anything in the capacity of FIH president. But, yes, as an Indian, I will do that 200 percent.”

So much upset and rage, so much brotherhood and solidarity. Doesn’t it sound like Batra believes that supporting the accused in a rape and domestic violence case, or at least saving him from inconveniently-timed investigations that interfere with his play time, is what he must do as an Indian. It’s certainly what he’s been doing over the years: this 2016 report by The Ladies Finger details how Hockey India “closed a protective wall around Sardar” after the allegations first came out.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a casualness in the way we deal with sports stars and their myriad sexisms, ranging from the uncomfortable to the heinous. In January 2016, West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle was in the news for asking a news reporter to go on a date with him (“Don’t blush baby,” as he infamously remarked) while being interviewed on live television, and five months later, followed it up with an interview in which he asked the interviewer how many black men she had “had”, and if she had ever had a threesome, and also informing her that he had the biggest bat in the world and that she would need two hands to lift it. Unsurprisingly, he went on to say gross things about gender roles (like how women should cook to please their man).

Even more sinister is the case of Brock Turner, a student at Stanford University who, in September 2016, was released from prison after serving half a six-month sentence for raping an unconscious woman on campus. The fact that he was a swimmer at an elite university had a role to play in his lenient sentence. Thankfully, USA Swimming, the body that selects Olympic athletes in that country, has banned Turner for life.

Hockey India, however, makes no such promises. Not even close. If anything, they’ve been doing the opposite from the get-go, to their belligerence in response to the Delhi Commission for Women’s (DCW) enquiries into the case, and Hockey India’s handling of it, to their tendency of victim-blaming, and to the new selective anger at Sardar being called in for questioning abroad in an ongoing investigation in the middle of a tournament.

There’s something particularly sickening about what this case brings up: the reactions to it seem to combine and encapsulate the ugliest parts of machismo and nationalism, and these are already pretty ugly words to begin with.

It’s really horrifying if the only thing the team management can think of right now is how bad it is that an Indian player was called in for questioning abroad at a time that was not favourable to competitive hockey. Never mind the fact that official police investigations don’t schedule themselves around hockey matches, or that investigations in cases of assault are far more important than any sport.

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women’s magazine delivering fresh and witty perspectives on politics, culture, health, sex, work and everything in between.

Updated Date: Jun 20, 2017 20:19:04 IST