I’ve Suffered From Colour Discrimination: Sivaramakrishnan
The former India leg-spinner talks about facing discrimination during his playing days & how it affected his career.
England's newest international cricketer Ollie Robinson had an eventful debut last week; his impressive performances with the ball were overshadowed by the discovery of racist and sexist tweets he had made nearly a decade ago.
The England and Wales Cricket Board, already facing accusations of institutional racism, sprung into action almost immediately and suspended Robinson from the second Test and instituted a disciplinary investigation into the cricketer's social media posts.
Former India leg-spinner Laxman Sivaramakrishnan – now a prominent and well-travelled broadcaster – spoke exclusively to The Quint on the Robinson saga and he also recalled the discrimination during his days as a player and now as a broadcaster, and had his say on how racism and discrimination can be eradicated.
What was your initial reaction when Ollie Robinson’s nine-year-old tweet resurfaced?
If the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) are so strict about discrimination and racism, you’d expect they would go through the history of a player - look through their social media accounts and see if a player had made any derogatory remarks in the past before picking him. Once you pick someone and he’s performed well, then to go back and look into social media history (or be alerted about posts) is not fair.
It is like physical fitness; you only select a player if he is physically fit. Similarly, before picking a player, you look at his past – to see if there have been any misdemeanours, misdeeds, etc.; if he or she is clean, only then select him or her. Like physical fitness, players need to be vetted if they’re mentally fit enough to play; players need to be vetted to check if they’ve been disciplined enough over a number of years.
What’s your assessment of how the ECB have dealt with this entire episode?
By handling this in the public space, they’ve embarrassed one of their players who was playing his first Test match and had done well with bat and ball; they’ve dented the player’s confidence and have landed a blow to how he approaches the game. The mental side of things will now have to be dealt with at a later stage. The ECB should have found a quieter way to deal with this discretely and make sure the player in question, or players who’ve done it before, don’t do it again.
The ECB perhaps did handle it the way they did because they wanted to showcase to the world that they are intolerant in such matters, and they’re trying to set an example.
How do you react to alleged tweets from some other English cricketers taking a dig at fans for their lack of fluency in the English language?
The late Diego Maradona, during his playing days, never spoke in English. He was one of the greatest sportsmen ever. For those born in a certain part of the world – in this case in England or in the United Kingdom – their official language is English; it is a language widely spoken and used in the region and kids grow up learning the language. If they expect an Argentinian or a Brazilian or a Japanese to speak fluent English, it is unfair. People grow up speaking their respective mother tongues or their national languages. Whatever language an individual is comfortable with, he or she speaks in that. The knowledge of a certain language doesn’t give any individual any superiority, and similarly the lack of knowledge of a certain language shouldn’t be construed as inferiority.
In India, we are made to feel out of place if we don’t speak in English; on occasions we’re made to feel inferior. Just to give you an example, at one point in time there were murmurs and closed-door talks if Kapil Dev should be made India captain because he couldn’t speak English. And when Kapil heard that, his retort to those comments was “get someone from Oxford to captain the Indian team and I will continue to play cricket”. Of course, Kapil went on to captain India and even won us our first World Cup – but it is sad that individuals see knowledge of English language as a matter of superiority.
I think it is stupid to expect that everyone will speak in English. And therefore, It is completely unfair on the part of those cricketers – or for anyone else – to make fun of people who don’t converse in English like a British person would.
Have you ever experienced any discrimination or racism during your playing days?
I was selected into the Indian team at a young age of 16. Before my first tour, I wasn’t allowed to enter the team hotel – a 5-star hotel in Mumbai – on one occasion because the hotel guys didn’t think a 16-year- old could play for India and they wouldn’t believe it more so because I was dark-skinned. I had to eventually send for the receptionist, give details of my room number and eventually they let me into the hotel.
Throughout my career, whether it was in India, Pakistan or Australia, I’ve suffered from colour discrimination; I’ve been disrespected. As a player or a performer, these things don’t impact you as much when you’re doing well. But when you’re going through poor form, it affects you, especially if you’re young. I was 21 years old when I played my last Test match; it was a combination of factors – ordinary form, lack of confidence, and the effect of being abused by the crowd.
Racism or discrimination affects a player, unless you’re very mature, strong mentally and thick-skinned. Especially for us Asians, it is very important that the respective cricket boards sit down with individuals and educate them on what to expect when they tour certain countries, and how to react and cope with those situations. I was delighted to see how Mohammed Siraj and the Indian team reacted to the racist chants from the crowd when India toured Australia last time.
Is discrimination still prevalent in India?
Very much. Earlier, when I’d tour the northern parts of India, I’d get addressed as ‘ka**a’ (which translates to black) – this happens even today. When people want to ridicule you, be it during conversations behind the back, or on social media platforms, they call you not by your name or your nickname, but they get down to colour.
A few years ago, while working as a broadcaster, I was once stopped by a police officer, despite carrying the official accreditation for the event, while an overseas member of the television crew, who was walking ahead of me, was allowed to walk straight in without being frisked or without his bag being checked; one would only guess this had to do with colour and nothing else.
How does one tackle racism or discrimination?
What happens right now is if someone in the stands is caught abusing someone else racially, that person is evicted from the stands, taken out of the ground, and is blacklisted. The punishments have to be much more than that. Whether it is the ICC or national cricket boards or organising bodies, the punishment has got to be much more severe – severe enough that it deters individuals from indulging in racist or discriminatory activities in the future.
What’s the right way forward to eradicate racism, colour discrimination?
I find it hard to understand the basis of racism and discrimination. If you look back at history, particularly in sport, people of colour have achieved just as much – if not more – than whites. You look at athletics, it is people of colour who win the big races or marathons. Perhaps coloured people have achieved a lot more than whites. It is therefore important that people of colour are given due respect and recognition and they’re treated as equals.
The important thing to realise is that colour of skin isn’t a choice available to a particular individual; you are born into a certain household or in a certain region. An individual doesn’t have the choice to decide where they want to be born, what colour they wants to be born. Once this is ingrained in the society, you will start looking into the merits of the person, look into a person’s heart, their ability, look into what they can add, rather than looking at the colour of their skin, what race or religion they belong to, so on and so forth.
And that is where I’d point to the upbringing of kids; it is very important that parents educate kids in the first five-ten years – when they’re seeing the world and picking up things – that race, religion, and colour of skin don’t give an individual any superiority. Parents need to set an example and treat everyone around them with respect; one can then expect that the majority of the kids will follow suit and when they develop into adults go on to respect people themselves.
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