A few months ago, I wrote an op-ed in The Hindu about the lack of Dalit and Adivasi representation in the Indian men’s cricket team, and the need for rectifying this by considering South Africa’s quota system. Just as I had feared, the idea of quotas or reservations evoked “violent emotions”, and responses termed it, among other things, “dangerous”, “a menace,” and “absolute madness”.
Caste-based discrimination is as revolting and consequential as racism, yet many of the comments made a mockery of the debate, including equating reservations to “begging”. This largely reflects public discourse, which sees reservations as handouts given to the “undeserving”.
In India, 27% of people admit to practising some form of untouchability, according to the India Human Development Survey 2. We are still a nation where Dalit grooms wear helmets against upper-caste attacks for riding a horse, or, are killed for marrying an upper-caste person, as was seen recently in Kerala, the most advanced Indian state according to most social indicators.
Reality of race
The centuries-old history of caste oppression and violence (women bearing most of its brunt) has confined a section of the population to the bottom of the hierarchy. That Dalits and Adivasis continue at the bottom of socio-economic indicators, despite reservations, shows the intractability of the problem of overcoming an age-old socio-economic disadvantage.
So, it’s hardly surprising if this lack of opportunities characterises cricket as well. Let’s wrap our heads around this staggering fact: Possibly no male Dalitcricketerhas played test cricket for India. (Dalit websites claim three or four test cricketers as Dalits, but none of them have publicly acknowledged their Dalit identity, which itself should tell us about the horror of caste oppression). This seems to be the case for Adivasis too.
Dalits and Adivasis make up a quarter of India’s population. So what is more shocking? A debate on quotas in cricket? Or the fact that India’s Dalit and Adivasi population, equivalent to that of America’s entire population, has zero or near zero representation in cricket?
In contrast, the African-American population in the U.S. (at 12%), subject to horrendous slavery and racism, has produced some of the world’s all-time sporting icons. This, despite the chilling reality of race in American society even today. The number of African-American sporting superstars run into the hundreds. Remember, until 1947, African-Americans were not even allowed to play in Major League Baseball and its affiliated leagues.
In India, on the other hand, upper-caste domination in Test cricket means that the team sees 50-60% Brahmin players (Brahmins constituted only 6.4% of the population in the 1931 census) on many occasions. The famous 2008 Sydney Test is an example, when there were six Brahmins in the eleven.
When we mock the idea of reservations, we ignore that the increasing visibility of Yadavs and other OBCs in the Indian cricket team in recent years has been made possible by the mobility they achieved through OBC reservations in jobs and education. Researchers Gaurav Bhawnani and Shubham Jain show that the Indian women’s cricket team represents more marginalised sections because players mostly come from the Railways, which has employment reservations.
The marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis in cricket cannot be trivialised any longer and justified with anodyne arguments that it’s a coincidence, or that one plays as ‘an Indian’, and not as a representative of any caste and religion.
If one plays as an Indian, is it not one’s social responsibility to include as many sections into the team as possible? What is a “national” cricket team when members largely belong to a few social groups? The cricketing team of the largest democracy has also to be more democratic.
But our public sphere is saturated with the idea of “merit” seen in a vacuum.
How does one assess merit after you listen to the story of Anil Gurav, once called the Viv Richards of Mumbai, and once Sachin Tendulkar’s captain? While Tendulkar became a cricketing god, Gurav was consigned to the same slums from which he rose to become one of coach Ramakant Achrekar’s chosen players. As Gurav says, “Background is everything.”
Most often, there is no conspiracy to keep Dalits and Adivasis out of cricket teams. Discrimination works in more unconscious ways. As an Australian cricketer of indigenous origin, John McGuire, who never played for the state or national team, says, “People will say, ‘It’s not a race thing; we’re not racist; our best mates are black Australians’... but the unconscious bias won’t allow them to select an aboriginal person.”
Usman Khawaja, the Pakistani-born Australian test cricketer, says the one story he heard all his life is this: “I could have played for Australia, but I didn’t get selected because I was black/ Indian/ Pakistani, so I stopped playing.”
We need desperately to increase diversity and representation in cricket rather than follow the common refrain to “leave Indian cricket alone”. The BCCI is unlikely to ensure this. Not only is increasing caste representation inconceivable for it, it is even reluctant to broaden regional diversity . Recently, its counsel argued before the Supreme Court that that the northeastern states “cannot field even 11 players for a Ranji Trophy.”
Indians wrongly believe that developed democracies operate only on the concept of “merit”. In the Canadian university where I teach, while there are no fixed quotas, there has recently been a concerted push to increase the number of aboriginal people and racial minorities in the faculty. Canada has had the Employment Equity Act since 1986, which seeks to correct disadvantages and adopt special measures in employment for women, aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and visible minorities.
In the U.S., organisations like The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport are mapping and pushing for minority representation. Now that African-American player representation is at respectable levels, the focus has shifted to ensuring black representation in the ownership and management of pro sporting teams, or to addressing non-racial inequities such as sexual orientation. The Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that race can be used as a criterion in college admissions, affirming the positive, including intangible, benefits of having a racially diverse student population.
Australia has an aboriginal programme in cricket, and the number of indigenous cricketers has increased from 8,000 in 2011-12 to 54,000 in 2016-17 — a significant achievement in a country with just over 3% indigenous people.
India needs a tectonic shift in thinking and practice. The first and most important step is to acknowledge the colossal nature of caste discrimination and its effect on sport. Only then can we think of measures to counter it. If the time spent debating quotas was spent on destroying caste, we would not have needed quotas in any sphere, including cricket. The time has come for Dalit and Adivasi cricketers to represent India.
The writer is with Dalhousie University, Canada. @nmannathukkaren