The silence of the normally voluble sports stars: Why can’t we have Megan Rapinoes in India?

On November 16, 2016, a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation, India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli held forth at a routine Test match-eve press conference. “For me, it is the greatest move I have seen in the history of Indian politics by far, hands down. I have been so impressed by it. It’s unbelievable what’s happening,” Kohli, all of 28 then, said.

He was then asked how he was getting used to it, even as the country stood outside banks and ATMs after many household savings vanished overnight. It was then we got Indian sport’s ‘let them eat cake’ moment. “I was taking out the old money and forgot it isn’t of any use anymore,” laughed the generally woke Indian captain, “I could have actually signed on it and given it to people, they are that useless now.”

Last Sunday, as Delhi police waded into Jamia Millia Islamia students protesting over the Citizens (Amendment) Act, the usually opinion-ready Indian captain had nothing to say. Not just Kohli, most cricket and sports stars were conspicuously silent. It was after all the greatest chunk of their fans – university students – who had been the target of police  action but not a word emerged from the elite Twitterati of Indian sport.

Few scattered concerned voices came from former India cricketer and coach of Jammu & Kashmir, Irfan Pathan, who tweeted within hours of Sunday’s events and who has now written poignantly on the subject in a newspaper. As Monday dawned, and with it the extent of the police severity, Aakash Chopra added his voice. But as writer and historian Ramachandra Guha noted, “It would be nice if his [Chopra’s] former opening partner, a Jamia alumnus, said something too.” Guha was of course, referring to Virender Sehwag, the explosive batsman who found post-retirement calling as owner of an equally entertaining twitter handle.

Our sports heroes are famous for not speaking out. The ones who do, the Bishan Bedis and Jwala Guttas, are either shunned or seen as controversy seekers. In a time where political correctness is institutionalised no corporate house will come knocking with an endorsement deal, no advertising agency will pitch your unique appeal.

The rest will happily lend their faces to launch a thousand products, but not their voices to an issue that concerns everyone. Fearless American footballer Megan Rapinoe will be secretly envied, but scarcely emulated. Their PR team repeatedly tells them they are ‘woke’, but there seems to be a big gap between labelling and living it. MS Dhoni will celebrate his love for the armed forces by having his teammates sport army camouflage caps in an international match, but will then retreat into a bubble of his own making.

In his Nile-long career, Sachin Tendulkar never voiced his opinion. Had Sachin spoken, everyone would have listened. It was as simple as that but he always dead-batted it away. In 2009, he is reported to have felt “very, very hurt” on being famously asked who he thought Mumbai belonged to. The question was pertinent, coming at a time when the MNS had launched its attack on north Indians in Mumbai.

It is true, dissent is risky in India today. People in power usually play it safe. Yet, in this groundswell where people from all walks of life have come together across the country, our sports stars continue to maintain a strange indifference.

So while boxer and Rajya Sabha MP from Manipur Mary Kom chose to say, “Even if I oppose and try to stage a protest, nothing will happen as the government has already taken a decision,” a glimmer of hope came from Mumbai.

“I’ve grown up in a colony where people from all religions resided in harmony and we had the time of our lives. Hung out, played sport, studied together and celebrated every festival like it was our own. To see what’s happening currently is plain heart breaking. Let’s spread the love,” tweeted Darren Caldeira, a Mumbai-born footballer of ISL franchise Kerala Blasters.

Clearly distressed, he continued: “Constitutional indiscrimination has always been the best part of our country. Can faith be a condition of citizenship? With the new CAB, where are we heading?” The young footballer won fans for life that day, even as the silence of India’s celebrity sporting set was slowly growing deafening.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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