“Social justice” as a concept eludes precise definition, but we all intuitively know that in essence, the unending quest for social justice quite plainly entails a fight on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable members of a group or society. As the overarching guiding principle in all human interaction, social justice has been an abiding concern not only of philosophers, reformers, politicians and activists, but also of ordinary citizens. It is a measure of our humaneness. As for its criticality in society’s calculus, Sigmund Freud said it: “The first requirement of civilisation is that of justice.”
In a sports-crazy world, sportspersons are demigods to their millions of fans and are therefore ideally situated to be key influencers on social and cultural issues of import. Curiously though, most sportspersons have been chary about openly supporting and bringing awareness to various social justice causes, even those directly impacting their social orbit. This is unfortunate as they have the power to bring important social issues to the forefront of public consciousness. While it is undeniable that their primary focus should be on excelling at their sport, there is no reason why, apart from attention to lucrative commercial advertising, a little thought and time should not be devoted to speaking up for and expressing their solidarity with victims of injustice and inequity. Or are sportspersons insulated from social responsibilities?
Mercifully, there are a few sportspersons who have harnessed their celebrity status to protest against injustice and create awareness on a range of issues from race to religious bigotry to gender inequality and to war. In the bargain, they have lost personally, not just money but their careers, and even risked jail time for their convictions. They indeed are the quintessential athletes!
Forever etched in my memory is an image from the sporting arena that happened over five decades ago during the Mexico Olympic Games in 1968. At the medal ceremony of the 200-meter men’s winners on the world’s grandest sporting stage, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, African-American athletes who had bagged gold and bronze, raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem to protest against racial discrimination. Their unforgettable act of dissent was a quiet but deadly-effective protest. Much later, Smith, in his autobiography, expanded the implications of that gesture to symbolize the fight for human rights.
Those iconic raised fists expressing “black power” did more to draw the world’s attention to America’s brutal treatment of its black citizens than any other individual protest against racial bigotry. For me, that act of defiant subversion was the first real primer on the dark underbelly of social injustice and racial discrimination in the Land of Opportunity.
By far, the greatest, most courageous act of protest against injustice and war was by the incomparable Muhammad Ali who risked losing everything in his prime when he refused the draft to serve in the Vietnam war because of the way America treated black people. Stripped of his world heavyweight boxing crown and sentenced to five years in prison, he remained defiant and unrepentant as ever, weaponizing his whiplash tongue to denounce an oppressive, racist America that had brutalized blacks for over 300 years.
Here’s one snippet from the legend: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied human rights? The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.” Not one for political correctness, Ali’s indomitable courage and soaring rhetoric galvanised the anti-Vietnam war movement that ultimately forced the US government to sue for peace in early 1973. The world heartily endorsed what Muhammad Ali proclaimed – that he was the greatest!
What’s cooking today? The sporting fraternity is currently obsessed with racism and bigotry in their domain. “Taking a knee” as contrition for racism and endorsement of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement had its origins in a very public demonstration of angst by Colin Kaepernick, the black American National Football League (NFL) quarterback who, in 2017, knelt during the national anthem to protest the treatment of people of colour by police and the criminal justice system.
Stepping into the controversy, the then American President, the boorish Donald Trump who is an unabashed racist, launched a scathing attack on NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects the flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired! He’s fired!’” Having scared the bejesus out of the NFL owners, Trump ensured that Kaepernick remained unsigned and never played in the NFL again.
The millions of cricket fans watching the T20 World Cup could not have missed the players “taking a knee” before the first match that each team played, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against racism in sport. Not surprisingly, an acerbic TV editor-in-chief of Times Now, reflecting the ultra-right-wing establishment view on the subject, condemned what he referred to as “cultural ‘wokery’” in an article in a leading national daily. His ill-conceived criticism is based on a deeply flawed premise that taking a knee is the appropriation of a movement that is specific to the social milieu in America. He wilfully ignores the salient fact that by kneeling, the cricketers were stamping their disapprobation at racism in sport everywhere – an unexceptionable undertaking. But then, people of his ilk, who are shrieking cheerleaders of a majoritarian autocracy, are understandably discomfited by campaigns for social justice.
In our country, the problem is not racism but communal bigotry which, sadly, has intensified in the last seven years and poisoned every nook and corner of our society, including the sporting arena. A little while ago, Neeraj Chopra lashed out at the trolls for using him to denigrate his blameless Pakistani counterpart. All so predictably, in the wake of our defeat to Pakistan in the T20 tournament due to an all-round meltdown, the trolls went ballistic, directing their entire fusillade of foulest abuse and insults at the only Muslim in the team, Mohammed Shami.
To invoke a hackneyed but universally applicable phrase, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going!” Virat Kohli! What an absolute gem as man and cricketer! About his cricketing genius, suffice to say that in prowess, he is compared with the anointed god of cricket, Sachin Tendulkar. While Sachin is ahead in run accumulation and centuries, Kohli has scored when it matters, which is why he has won many more games for India than Sachin. This is obviously due to the fact that they have approached the game differently – Sachin played for personal records, whereas Kohli’s single-minded focus has been on winning games for India. The devotees of the official god of cricket have done well to suppress the odious fact that in order to reach his hundredth century in international cricket, he crawled to the landmark from 80 to 100, as a result of which we lost that ODI match to Bangladesh.
Kohli has shown the world that he is not just an immaculate cricketer but a humane and gutsy leader who has bucked the trend of celebrities and opinion-makers playing safe and staying silent when they needed to speak out. Instead, he got onto the front foot and confronted the troll armies of religious bigots head-on.
Kohli’s sterling defence of his teammate, Shami, puts him in the Muhammad Ali league for sheer courage and humaneness. In a few minutes of impassioned speech, he demolished the cowardly trolls who use the anonymity of social media to besmirch hard-earned reputations. Even more significantly, he launched a frontal assault on communalism which was nothing short of condemnation of the present rulers and their iniquitous policies. To quote the great man: “To me, attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing that a human being can do. I have never ever even thought of discriminating against anyone over their religion (is the PM listening?) …. there’s a good reason why we are playing on the field and not some bunch of spineless people on social media that have no courage to actually speak to any individual in person. They hide behind their identities and go after people, making fun of people and that has become social entertainment in today’s world which is so unfortunate and so sad to see!” What a refreshing contrast from Sachin and Sehwag’s tepid, guarded defence of the beleaguered fast bowler that really meant nothing.
Virat is reaping the whirlwind for his principled stand. Apart from the most disgusting, vile online abuses from the despicable trolls, social media is ablaze with criticism of his tactics as captain and there is talk of having separate captains for white and red ball cricket. But this is unlikely to bother a man who is arguably the best batsman in the world and among the best ever, oozing with self-belief, always gracious in defeat, unafraid of saying it like it is and the perfect role model for the young. The Bard of Avon must surely have had guys like Virat Kohli in mind when he exulted: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable…. the beauty of the world!”
(The writer is a former civil servant)