'I've faced racism; one of our top coaches would call us junglee'

Sarita Devi is a former world champion in women's boxing. Getty Images

Daren Sammy's revelation that he had been called by a racist nickname while playing in the IPL has led to several other players, and former players, speaking about their personal experiences in Indian sport. As these accounts show, though, racist comments are not the only way of othering and discriminating - even food habits could be deemed offensive.

'We were also looked down on because we ate non-veg food'

Sarita Devi (2006 women's boxing world champion)

Yes, I have experienced a lot of racism. It wasn't just me, almost every athlete from the north-east of India has faced those prejudices at the initial stage of their career. We face it because we look different and are from a remote area which isn't familiar to most Indians.

Those early days were really hard for us. We were routinely harassed by people on the trains when we travelled to attend the national camp or if we were competing in the national championships. One of our top coaches in the national training camp would shout at us and call us 'junglee' (wild). We were also looked down upon because we would eat non-vegetarian food. We couldn't say anything. We controlled ourselves because our career was at stake.

There was harassment outside the camp as well. People would abuse us when we went to the market or shopping complexes outside the camp. They'd call us Chinky, momo and other really different and unwanted things. We couldn't react much as we were young and couldn't speak proper Hindi at that time. We just ignored those racial slurs

Things started changing slowly when we began performing in the international arena and started bringing laurels for the country. That changed a lot of perceptions about us.

I think racism is no less than a disease and we need to work hard to eradicate it. We need to respect the differences in people whether it is caused by religion, region, caste or by the way they look.

'When I go out there, I'm playing for India, not Madras'

V Baskaran (Former India hockey captain)

To me, in the Indian sporting context, teammates addressing each other by color isn't the most troublesome aspect. Throughout my playing career I was called 'Kaalia' by my teammates. I didn't think it was something to pick a fight over because I knew it was coming from a place of affection. It was not discriminatory. (BP) Govinda was called 'Gora' because he was a fighter on the field. In fact in my student days at Loyola college in Chennai, three of us, Vijay Amritraj, myself and Jaykumar Royappa were called 'dark, darker, darkest' by one of our professors. I never found it offensive. It can differ from person to person, of course; what may have sounded harmless to me may have been hurtful to someone else.

What I find more problematic is the regional segregation and name-calling based on your state or your food habits, because we belong to the same country. When I go out there, I'm playing for India, not Madras. Players from districts were also called derogatory names by those from urban centers which, to me, was unfair. Whenever we played in Patiala and I had the ball, I'd hear spectators yell, 'Arre Madrasi pass de na' or 'Oye idli sambhar, pass de'. That affected me a lot. I would tell my captain Ajitpal Singh that I have too much anger within me, I can't handle these remarks. He would reply 'gusse mein khelo phir' (Play with anger). That's what I did. I turned that anger into energy to push my limits on the field.

'We have better cars and homes now but morally we've never been more broken'

Jwala Gutta, badminton player

Growing up, I didn't know what racism was. I was naïve and every time I was called 'Chinki' I never took it as a discriminatory remark because I didn't realize it was one. Everywhere I went, I was told, 'Jwala you're very fair', because people in southern India [where she lives] are obsessed with fair skin. I was tall for my age as a young girl and I assumed the reason people stared at me was because I was fair and really tall - I never knew that looking a certain way was a problem till ten years ago.

It was when I realized that there is no positive meaning attached to being called 'Chinki' or 'Nepali', that it started to hurt. I haven't been subject to racist taunts from those in physical proximity, or at tournaments from fans or fellow players. Partly, I think, because most people are intimidated when they're around me. It's only after I started speaking up on social media platforms that the racist jibes at me online grew. It's primarily because of the convenience and lack of checks it comes with. It's easy to be nameless and faceless on social media and threaten and abuse any woman, celebrity or not, with rape and get away.

I was always an expressive person but it's only with social media coming into the scene that it perhaps became a more noticeable trait. Initially when the stream of uncharitable comments started trickling in, I ignored it. I told myself 'Chalo chhodo yaar, let me not waste time'. But I slowly realized that keeping quiet wasn't helping anyone. Online trolls are emboldened by the silence of celebrities in the face of abuse and they take it to the next level, by physically subjecting common people to that kind of behavior. People have called me 'half corona','China ka maal' and even said 'Boycott Chinese products, boycott Jwala'. I'm not going to keep quiet. I'm calling out all these people.

We should not forget that Indians are at receiving end of a lot of racial discrimination when we step out of the country. If we want people to treat us fair when we are on the other side, we need to learn to raise our voice when people are being discriminated against in our country. Whether it's a fan, player or anyone else, we should all make sure that even if it's unintentional, we don't try to profile and put down someone because of their looks or skin color. If we want to leave a less toxic world for our future generations, we have to step into the muck and start clearing it up now. We can't just sit back in our homes and think someone else will speak up. It's time for a change, a big one. Today, what we lack most is empathy. We have better cars and homes now but morally we've never been more broken.

"Football is sport and sport don't have any race, no matter what colour you are or where you come from." X (an I-League footballer who wishes to remain anonymous)

'I was lucky to play in a diverse environment'

Gouramangi Singh, former India international and head coach, FC Bengaluru United

I have never personally experienced a racist comment or incident but I know that other people have, including some close to me. Maybe I was lucky with the sport that I played, because we all came from different backgrounds. I spent four years in [Tata Football Academy] Jamshedpur and everyone who joined was from a different background. The main purpose was to learn to play football, and everyone wanted to help the others to compete better.

Sometimes, out of fun, among team mates, we knowingly pull each other's legs. It's not meant to be offensive, but you might have an African friend in the team and you were just making fun of each other. But I can't remember any incident on the field. More of this was off the field.

Today, we have the 'Say No To Racism' campaign [by FIFA] and we all observe it. I believe that players have to learn not to call someone by their religion, caste, colour or creed. These are the major things that players are aware of now. There's always an awareness session ahead of the season. But if this continues, maybe we can do more than what we are doing now. Federations and clubs can still make it better. Do more regular sessions -- take it to four in a season. Maybe a federation representative can come ahead and speak about it. Maybe include it when educating coaches. Make it a part of youth level football. As a coach, we see everyone as equal. That's how I have been treated all my career, and it's the same for me as coach.

'We need to educate players and fans'

Raman Vijayan, former India footballer

I was in Calcutta for so many years, I never experienced anything racial. If we lost or didn't perform, then the anger from the fans would drive them to personal abuse, but I never took that to heart. I have played with several African players, and we have always treated them with respect. People would criticise, but not in such a way. Maybe something like 'Kalu', they would call me that also [laughs] because I am South Indian. They would just call me 'Kalu, Kalu' but we take it sportingly and don't react.

But I never felt like it was anything racial. Even the Indian players used to call each other 'Kalu' and we took it like a joke. Since these issues have come up, a lot of players from abroad have been pointing this out. So far, whatever has happened, we have never taken it as racism. From now, every time there are African players who come to India, landing in India, they might think maybe some word that is offensive might be said to them.

What more can be done? I think all clubs should educate players to treat each other with respect and make sure no words that can cause hurt are ever used. The fans need to understand how to appreciate the players for their calibre and not their colour. That's more important for every club to take a special initiative.

'The perception is we are lazy and create trouble'

Radanfah Abu Bakr (Footballer, Churchill Brothers)

I'm from Trinidad & Tobago. I've played football around the world and I've had my fair share of experiences with racism. It was particularly bad in Eastern Europe. But I've been lucky that I haven't experienced anything close to that in Indonesia and India, where I've played most recently. Perhaps it's the fact that our skin tones are not so different compared to how it is in Europe. At the same time I am conscious that it might be easier for me compared to others, I can almost pass off as an Indian in many places. Some of the players from Africa don't have that and unfortunately they face the spotlight much more.

In India, like in Trinidad, we see fair-skinned as better. You see that with the Indian actors getting their skin bleached and promoting lighter skin. It's a lot harder to be overtly racist with me. I'm 6' 5". That probably doesn't encourage a lot of people to say things. At the same time, I don't really notice a lot of racism. I'm also someone who doesn't tolerate any injustice so I will speak out about it. It could be that it doesn't exist or it could be that it's so normal that I don't notice it. I've come to realise a lot of racism is very subtle and sinister.

When foreign players come to India, there's always a feeling that you have to justify your place in the side. It's a lot more if you are of African descent. You have to work twice as hard. You know that there are some stereotypes that come so you have to work extra hard to change it. I know that players of African descent have to go extra steps in being professional. The perception is that we are lazy and create trouble. I always have to make sure that no one can say that about me. It's not just me, all the Trinidad players before me made sure to do that.

There's also a perception that we can only play a certain way. We are seen as the guys who can push down a wall if we need to. Physically very strong but not someone who can use intelligence on the field. That's the belief across the world. Players of African descent are seen as extremely strong but lacking brains. But that's not true at all.

A lot of people are surprised to realise that I'm a very articulate and intelligent person. But I've studied a lot and only began my football career after completing my graduation. A lot of people speak to me and when they find out I'm a footballer, they ask me 'what is it you really do?' There is this perception in their head about footballers and especially those of African descent.

'Some people don't even want to touch you'

X (A footballer from Africa playing in the I-League who wishes to remain anonymous)

I have been living with racism ever since I became professional. It's something that you have to live with. You need to know where to go, where not to go, whom to talk to and not. You will see some people don't even want to touch you. When someone meets me here the first thing they ask me is, 'Are you Nigerian? Are you into drugs?'... Even some opponents throw words at you or tell you to go home or use bad words for no reason.

Like I said football is sport and sport don't have any race no matter what colour you are or where you come from. We have to respect each other to make what we call the beautiful game the best. Say no to racism. Football is fair play, not inequality or colour,

(Inputs from Debayan Sen, Jonathan Selvaraj and Susan Ninan)