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TEACHING THE PROVINCIALS
- International agreements and Indian anxieties

The stir about the Indian cricket team’s reluctance to ratify the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new testing regime is interesting not just in itself, but also for the reactions it has provoked. In the red corner, we have nationalist grunts on a hair-trigger, for whom every criticism of the Indian cricket team is an alien conspiracy; in the blue corner, we have discriminating, non-chauvinist Indian commentators who are convinced that India’s perverse stars and their vulgar patron, the BCCI, have done this deliberately to embarrass people like them: discriminating, non-chauvinist Indian commentators.

The first lot of people are real and numerous, but their opinions are conditioned reflexes and there’s little to be learnt from examining them. It’s the second group whose sense of self is built on self-reflexivity (the thinking person’s ability to distance himself from base partisanship), whose reactions offer us a window into the anxieties of the Indian cosmopolitan.

To represent this sliver of opinion (and sliver it must be since its constituents define themselves against the brute prejudice of the mob), I have chosen the editorial of The Hindu on this controversy and a piece in The Guardian by Dileep Premachandran. The Hindu is arguably India’s most serious newspaper, and Premachandran is a serious and reflective writer who has reported on cricket for Cricinfo, The Guardian and The Times. I shan’t summarize their arguments except to say that both pieces make a plausible case against the stand taken by the Indian players and their board.

There’s a case to be made in the players’ favour (I tried to make it in these columns a fortnight ago), but the point of this piece isn’t the substantive arguments for and against the non-compliant position: it is the tone in which the case against the BCCI and the dissenting players is made. This tone is that of an adult talking to over-indulged children, the internationalist trying to reason with thoughtless parochialists.

Thus Premachandran after demonstrating to his satisfaction that the players’ concerns are either unfounded or must be set aside for the greater good, concludes: “I’d prefer it if someone well-versed in the subject sat down with the board and players and explained away their imaginary fears. Like homespun techniques against the short ball, there are few things more dangerous than a little learning.”

“Imaginary fears”, “homespun techniques”, “a little learning”: to write a passage as glossy with condescension as this one, you would first need to think of the Indian team as a bunch of neurotic provincials. But Premchandran doesn’t, in fact, see the Indian team in these terms. He, like the rest of us, admires M.S. Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar for their commitment, their sporting intelligence and for their professional poise. And yet he treats the dissenting group — to which these two belong — as dim fantasists who need their anxieties massaged.

The Hindu’s editorial on this subject recycles this trope with curious vehemence: “Indian cricket has never had any kind of drug problem. But a bunch of hugely spoilt cricketers and a high and mighty Board of Control for Cricket in India have come together, in an ill-informed and irrational way, to challenge a crucial provision in the World Anti-Doping Code.”

Notice the infantilization of the players who have refused to sign and, as with Premachandran, the rat-a-tat redundancy of the characterization: “hugely spoilt”, “ill-informed”, “irrational”. Coming at the very beginning of the editorial, this drumbeat of denunciation tries to pre-emptively establish that the cricketers have no case at all, that they’re unreasonable or ignorant or both. The edit ends with forceful advice: “The Indian cricket establishment would be stupid not to fall in line.”

There’s a case, as I said, to be made against the Wada hold-outs, but the incivility of their critics needs some explanation. Why should a serious broadsheet publish a hectoring editorial that denies Dhoni and Tendulkar not just the benefit of doubt, but the courtesy of allowing that they are adults acting in good faith? Why would a cricket journalist who spends his working life writing about the Indian cricket team, patronize it? I can think of three reasons.

First, the BCCI’s incompetence and arrogance makes sensible Indian critics react viscerally against any position that it takes. So on this reading, the BCCI’s support discredited the players’ position on Wada and stopped them from getting a proper hearing. Guilt by association is the charitable explanation.

The likelier explanation is that non-playing newspapermen see professional sportsmen as non-thinking athletes. As Orientalists studied Eastern societies to point up the uniqueness and superiority of the West, so journalists find in the reassuring thickness of jocks, a confirmation of their own maturity. A difference of opinion is treated not as disagreement, but as provocation because players with opinions are already thinking above their paygrade. Theirs not to reason why.

Finally, liberal commentators in India are properly concerned that the country be in step with the world, specially when it comes to a cause as self-evidently worthwhile as the war on doping. When Indians don’t fall in line with international compacts, they not only make India look provincial and unenlightened, they embarrass its thin-skinned internationalists and make them very angry.

It’s at this point that the rhetorical temperature rises. So what’s good enough for the world isn’t good enough for India? How can 571 compliant associations be wrong? Now Dhoni and Tendulkar have more on their plate than Tiger Woods and Roger Federer? Who do they think they are, inventing pathetic concerns about privacy and security? Pampered, coddled, overpaid, spoilt … and so it goes on.

It never occurs to these commentators that the experience of Tendulkar and Dhoni as Indian cricketers might have given them a view on security and privacy that is legitimately different from that of Woods and Federer. So perhaps this needs to be spelt out. One, men like Tendulkar and Dhoni have less privacy than any sportsperson in the world. The frenzy their public presence excites has no parallel in sport. Two, they live in a dangerous neighbourhood and the sport they play has been specifically targeted by armed violent men.

They can be forgiven for thinking that an online system for sharing schedules with Wada as secure as Paypal or an encrypted banking network isn’t secure enough: running the risk of identity theft or stolen credit card information is one thing; having your life endangered by someone hacking into Wada’s computers is quite another.

Indians are so used to aspiring to global top tables where the place settings are decided by others, that we instinctively look sideways to see which fork the rest of the world is using and cringe when we see a desi using his hands. Well, we can stop cringing on behalf of Dhoni, Tendulkar, Yuvraj and the rest. They have a right to their opinions and they’ve earned, I think, the courtesy of disagreement, civilly expressed. And as risible as it might seem, a Wada testing regime that paid attention to the life experience of Indian sportsmen might be the better for it. Internationalism has no single point of vantage: the world can be viewed as comprehensively from Delhi as it can from Lausanne.

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