There is little to be gained in pretending that racism is something that exists in ‘other’ countries, writes Nirmal Shekar

SPORT can at once bring out the best and the worst in us. It can illuminate the soul and elevate you. Or, it can return your soul to its primordial darkness. Whether we want to use sport to let our spirits soar or ride its passions to peek into our less-than-agreeable past depends entirely on us.

In the event, the choice of a few cricket fans in Vadodara and Mumbai during the recent One-Day International series between India and Australia merely betrayed the rung they occupy in the ladder of civilisation.

On the other hand, hard as it must have been on Andrew Symonds, the Australian all-rounder’s brave and gentlemanly response to the racist taunts from the stands was a testament to his strength of character as a champion and as a human being.

Biggest surprise

In an era when cricket in this country touches off base passions, the appallingly barbaric attitude of a few fans may not surprise too many. But the biggest surprise is that the Board of Control for Cricket in India appears to have been shocked that such a thing should have occurred in this country.

There is little to be gained in pretending that racism is something that exists in ‘other’ countries, that India and its great culture have a natural immunity to this virus. This attitude reflects a lack of moral courage. If you employed the broadest possible definition of racism, then this country perhaps has more racists per square kilometre than most other countries on this planet.

You only have to look up the matrimonial advertisements in any major newspaper in this country to get an idea about the ‘soft racism’ that is present among us. A meaningful solution to any problem can be found only if we are ready to admit the truth.

“Racism is not only a problem in football, it’s a problem in society. Until we tackle it in society, we cannot tackle it in football,” said John Barnes, England’s most capped black footballer, a few years ago.

While it might well be a problem that breaches the boundaries of sport in India too, in this particular case, to isolate these incidents as a small-town phenomenon in India or to take shelter behind their universality will hardly help us eradicate this deadly virus of the mind.

Of course, what happened to Symonds can happen to Mahendra Singh Dhoni in Melbourne or Sydney a few weeks down the road. In fact, now that Symonds has been singled out and targeted, the chances of a member of the Indian team facing a hostile reception in Australia are that much more.

This is precisely why cricket administrators in India have to go a long way beyond issuing joint statements with their Australian counterparts condemning the incidents. It will not do to merely say that such behaviour was unacceptable. Proper mechanisms will have to be put in place to prevent the occurrence of such incidents.

As a first step, BCCI should immediately appoint an anti-racism officer who can then form his own team to tackle the issue head-on. A serious campaign should be launched to rid Indian cricket of racism.

Lessons can be learnt from the English experience, both in football and in cricket. How effective was the Hit Racism for Six campaign in English cricket? What good did English football’s Kick It Out campaign do?

Concerted efforts

Serious concerted efforts involving social scientists should be made to engage fans and educate them. At the same time, punitive measures should be put in place to deal with the problem on a match-to-match basis.

Unfortunately, the richest cricket board in the world has thought little about channelling some of the money generated by the game in the direction of the very people who help popularise the sport and turn it into a money-spinner.

Could the organisers in Vadodara have prevented the racist abuse in a modern stadium with state-of-the-art security and surveillance systems in place? Probably, yes. But how much of BCCI’s income is spent on modernising facilities at stadiums?

To maintain sport’s character as a civilised pastime providing wholesome entertainment for fans is not only a tougher job than raising a team to win a world championship but also one that is of greater importance. This task requires us to shed our moral flabbiness.

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