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Why Indian players need to be more aware of caste privilege and oppression

India huddle ahead of the match Sarah Reed / © Getty Images

Stump mics do cricketers a great disservice. A cricket field is no ordinary workplace. All kinds of ugly talk that would earn someone the sack in an ordinary workplace is glorified in cricket. To let viewers listen in and also judge the players for what they say is mixed messaging. As it stands, the stump mic serves no purpose other than providing voyeuristic entertainment. If it was meant to be informative, commentators wouldn't speak over it. If it is meant purely for cricket, it would be turned down after the shot is played and you have judged how sweet the connection is.

That said, without incriminating anyone or virtue-signalling, we can use a recent incident to educate and sensitise ourselves. During the second Test between India and Bangladesh last month, an India player - let's not guess who, because the person was not visible on camera - called his team-mate a "chhapri", presumably because the latter had misfielded.

Chhapris are a caste-oppressed community of people who made or mended chhappars, temporary roofs. This was the only job they were allowed to do because of their caste, which was assigned to them by the accident of birth. However, the word has in recent years become a pejorative for someone who tries hard to be flamboyant. Looking blingy and flashy has been a form of expression and assertion by historically oppressed castes when they manage to earn enough money, but upper castes have looked down on such transformations, assigning the caste name to anything that is "cringe".

Even today, in the local trains of Mumbai, on the streets, in the maidans, even in the supposedly subversive world of rap songs, people, mainly of privileged castes, use "chhapri" as a derogatory term for anything or anyone cringeworthy. For example, to someone who prefers the aesthetic of Instagram Reels, TikTok is full of chhapris. Or if people see in a local train a man with a streak of blond hair and a colourful shirt, they might call him a chhapri.

Because the term is so pervasively, casually and commonly used, and now goes beyond just caste, one could probably give this young cricketer the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes people from some states can pick up on popular terms from another part of the country without knowing how the word was derived. Still, if Black rappers use the n-word, it doesn't become okay for others to use it.

It is possible this player doesn't know the ugly history of the word, but him probably not intending harm doesn't mean harm is not done. Serious harm of perpetuating prejudice is done.

He is hardly alone. During the Covid-19 lockdown, when players started to interview each other on Instagram, Yuvraj Singh, in a chat with Rohit Sharma, referred to Yuzvendra Chahal as a bhangi for his "cringe" TikTok videos, to the sound of laughter from Rohit. Again, bhangis are a community who, by accident of birth, were and are restricted to cleaning drains and toilets.

When the matter blew up, Yuvraj responded with a non-apology, saying he was "misunderstood, which was unwarranted". He expressed regret "if" he had "unintentionally" hurt someone's feelings.

Again, this is not to suggest Yuvraj is a monster, but he clearly didn't have any counsel at the time telling him how what was a harmless comment to him hurts a whole community. As is "chhapri" in Bombay, "bhangi" is used as a slur commonly in north India. If a child doesn't bathe all day, it is pretty normal for their mother to tell them not to be a bhangi. Google the term and you will find Bollywood stars using it self-deprecatingly to describe times when they are "shabbily dressed".

Instead of learning something from their abuse of these words, acknowledging historical and current caste oppression, and truly apologising for their ignorance, or worse, bigotry, people often double down and take offence at "misinterpretation" of what they said. These are members of a cricket team that took the knee to support the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

They protested in Australia at being racially abused themselves by people in the stands. Imagine the spectators in that instance turning around and saying they were misunderstood, and Cricket Australia doing nothing. In fact, the hurt the Indian players felt at that alleged racial abuse should enable them to empathise with those at the receiving end of caste discrimination back home. Many of them experienced unimaginable hardships in their childhood; in an ideal world, they would be the first ones to empathise.

Whenever there is a debate about caste in Indian cricket, a majority of fans of the sport are angered at the mere suggestion there might be discrimination based on caste. They like to imagine the sport is untouched by what goes on in society at large. Of course at the top level there is very little discrimination, because who doesn't value an elite performer?

This is where the caste system is more insidious than racism based on skin colour. It is not easy to look at the faces of players in India's national team and say it is not representative, though in its history India has fielded less than a handful of players from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who form about a fourth of India's population. Only OBC (Other Backward Castes) players make it to the national team on a regular basis.

Scheduled Castes are the most caste-oppressed people of India. Scheduled Tribes are among those who have inhabited India the longest, preceding the Indus Valley civilisation and the Aryan invasion. They retain their distinct culture and live in separation from other communities, are geographically isolated and socio-economically disadvantaged. Both groups are protected under the constitution of the country.

Young Indians are kept away from being educated about caste. When they grow up to be privileged adults, they keep themselves and their offspring shielded from this inconvenient topic.

I have spoken to quite a few white South African cricketers who were kids during apartheid. They say they were never informed of what was going on in the country. Whether it is just an attempt to be on the right side of history now that apartheid is unequivocally accepted as an evil system, the description of these white players' childhoods is not too different to those of Indians growing up ignorant of a more deeply entrenched system of discrimination that has endured for hundreds more years than apartheid. This is not to compare the horrors - apartheid was shorter but actually written in the law - but the "ignorance" of the beneficiaries of the two systems.

To say that there is no player of a caste-oppressed background who has been denied opportunities at the highest level is disingenuous because the villages and small towns that Indian cricketers increasingly come from don't even allow people of these backgrounds to use playgrounds; being able to afford all the facilities and equipment required to become an elite cricketer is a whole different leap altogether.

If even at the top, players - officially representing India - can use casteist slurs and not even feel apologetic about it, can you imagine what the attitude of the caste-privileged system is towards caste-oppressed communities? Slurs do not endure if there is no deeper prejudice.

Make no mistake, it is a caste-privileged system. I have spoken to a few people in the BCCI to find out if a caste-oppressed person has ever made it to a position of power in the board. Nobody remembers clearly. If such a person had indeed made it and it was such a non-event that it is not remembered, it would be the equivalent of India appointing a Muslim man or a tribal woman or a Dalit man as the president of the country, as they have done in recent years, and not shouting about it from the rooftops.

A state official told me there was a time when a couple of officials from the so-called lower castes rose to positions of power in their state association. A superstar cricketer, he said, was quoted in the papers the next day saying something to the effect of: "Now will we have to be controlled by dhobis [washermen] and mochis [cobblers]?"

The BCCI does a great - sometimes underappreciated - job of conducting the number of matches it does, the academies it sets up, and the systems it has set in place, but it is dipping its feet in a talent pool too shallow for a vast country. There is much more to be done. Educating its players about the ugly history of these seemingly harmless putdowns will be just a start.