To the wider fan community, silence from their heroes on a subject close to their heart could be interpreted as an endorsement of an opposite position
Over the last month, India’s celebrity sportspeople, particularly its superstar cricketers, have regularly been asked to take a position or offer their views on the protests over a controversial citizenship law that are sweeping the country.
The protests have largely been led by students, who have one thing in common with many of the country’s elite athletes: their demographic. Their ages are approximately those of Rishabh Pant, badminton player PV Sindhu, wrestler Bajrang Punia, table tennis player Manika Batra, and those of the average Indian sports fan as well. While the protesting students might not be looking for endorsement or approval from the country’s sporting heroes, the more sedentary fans seem to want their idols to Take a Stand. The silence of the superheroes annoys them.
Many years ago, in weighing in on this issue of athletes being outspoken on contemporary political issues, former Australia cricket captain Ian Chappell said that, in his view, current players were better served by keeping some distance from burning topics. An endorsement of any one cause could attract an avalanche of issues looking for a star’s support. The athlete would be pulled in a dozen directions, their attention drawn away from their essential work, and impacting their sport, which they could ill afford in careers that are typically short, compared to other professions. Post-retirement however, Chappell said, it became about using the platform that one’s reputation as a sportsperson affords in favour of a cause close to their heart. For Chappell himself, that was refugee rights. He was once appointed the representative of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Australia.
The number of those from the sporting community - apart from those with open political affiliations - who have spoken out on their social media platforms about the issues that have provoked the current protests in India is few. Under ten so far.
It began with Winter Olympian Shiva Kesavan, who was followed by footballers CK Vineeth and Darren Caldeira, and badminton player Jwala Gutta.
From cricket there came Irfan Pathan, Aakash Chopra and Harbhajan Singh. Sanjay Manjrekar appreciated Mumbai’s support for those at the receiving end of violence at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and commentator Harsha Bhogle wrote in a Facebook post about “a young India speaking to us”.
To the wider fan community, silence from their heroes on a subject close to their heart could be interpreted as an endorsement of an opposite position. A Twitter exchange between Ajinkya Rahane and Sachin Tendulkar over vada pao was roasted online for being flippant at a time of great upheaval in the streets. Social media is like the information age’s trial room from hell. There is a camera, a 360-degree mirror, and the lights are always switched on. The world gets to see what clothes or disguises are being put on or taken off.
The first public statements from cricketers about the student protests came from former players - the national team coach Ravi Shastri and former captain Sunil Gavaskar. Shastri asked fans to be “patient” and “think Indian”, saying he saw “plenty of positives in the long run”, saying he was “sure” the government had given the new citizenship laws thought, and that everything depended on “implementation”. Gavaskar’s opening remarks at the 26th Lal Bahadur Shastri Memorial Lecture in Hyderabad said the country was in “turmoil” - because “some of our youngsters are out on the street when they should be in their classrooms. Some of them are ending up in hospitals for being out on the streets…” Gavaskar said the country needed to “pull together as one” and that it had “overcome crisis” in the past and would “overcome this and emerge a stronger nation”.
A few years ago, his son Rohan recalled an incident during the communal riots in Mumbai in 1993, when Gavaskar, looking out of a window in his apartment saw that a hate mob had cornered a Muslim family. Gavaskar rushed down to confront the would-be assailants. Rohan said, “He told the mob, ‘Whatever you are going to do to that family, you are going to do to me first’, and then better sense prevailed and the family was allowed to go on its way.”
To those who had grown up admiring Gavaskar in his prime, it’s what sporting heroes were meant to be made of. That story validated our fandom.
Maybe, as one online comment said, the superstars weren’t even being asked for their opinion by the sports media, wary of being denied its most precious commodity from celebrities - access.
In order to make sure that cricketers, who are the biggest sports icons in the country, were indeed asked what they thought, I messaged a clutch of recently retired Indian cricketing gods, asking for a comment on the student protests and the police action against the protestors.
The replies came from VVS Laxman, on his way to a T20I in Pune, Rahul Dravid, on his way back from India’s Under-19 tour of South Africa, and Harbhajan. Laxman spoke about freedom of expression, Harbhajan about the importance of talking to each other, and Dravid about the importance of listening.
Harbhajan was the most eloquent. Violence, he said, was not going to solve anything. “No problem is solved by fighting… With lathi charges here and there, they need to understand we are only hitting each other… We say India is our home. This is our home and this is a situation where brother and sister are protesting for something. They have a few demands but by doing this [violence] nothing can happen.
“People need to sit down, the authorities need to come forward and understand that our children are being hurt. You can’t be hard-hearted about this and say, ‘Inko pad rahi hai toh pad rahi hai.’ [It’s okay if they’re getting beaten.] Authorities need to sit down with the students, and students need to also understand to respect the authority.
“We have issues in our family also, but we don’t start hitting each other, you know. Chhodo dharam-varam, woh sab baad main. [Forget religion and things like that, that is all for later.] All of us belong to this country, why are we destroying each other? It is not as if someone from outside has come and is fighting with us. We are fighting with each other, we are spilling blood, we are destroying what is ours. This is not the kind of picture we want to show the world. This is our home, India is our home.”
Dravid said, “Having violence in university campuses is not an ideal situation. There are always going to be varied opinions. My view on this is that we must listen. We are not listening enough to people on both sides. I think we do a lot of talking, [but] we don’t listen enough, we don’t listen to other people.
Laxman said, “freedom of expression in a peaceful and non-violent way” is “something that is fundamental [to] our democracy. The strength of our democracy is that everyone should be able to express their opinion in a peaceful and non-violent manner. And it’s important that individual views should be respected. I always feel that our youth of today are our future.”
The Indian government and the superstar athlete have always been locked in a clumsy embrace. In Olympic sport, athletes are employed by public-sector bodies. Cricket is peppered with political patrons in official positions. Over the last month official law enforcement, armed, has lined up against protesting young Indians. The situation is awkward for the superstar athlete weighing up the consequences of taking sides between rulers and ruled. —Cricinfo