Former West Indies cricketer Darren Sammy is on hold right now. He is waiting on some Indian cricketers, with whom he shared the dressing room as part of the Indian Premier League’s Sunrisers Hyderabad team in 2013-14, to reach out to him and explain whether “a word” they repeatedly used to refer to him and teammate Thisara Perera was meant “in any way, shape or form as a degrading word”.
Sammy should know it’s going to be a very long wait, if at all, for a call back, because Indians have self-certified themselves as non-racist. If the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal, wherein Harbhajan Singh allegedly called former Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds a ‘monkey’, is any indication, there won’t be any admission or apology.
In a video posted on Instagram, Darren Sammy said he now knows that the word his teammates called him — ‘Kalu’ — is “degrading” to Black people.
Kalu, Kallu, Kaliya, Kalua, or the many variations of the Hindi word, is a slur anyone in India with dark complexion has been called at least once in their lifetime. Many are even nicknamed as such, which allows Indians to defend their racism — “parents won’t be racist towards their own children now, would they?” That’s how inherent racism works. You don’t see it because you have internalised it.
But here’s the degrading bit that Darren Sammy doesn’t yet know, and therefore probably shouldn’t expect Indian cricketers to be forthright — a majority of Indian society doesn’t consider it racist to be racist. Kalu, and all its forms, are ‘loving’ names that Indians use for Black people or those with dark complexion. The famous character in the 1998 Bollywood film Satya was named ‘Kallu Mama’, along with a catchy song to remember it.
We don’t see the colourism in obsessively privileging ‘fair complexion’, because dark, after all, is ‘undesirable’ or ‘inferior’. Families want a ‘gori ladki (fair girl)’ for their sons to marry; Bollywood celebrities diligently endorse skin-lightening creams and the advertisements have mostly depicted women as victims disadvantaged because of their dark skin. Whenever African nationals living in India have faced a series of racially motivated attacks, politicians have either dismissed it or responded by conducting midnight raids on their homes. In April 2017, then BJP MP Tarun Vijay had said that calling Indians racist is the “most vicious thing”, because “we (Hindus) worship dark god, Krishna is dark”, and if Indians were racist, “why do we live with (South Indians)?”
The Hindu god Krishna is said to be dark, and yet you will be hard-pressed to find any image or iconography depicting him as such. Old portraits of both Ram and Krishna showed them to be either blue or green-skinned. Now even those colours have been done away with; both now have milky fair complexions.
So, you see Darren Sammy, the Indian cricketers you are expecting to ‘apologise’ to you for being racist most likely won’t. Racism is part of who we are as a society — and denial plays a huge role in this.
The pretence of a dichotomy
“Now come monkey between Kangaroo”. A poster with this slogan directed at cricketer Andrew Symonds, held over a huge Indian flag by the crowd at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai during an India-Australia ODI in October 2007, perhaps marks one of the worst chapters of racism in Indian cricket history. Four members from the crowd were kicked out of the stadium, and were later charged by the police with “misbehaviour and harassment”. It led historian Mukul Kesavan to comment: “A cricketing crowd in India is a seething mass of diverse prejudices and low-wattage racism is one of them.”
However, there was little mention of the incident in the Indian media, even as then Mumbai police commissioner reportedly defended the crowd’s racial chants as “praying to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman”.
Invoking gods is part of a pattern, it would seem. A safe recourse in uncomfortable scenarios, where admitting to ingrained biases becomes a necessity. But it only reflects another complex peculiarity of the Indian people. They are quick to cite India as “the land of Gandhi”, since he fought the Apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa, even as they completely whitewash his racist views towards Black people. At the same time, Gandhi is routinely demonised for supporting Muslims by those who use his legacy to wipe off all charges of racism in one stroke.
This obfuscation is what Darren Sammy will most likely witness from Indian cricketers, who aren’t known to stand up against racism when it plays out in their presence. When Sammy recalls how “there was always laughter in the moment” every time he was called the racial slur, one is reminded of the Indian cricket’s conduct during the ‘Monekygate’ scandal. Harbhajan Singh, according to Andrew Symonds and his teammates, used the ‘monkey’ slur against him during the Australian tour in 2008, just months after the ODI series in which Indian crowds, along with Harbajan, targeted Symonds.
Not only did then Indian manager Chetan Chauhan deflect the charges by using the old, battered argument of how “it was just not possible for (Indians) to be racist”, Sachin Tendulkar too had a “disappointing” role to play. Tendulkar first said that he hadn’t heard anything during the on-field exchange between Harbhajan and Symonds, and then, while testifying before the ICC panel, claimed that Harbhajan had used a Hindi abuse directed at Symond’s mother — because it’s okay to be a misogynist instead.
Time to speak up
A lot of people, including Darren Sammy’s former teammate Chris Gayle, have spoken up against racism since the cricketer posted the video. “They smile with you but yet they are against you/our race!! It’s never too late to stand up for what is right! Asian, where’s your support In racism?? Y’all get our support all the time!!” Gayle wrote in reply.
Sammy’s Sunrisers Hyderabad teammate and former Indian cricketer Irfan Pathan claimed that he was “not aware of any such incident”. But he did say that as a society “we still haven’t talked much about racism in India”, pointing out how players from South India “have to face chants based on their appearance when they travel up North”.
During a recent live video chat with cricketer Virat Kohli, Indian football captain Sunil Chhetri was racially profiled by an Instagram user, who wrote “Ye Nepali kon h (who is this Nepali)”.
Just proclaiming ourselves to be not racist, while proving our racism at every other instance, has to stop. Indians must confront when someone is called ‘Kalu’ or question their innate desire for ‘fairness’. And the confrontation has to start from our homes.
Children, don’t let your parents or anyone else call you ‘Kalu’ and don’t use such language on others. It is racism. There are no two ways of looking at it.
And Indian cricketers, Darren Sammy has given you an opportunity to come clean, acknowledge your deep-rooted racism and apologise. Take it.
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