Defeat in an Olympic game was enough to expose the ugly faultlines of caste in India once again. Two days after India cheered its women's hockey team for writing history by qualifying for the semi finals in Tokyo Olympics, the family of one of the players, Vandana Katariya, was attacked with casteist hate. Why? Because our team of young athletes couldn't make it to the finals.
Two men from the dominant caste burst crackers outside Katariya's house in Haridwar hours after the team's loss and hurled casteist slurs at her family. They even mocked them and said that the team did not win because it had 'too many Dalit players'.
Speaking on the issue, Vandana Katariya - first ever Indian woman to score a hatrick in Olympics - said:
"Hum log country ke liye khel rahe hai .. aur jo bhi kuch bhi ho raha hai, uske liye kuch bhi na kare, like ‘caste-ing baazi’ jo maine thoda sa suna tha, woh sab na ho." (We all are playing for the country, and whatever is happening, shouldn’t happen, like casteist comments. Whatever little I have heard about it, don’t do that.)Vandana Katariya
Calling the incident a 'shameful act', Rani Rampal, captain of India's women's hockey team, in a press conference, said, "We give it our all, sacrifice a lot, struggle a lot to represent our country. However, when we see that this is what is happening to our respective families back home, for example, what happened to Vandana's family...I just want to tell people to stop doing all these things - religious attacks, casteism."
"Our team works together and is above all such things. We belong to different religions. Some are Hindu; some are Muslim; some are Sikhs. We come from different parts of the country. Some come from the North, some from the East and South. When we play at this level, we only look at the fact that we are playing for India. We work for that Indian flag. We give our blood, sweat and tears for that flag."Rani Rampal
While Rampal was one of the very few sportspersons who condemned the attack, not one either from the ministers, or the sports authorities, spoke up against the casteist attack on Katariya's family, as was pointed out by several Twitter users.
Is that unfortunate? Yes. Are we surprised? No.
From casteist remarks and sexual harassment of boxer Thulasi Helen, to name-calling of Vinod Kapri, to racial discrimination allegations by a West Indian cricketer Daren Samy against Sunrisers Hyderabad teammates, Indian sports heroes have failed to speak out in support, despite many of them voicing their concerns strongly during the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Srishty Ranjan, a young anti-caste activist, recalled the suicide note of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student who killed himself alleging caste discrimination in University of Hyderabad, and said, "Rohith Vemula had written in his last letter that the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity. Vandana Katariya's incident reminds me of that letter. No matter what a Dalit does, they will always be reduced to their caste identities. No matter what goes wrong, Dalits will always be blamed for it."
Googling Caste of Our Superheroes
India's continual obsession with caste revealed itself during this Olympics when Google search surveys showed that several people looked up the caste of PV Sindhu, the first Indian woman to win two Olympic medals.
This was not the first such incident. Besides Sindhu, caste of PT Usha and Hima Das were also up on Google search several times. In a 2018 article, columnist Mayank Mishra argues, "Since the internet is a relatively private medium (the information on what I search is supposedly restricted to myself), what is frequently searched is a true reflection of what I am curious about. If people are searching caste, it means a majority of them use it as a reference to judge anyone’s performance."
Many argue that if caste identity is attributed to a player from the marginalised group after winning, it can't be condemned when they are criticised over the same identity. But, it is important to acknowledge caste struggles of a sportsperson from a marginalised group because often their success stories act as drivers for several young talents from similar backgrounds. However, hurling casteist abuses after their loss simply beholds a criminal section under the SC/ST Act.
Boo-ing With Caste
The boo-ing culture in sports is not new. We have seen how homes of cricketers are attacked everytime they face a defeat. Former Indian cricket captain MS Dhoni's Ranchi home was attacked by a mob after India faced a five-wicket rout against Bangladesh in their opening World cup match.
But activists point out that Dhoni was attacked for the Indian team not being able to play well in one match. Katariya or Kambli or Palwankar Baloo are attacked for being born into a Dalit family.
So, when two women from the scheduled tribe community in Jharkhand is shown to be stereotyped and bullied by her hockey team members or not taken seriously by a member of the sports academy in a Bollywood movie, 'Chak De India', it would be foolish to brush off the reality as mere fiction.