With the advent of the thirteenth edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the country, whose love for the game of cricket knows no bounds, found its much-seeked, collective escape for more than a month and a half.
The notion of sport providing a hiatus from the hassles of our everyday life is certainly true, and for many sports aficionados, it’s indispensable. However, often such a notion becomes a segue for the faulty belief that sports exist away from the constraints and politics of the society, viz, in a vacuum.
Sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cups that yield global platforms are often known to be used as propaganda by the organising nation-state. The phenomenon of sportswashing – when countries or MNCs employ sports as a smokescreen to gain global legitimacy meanwhile hiding their violation of human rights – is also gaining more and more currency.
Beyond that, the identities attached to various teams and players and their actions are usually immersed in socio-politico-cultural context, and hence carry weight.
FC Barcelona, for instance, occupies a special and crucial position in the Catalan struggle in Spain. Closer to home, the hyper-nationalistic stance that cricket has attained heightens whenever there’s a match between India and Pakistan, especially in the coverage around it and on the social media. The examples where sports and politics intersect are certainly innumerous.
The Trinidadian historian, C. L. R. James once said: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” This timeless statement stands true for those who have (ignorantly) justified Ravindra Jadeja’s sword celebration and the constant invocation of his Rajputana pride, on the field as well as on his social media accounts, by arguing that ‘political incorrectness is a part of sporting culture’ or that he’s merely commemorating his culture.
Cricket stars – especially in our country – are worshipped. Their actions affect and influence multitudes, and hence, their conduct needs to be informed and ethical. What Jadeja did and continues to do by regularly talking about his ‘sword’ and referring to himself as #rajputboy is casteist and malicious because it lauds the supremacy of his caste which has been maintained through centuries of oppression and tyranny inflicted upon the marginalized and discriminated castes – a tyranny which, sadly, is still very prevalent.
Rather than condemning the act, Chennai Super Kings – the IPL franchise he represents – decided to reward the player for his performances over the years by gifting him an extravagant gold-plated sword before the inauguration of this year’s IPL.
While Jadeja deserves an honour for his on-field display, the choice of the award again comes across as obtuse in the scheme of things. Such insensitive acts not only normalise but also perpetuate the system that’s already ingrained in the minds of the masses including players like him.
Racism has obvious parallels with casteism, and one can only imagine how deplorable and disgraceful an act it would be if a White American athlete was to adore the Confederate flag – another symbol of subjugation like the Rajputana sword – after winning a game! Perhaps the millions of followers of Jadeja are unaware the sword so blatantly glorified in his post inextricably stands with the backdrop of multiple caste-driven atrocities committed by the Rajput community.
Moreover, on one hand, any discourse that tries to talk about caste in cricket and touches upon the idea of a potential need for reservation is vehemently brushed away. An appeal is made to not to politicise sports and keep caste away from cricket. On the other hand, players like Jadeja use their far-reaching, global platforms to showcase and flaunt their upper caste status. Such acts aren’t only ignorant and apathetic but also reek of denial of a certain societal privilege gained by the virtue of his caste.
The same apathy can also be seen in CSK’s act – an organisation that largely has top executives belonging to the savarna castes. Both the parties reap the benefits of their social privilege, yet deny its existence by choosing to act in the manner in which they did. A similar denial of caste privilege, the means in which it was acquired, and its historical basis is echoed in supporters who say that Jadeja was only celebrating his culture. This is inherently problematic when the culture being celebrated is built on the backbone of caste exploitation.
Caste and the resulting casteism ‒ casual or institutional ‒ is a reality of this nation and is, thereby, also mirrored in our sports. Yet, we treat caste like the worst kept secret in our circles. There is a mounting need to debunk that and call out such acts.
We love our sports and find excuses to analyse and celebrate them, and we have all the right to. However, this right to analyse should extend beyond the conveniently selective evaluation of the on-field technicalities of sport. Hence, it becomes our social responsibility to not put sports on a pedestal, and constructively start and sustain a conversation about their problematic elements in order to move towards a more equitable outlook in the field of sports.
Saurabh Nagpal is a third-year student studying English Literature at Hindu College, University of Delhi. He tweets @saurabhnagpal19. IG: @sportmelon_