Although Cricket has embraced modernity with open arms, the game still couldn’t evade its colonial history. Not many nations who hadn’t been former British colonies play this game. India, a dominant, over-resourced powerhouse of the game, has been a subject of the British Empire for over two centuries. As a result, cricket, just like police or bureaucracy or any other institutions, still reeks of its colonial characteristics, both on a personal and structural level: controlled by upper-caste elites, played by upper-caste, with few exceptions here and there, and personnel are obliged to pay lip service to the ruling ideology to reap rich rewards throughout the life.
Servility is admired; defiance is silenced, ridiculed, punished.
The current regime, headed by a megalomaniac, self-obsessed ruler, has never shied away from using different strands of culture to his own advantage. From cinema, arts, music to literature and architecture, BJP has been a constant presence in our daily life, grabbing every medium, every opportunity to impose their ideology on us. Cricket, and sports in general, is no different. In cricket, prime minister Narendra Modi has a perfect pitch to further his nationalistic agenda.
The palliative power of this game is unparalleled. Providing an escape mechanism from the humdrum of daily life, cricket has quickly emerged as a powerful arm of the establishment. It’s only logical that an activity that distracts the masses from the more pressing issue of politics is ought to be loved by the government.
And our cricketers, adored by millions, make up a perfect messenger. They never miss scoring opportunities to unleash their patriotic warfare on or off the field. Otherwise a mute spectator of the world outside the cricket stadium, they speak in unison when it comes to low-risk, high-reward performative activism like publicly flaunting patriotism on social media.
On February 2, pop star Rihanna tweeted a CNN article about the ongoing farmer’s protest in India. “Why aren’t we talking about this? #FarmersProtest”, she captioned. A mere six words tweet but certainly enough to take the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) by storm. Soon followed well-orchestrated tweets from a coterie of prominent cricketers asking the countrymen to stay united against vested interest.
More than two months of protest, 150+ death toll, enduring daily hardship of living in makeshift tents in the harsh, brooding winter of New Delhi couldn’t break cricketer’s deafening silence. But tweets from foreign celebrity and an environmental activist – Greta Thunberg- supporting the farmer’s protest shook them to the core. So much so that it injected a strange sense of responsibility upon the cricketers to protect the nation’s sovereignty.
With minorities bearing the brunt of Hindu majoritarian forces, underprivileged and toiling classes of government’s incompetence, the cricketers, instead of standing up for them, turned rightwards to please their political masters and preserve their status quo. One might argue that these cricketers don’t owe their voice to anyone. But this is wrong on so many levels. The game belongs to passive spectators as much as it does to the one who plays the game. It is the crowd that add meanings to otherwise what would be a pointless battle between two teams. In return, a mere statement condemning the state-sponsored violence on people is the bare minimum one expects from them.
It is the caste and class location of these prominent cricketers that shape up their servility and submissiveness to the power. Growing up in an upper-caste household, which forms the crux of BJP’s vote bank, it’s not surprising to see these superstars extending their allegiance to the Hindu-extremist party. It’s highly unlikely to think that they tweeted out of compulsion, out of fear of being ostracized and hounded by the government. They might have tweeted because they believe in the politics of the current government. Further, cricketers enjoy no less than a divine status in this nation; and they are almost immune to the evils of power.
When Jean-Paul Sartre was about to get arrested for participating in the civil disobedience movement in 1968, Charles de Gaulle, the then President of France, was quick enough to intervene and quipped “One does not jail Voltaire.” Among all things, even tyranny has its limit.
In a more local context, the creme de la creme of cricket icons is no less than what Sartre was for France at that time. Even the regime as ruthless in cutting out dissent as the present one will not commit the blunder of arresting Sachin Tendulkar. Or Virat Kohli. Or Rohit Sharma. Or Ajinkya Rahane. And a few others. They have power, position, influence, caste solidarity and a very loyal fandom cutting across the socio-economic identities; all of which makes it an incredibly uphill task for any government to silence them.
Frustratingly, what they don’t have is an awareness of their responsibility. Unlike minorities and activists and journalists, no judicial custody awaits them, neither a bogus charge of UAPA nor any meaningful consequences. They can speak truth to power without any repercussions.
Team India skipper Virat Kohli does video conference with Narendra Modi, heaps praise on the latter for demonetisation, a move that pushed millions of common citizens on their knees, but when asked to comment on the exclusionary citizenship bill, the sublimity of his words soon faded from a rapid staccato to an extremely glib response. He said that he won’t speak anything before understanding the nitty-gritty of the bill. As if his comments on demonetisation was backed by his solid grasp of economics.
It might be a bit harsh to single out Kohli when he is just another blot in the rotten landscape but his off-field antics most closely resembles the zeitgeist of Hindutva politics. Kohli thinks one should leave India and settle elsewhere for preferring Australian and English batsmen over the Indians. Isn’t this pretty similar to the government’s own modus operandi where anyone opposing the government is shamelessly told to “go to Pakistan”.
With the closely-knit social fabric of the nation loosening its grip each passing day, the cricketers will be remembered for their complicity, vacuousness, and most importantly, their camaraderie with far-right leaders. These sportspersons are not an individual but an entity in themselves, as satanic as our oppressors.
Ravi Raj is an independent journalist working on an intersection of sports, politics and culture.