Irfan Pathan, the former India cricketer, is talking about racism. More specifically, he is talking about his experiences with racism in Indian domestic cricket; how players in teams from South India would get called names when they played in the West or North of the country. Or how teams or players from the East of India are referred in a way that suggests they come from another country.
“It is not good to call them by such names,” he tells Huffington Post in a phone interview. “But because [people] want to have fun, they do it. The awareness is not there. We have to be aware of it. When we go abroad we talk about people who are racist towards us, but then we do the same thing. In that case, what is the difference between us and them?”
Over the past six or seven months, Pathan has been vocal on social issues such as racism, especially on Twitter, where he has 5.1 million followers. “I want to create positivity and awareness. They both go hand in hand. If you are not aware of certain things, you cannot be positive about them. That is the reason that I have started speaking up.”
This makes him something of an outlier in Indian sport. Some countries, such as the United States, have a long history of athletes addressing racial and social issues. As the Black Lives Movement roils the USA, athletes from all sports, and of all colours, have spoken up in support of the movement.
In India, however, barring a few exceptions (such as Bishan Bedi), the good and great among the country’s sportsmen and women have a long history of staying quiet. Even as protests against the CAA spread across the country late last year, and riots broke out in Delhi in January, only a very small group of India’s athletes offered their views on what was happening in their own backyard.
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Pathan was among those who waded into the toxic swamp of social media by drawing attention to the safety of students at Jamia Millia Islamia after the Delhi police entered the campus and clashed with students in December. He would tweet about JNU in January too.
Notice how he doesn’t throw around accusations or question anyone’s motives. That’s deliberate. “I think about what I need to write. I want to make sure I say the right thing but I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings,” he says.
He received plenty of support but the trolls were quick to pounce too. The negativity surprised him. “They are our students and if I am raising a concern about their security, there is nothing wrong in it.” He points out that students from all faiths study at Jamia, not just students from one faith. “People misunderstood that,” he says.
Regardless, his comment got people talking and that’s what he wanted. “Someone has to do it, right? If I am the guy who starts it, why not? I can take the first wicket.”
His father’s son
The other influence for Pathan’s outspokenness is the example set by his father. “It has to do with character as well,” he says. “Me and my brother [Yusuf], whatever we did, the way we lead our lives, it is because of our upbringing by our father.”
Mehmood Khan was a muezzin in Vadodara and the family lived in the mosque until Pathan was 19. According to him, their father taught them to always be honest and not compromise their integrity, adding with a laugh that his father remains the boss in their house.
Pathan goes on to tell a story that illustrates how his father was always trying to bring people together. When Pathan first played for India at the tender age of 19, visitors would arrive at the mosque early in the morning wanting to meet him. One day his father woke him up at 7 am to say that pundits from a temple in the city had arrived. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about your sleep because you need their wishes. I think they have come to invite you to their temple. You should go and if you go, take prasad from here.’ These are the teachings I have from my father. I went to the temple and I gave the prasad and they ate it also.”
Pathan isn’t just a Twitter warrior either. He and Yusuf have donated food and face masks during the pandemic lockdown. He also donated Rs 25,000 to a cobbler in Chennai who had lost his income when the IPL was cancelled, a gesture Pathan wished to keep private, but word got out on social media anyway.
“The good of the country”
Despite his surprise at the reaction to his comments on Jamia, Pathan is not naïve about how social media functions. He understands that there are those who benefit from what he terms negativity. “People say don’t pay attention to those paid media accounts but those accounts are being handled by someone, right? It is coming from somewhere.”
If the pushback was intended to force him to retreat, then it has not worked. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. “If there was not so much abuse towards me, possibly I would not have said as much. But now I will keep talking because I know this is better for my country.”
What’s good for his country comes up often during our conversation. He wants people to know he is speaking as an Indian citizen who wants to make the country better for everyone. “India is an amazing country. If we keep talking about it, keep respecting each other, and keep being aware of it, I have no doubt in my mind that nobody can stop India from becoming one of the best countries in the world. We have all the resources – youth, smartness, intelligence. Anywhere you go in the world, you will find an Indian in a top job.”
He is confident that there are more people who are receptive to his message than those who oppose it. That’s why he says the way to counter hateful propaganda is to keep getting your point across but without using foul or hurtful language. “You can reply in a nice way where you don’t add fuel to the fire,” he says. And, of course, don’t react to everything. “Sometimes you have to leave it like in cricket you would leave a ball that is swinging away from you.”
One issue that Pathan has met with the full face of his bat, so to speak, are the allegations of racism in Indian cricket by former West Indies captain Darren Sammy that emerged earlier this month. Pathan even had the temerity to equate discrimination on the basis of skin colour to discrimination on the basis of religion.
Again, he received plenty of support but more vitriol as well, which is why he followed it up with another tweet that he hoped would get people thinking and talking about the issue in a different way:
“I had no intention to write that but when I saw all the comments, I felt people need to understand that We live in a house - our country - and we all need to come together,” Pathan says. “Being an Indian, I am talking about it for the good of the country. I don’t have anything to gain. To be honest, I have everything to lose when I am talking about these issues.”
The silence is a problem
Having something to lose is the main explanation offered for the silence of India’s sporting icons. In an article for The India Form, titled Why aren’t our sports celebrities speaking out?, Sharda Ugra points out that India’s political-sports-industrial complex is set up to keep a lid on the athletes.
It’s an argument that Pathan is sympathetic too as well. While he doesn’t want to speak for anyone but himself, he says a lack of job security is probably the main concern for athletes, almost all of whom depend on their respective sports federations for their careers, and the government for a job.
He gives the example of a cricket commentator, believed to be Harsha Bhogle, who lost his contract because a film star [Amitabh Bachchan] tweeted that the commentator was praising India’s opposition too much. “As a commentator, you have to be balanced. You can’t have a blind eye. We all want our team to grow but not praising the other team is not sportsmanship,” Pathan says. If merely doing your job is cause for removal, the message is clear: shut up and fall in line or else.
We all want our team to grow but not praising the other team is not sportsmanship
Craig Foster, the former Australia football captain and human rights advocate is less sympathetic to such an argument. Foster led a successful campaign to free Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi from prison. Hakeem had been living as a political refugee in Australia since 2014 but was detained by Thailand in November 2018 on Bahrain’s request. “If we each stay silent, in our safe zone and do nothing for others, the world will continue to decline in democratic freedoms, and universal human rights,” Foster said.
He points out that athletes, like any other citizen, must make their own choices. Some may feel an obligation to advocate for social issues, while others may not be as socially conscious. But there is a cost if an athlete chooses silence. “If those with a public platform, borne of the support of millions of people who often are without a voice, decide not to act but rather remain passive observers as others suffer, then not only does history say that silence is complicity, but something is lost from the very essence of sport.”
In Foster’s view, sport stands for “equality, opportunity and the search for excellence”. So even if lending their voice to an issue is a personal choice, when athletes have an opportunity to speak up for those in society who lack this equality, they have a responsibility to do so.
The example of Marcus Rashford, the 22-year-old Manchester United forward, shows the impact an athlete can have. Rashford was instrumental in getting the British government to reverse its decision to stop providing vouchers for free lunches to children stuck at home because of the pandemic. Rashford did this by publishing an open letter on social media asking the government to reconsider and continuing to campaign even after the government’s initial refusal to do so. By calling attention to the issue, Rashford helped generate significant media coverage, which, coupled with political pressure, forced Boris Johnson’s hand.
Foster does acknowledge the pressure that sporting bodies can put on athletes but argues that the strongest athletes can push back and others have the advantage of strength in numbers. “Collectivism delivers better conditions, important conversations and advancement of society through public campaigns,” Foster said.
Around the world more and more athletes are realising the truth of Foster’s words and choosing to lend their voice to social causes. Perhaps Pathan’s example will inspire more of India’s sportspersons to weigh in too. “I hope so,” he says. “Let’s not go away from each other. Let’s come close to each other. Let’s come and speak.”