Cameraperson: Ribhu Chatterjee
Harbhajan Singh is an Indian when he helps India beat Pakistan in the semifinal of the 2011 World Cup. Arshdeep Singh is a “Khalistani” when he drops a catch in the Super 4 clash against Pakistan in the 2022 Asia Cup.
Irfan Pathan is an Indian when he helps India win the 2007 T20 World Cup final against Pakistan. Mohammad Shami is a “Pakistani” when he concedes a few too many runs in the 2021 T20 World Cup against Pakistan.
That’s how patriotism and the game of cricket works, according to trolls on the internet, or as they would like to think of themselves, the thekedaars of Indian nationalism. And no, I’m not going to call them fans bitter about a tough loss - simply because their bigotry shows in how selectively they pick their targets and use losses on the cricket field as opportune moments for anti-minority propaganda.
And yes, before you come at me in the comments with the “#NotAllFans” argument, I acknowledge that there are loads of Indian cricket fans who have expressed solidarity with Arshdeep even as trolls laid siege on his social media profiles, barraging him with the most humiliating of insults and communal slurs.
Some of these derogatory tweets have allegedly been made by accounts based in Pakistan, and there may surely be some folks across the border who seek to aid polarisation in India by doing this. But what is important to note is that there are loads of Indian accounts who are posting such abusive tweets and comments as well.
And Arshdeep’s trolling isn’t the first time that this is happening.
In October 2021, when one of India’s top fast bowlers Mohammad Shami conceded 43 runs in under 4 overs as India lost by 10 wickets to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup, the Indian internet was flooded with posts calling Shami a traitor and a Pakistani, and questioning his love for the country. It was business as usual for Hindutva trolls to accuse an Indian Muslim of being anti-national, just that this time, it was one of India’s most popular pacers.
Then-captain Virat Kohli had lashed out in Shami’s defence, "Attacking someone over their religion is the most pathetic thing one can do as a human. We're playing on the field, we're not a bunch of spineless people on social media. We stand by him 200 per cent. Our brotherhood in the team cannot be shaken."
And just for saying that, Kohli was trolled viciously by the same brand of Hindutva-loving folks, and there were even rape threats directed at his nine-month-old daughter.
Will you call such people deshbhakts? I call them bigots.
But see, that brings us to another important nuance in this conversation.
How the Trolling Is Different When It’s Someone From a Minority Community
Indian cricketers have long faced intense trolling and backlash on losing in important international tournaments, or against longtime rivals Pakistan.
In 2007, after India lost to Bangladesh in the 50-over World Cup, an angry mob attacked Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s house in Ranchi. A few days later, when India crashed out of the tournament in the group stage itself, effigies of Indian cricketers such as Sachin Tendulkar were burned on the streets in condemnation.
However, the difference is that when Dhoni or Sachin or Kohli are trolled, they aren’t attacked with communal slurs which question their allegiance to the country. They aren’t called Pakistani. Or Khalistani.
Those insults are reserved for members of India’s minority communities - Muslims like Mohammad Shami, and Sikhs like Arshdeep Singh.
Because, you see, what they’re aiming for is not criticism for the Indian team to perform better in the future, they’re just using the match as an excuse to further their agenda of inciting communal disaffection and polarisation in the country.
And here’s why the difference in how different cricketers are trolled matters.
One, spare a moment for how the cricketers who are being targeted based on their identity feel. It’s not just criticism for a dropped catch or a poor bowling performance anymore, but slurs against your identity and your community’s alleged lack of allegiance to the country. It’s dehumanising to say the least, especially when it’s not a one-off comment here and there, but online attacks executed by hordes and hordes of trolls.
Two, think of what this dehumanising trolling does to members of those communities. When Shami is called a Pakistani merely because he is a Muslim who bowled badly against Pakistan, how does that make other Indian Muslims feel, within and outside the world of cricket?
We talk so much about the power of representation. Just recently, as Serena Williams bowed out of what was quite likely her last Grand Slam ever, there were so many who spoke of her legacy in inspiring more persons of colour, and especially young black kids, to take up tennis and know that they too could excel, just like she had. The power of representation, they said.
But what about the power of misrepresentation? Like when 23-year-old Arshdeep is attacked and called a Khalistani for one dropped catch, how does it make other young, budding Sikh cricketers feel? And it’s not just limited to cricketers either.
When we create such false and polarising narratives of communal disaffection, it is the country that loses. The Indian team loses a match on the field, and India loses in the hate that follows.
I could argue on and on about how Arshdeep was actually the pick of India’s bowlers in the Super 4 clash, how he and Ravi Bishnoi were the only Indian bowlers who kept it economical and went for less than 8 runs an over, whereas the others conceded more than 10 an over, about how Arshdeep bowled a brilliant last over and almost brought India to the verge of a miracle from the jaws of defeat.
But I won’t be making any of those arguments. Because even if Arshdeep had gone for 60 in his four overs without a single wicket, and the dropped catch to boot, it still wouldn’t make the trolling he is receiving okay.
Nothing justifies the communal insults that Arshdeep Singh is facing, regardless of how he performed on the field.
And you know the trolls care very little about the cricket and how the Indian team actually fares because the trolls are at it even when India wins. Which brings us to Hindutva ‘influencer’ (for lack of a better word to describe what he does) Rishi Bagree.
The Likes of Rishi Bagree, and a Patriotism Test After All
In the group stage of the Asia Cup, India beat Pakistan in a thrilling final-over finish. And Sayema, a popular Indian radio jockey, tweeted “Yay! We won! What a match! Thriller!”
Bagree, a Hindutva-loving troll with a following of over 230,000 people on Twitter, responded to Sayema, “No Mam … it is India 🇮🇳 that has won the match”.
The insult didn’t need any underlining. Bagree was implying that Sayema isn’t an Indian. It doesn’t take a genius to figure why a Hindutva social media ‘influencer’ would say that about a popular Muslim RJ who has been critical of Hindutva-fuelled hate and communal polarisation in India. Precisely because of her identity, because she is a Muslim.
And remember, this wasn’t some sore Indian ‘fan’ after India lost to Pakistan. This was a Hindutva troll doing his regular stuff and attacking a Muslim online even after India won.
When India loses to Pakistan, of course, the trolling only intensifies. Like it did in the case of the Super 4 clash and what happened after it.
These people who jump at any ‘opportunity’ they get to flaunt their communal agenda against their fellow Indians aren’t passionate cricket fans. They’re divisive opportunists seeking to deepen faultlines on the basis of religion within our country. Ironically enough, you’d think that is what would be termed anti-national and not a dropped catch, right?
Maybe this whole thing was a test of patriotism then. Arshdeep Singh passed with flying colours, for playing his heart out for the country. Those who trolled him, with communal and divisive slurs, failed.