Many eyebrows were raised when just before the T20 match with Pakistan, the entire Indian cricket team ‘took the knee’ expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and making a ‘statement’ against racism. While the deracinated woke in India were all excited over this virtue signalling by Team India, most of the country was left wondering if this was some new kind of ritual before the team took to the field.
Later it transpired that the Men in Blue were instructed by their ‘management’ to ‘take the knee’. It isn’t however clear who instructed the ‘team management’—was it a sponsor that wanted this gesture made, did the diktat came from the BCCI, or was it the ICC that mandated it? If it was the ICC, then why didn’t the Pakistani team ‘take the knee’? Was it some kind of exceptionalism accorded to them, quite like Hashim Amla being allowed to not wear the brand of the team sponsor on his jersey?
Even as people were trying to make sense of the wokeism that was forced down the throat of Team India, which seemed to forget that it had a match to play and win, came another shocker. The star South African player Quinton de Kock chose to not play a match because he was expected to ‘take the knee’ before the Proteas match with West Indies commenced. There was a cloud hanging over his future as a cricketer, not because he is a racist—highly unlikely since he himself belongs to a ‘rainbow’ family—but because he refused to conform to a gesture or symbolism that he either didn’t identify with or was not comfortable with.
Quinton de Kock succumbed to the pressure and declared he would ‘take the knee’ in future. Clearly, the cancel culture has now infected cricket and how. Ironically, some of the strongest supporters of this woke cancel culture, at the heart of which is their particularistic politics, are also the very same folk who wax eloquent about how politics must not be mixed with sport.
That the ICC takes a very strong stand against racism is unexceptionable. But for the ICC or any cricket board to equate the fight against racism with an endorsement of Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and force people to adopt BLM gestures and symbols to show their commitment against racism is not just a travesty, but also tyrannical. It reflects a sort of totalitarianism—my way or the highway—that is antithetical to the democratic and liberal values that the ICC or any other cricket board claims to espouse. No one should be forced to ‘take the knee’ or support BLM to prove their anti-racist credentials. To link opposition to racism with BLM is like saying that unless you support the radical Antifa, you are a Fascist; or that unless you support a radical Dalit party you are a casteist; or that unless you support and defend a radical outfit like Popular Front of India, you are a communalist, and so on and so forth.
These binaries are very problematic, if not plain stupid. People can oppose something without necessarily conforming to or following what might be fashionable, or marketable or even the ‘done thing’. Forcing people to do this is no different than forcing people to shout ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as a proof of their patriotism. Different people have different ways of expressing their love for their country. Some people might feel uncomfortable screaming a slogan. This doesn’t mean they oppose the sentiment behind the slogan. Shoving conformity down people’s throat is a strange way to promote tolerance in society and in sport.
To reduce the struggle against racism to support for BLM is to dumb down the good fight. BLM is a movement which came up in a specific context in the US. It might find some resonance in a fringe crowd in countries like India—mostly woke kids and perhaps millennials who are either from elite schools where they know more about Upper East Side of New York than they know about East Delhi and whose only experience of a village is either Hauz Khas Village or Commonwealth Village, or come from more humble and less ‘connected’ backgrounds and feel that they need to ape the woke kids to fit in with the hip crowd in one of the metros. But for the vast majority of people, their problems and their struggles against the daily slights, injustices, discriminations, run-arounds given by petty officials are very different from what a coloured person in the US might be facing.
Being repulsed by something like the George Floyd murder doesn’t mean that someone has to support the arson, looting and violence on the streets that activists and opportunists associated with BLM indulged in. Of course, there were any number of self-loathing, virtue-signalling White folk in the US who defended the lawlessness on the streets, including the vandalising and pulling down of statues of historical figures. How come the same people who exult when the statue of a Robert E. Lee or a Churchill or even a Gandhi is pulled down or defiled, go apoplectic when a street named after a bigoted emperor is renamed in New Delhi or an ancient city’s name is restored in UP? The thing is that if the sins of forefathers have to be borne by their descendants, then why limit it to only race or colonialism; why not extend the same to the invading and proselytizing armies that forcibly converted people and carried out wars in the name of religion.
Talking of religion, how is it kosher for the ICC when there is an overt display of religiosity on a cricket ground? Yesterday it was a guy offering prayers during a drinks break; tomorrow there will be a demand that Friday prayers be allowed on the field. Or someone else could demand that a religious ceremony be conducted before or during a match. Where does this end? Where will a line be drawn?
Today we have Pakistani cricketers openly apologise to the entire Muslim world if they lose a match to India, or a wannabe commentator says how happy he felt seeing a Pakistani player offer Namaz in the middle of Hindus (virtually making the word Hindu sound like a slur or a cuss word), and yet the ICC allows this kind of undisguised bigotry to go through even as it forces people to ‘take the knee’? How does this work?
Tolerance and respect is a two-way street. There cannot be any exceptionalism for anyone on first principles. But this is precisely what has been happening on the cricket field. The ICC is going down a very slippery slope and the sooner it retraces its steps and depoliticises, nay detoxifies, the cricket field, the better it will be for the game. Otherwise, it will start to get enmeshed in all sorts of controversies that will escalate beyond its control.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.