It is often described as India’s greatest unifier, a sport at least on the field shielded from the religious schisms that have long divided the country.
But in recent weeks, the position of crickets as one of the last strongholds of secular India has come under fire as anti-Muslim sentiment rising in India among the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has surfaced. an ugly cricket scandal.
Wasim Jaffer, one of India’s greatest living cricketers who has scored more runs than any batsman in the history of Indian cricket match and Muslim, was accused of selecting players based on religion for the Uttarakhand state team, which he started in June 2020 when he retired as a player.
The allegations came after Jaffer resigned his post in early February, citing so much meddling and bias in the selection of undeserving players by local state officials. He named Mahim Verma, the secretary of the Cricket Association of Uttarakhand, one of the key figures who interfered with player selection and made his job as a coach untenable.
Between quotes splashing on the front page of the Hindi newspaper Jagran, high figures of the state cricket association Jaffer struck back. Navneet Mishra, Uttarakhand’s team manager, accused Jaffer of favoring Muslim players for selection, stopping the team from reciting a slogan mentioning a Hindu god, and sowing religious divisions. Jaffer was also accused of bringing in a Maulana, a Muslim religious leader.
To be [Jaffers] Meddling in selection issues became too much, Verma told Indian media. However, he has since denied all knowledge of allegations that Jaffer broke the team along religious lines.
Jaffer denied all charges as false and baseless. In a press conference he said that the common angle that has been expressed against me is very, very sad and he emphasized the equal position that Hindu and Muslim players had taken on his team.
Jaffer said the team had never had a slogan mentioning a Hindu god, but in fact often used a Sikh chant that he encouraged them to change into something more universal. I told them we don’t play as a community, we play for Uttarakhand, so our slogan should be for Uttarakhand, Jhe said.
If indeed there was a common bias I wouldn’t have quit, they would have fired me, he added. Jaffer declined to speak to the Guardian, saying he didn’t want to talk about this anymore.
Such communal mud waves had not been seen in cricket for over a century and the Prime Minister of Uttarakhand ordered an investigation.
There was fear among cricket commentators and fans that it marked an alarming infiltration of the widespread attacks by Indian Muslims into the sacred secular sphere of Indian cricket, where Muslims and Hindus have played side by side on the national team since 1911.
In recent years, hatred has become so normalized that even our beloved sports cricket has marred by it, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition party in Congress, tweeted in a veiled response to the Jaffer incident.
The refusal to admit religious division on the field has deep roots. Even during India’s Bombay Pentangular cricket tournament, which ran from the 1890s to 1946, where the teams were split across religious lines, Parsees, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other faiths, players of all faiths defended the tournament.
More recently, after India’s historic cricket triumph against Australia in January, it was the story of a young Muslim team member, Mohammed Siraj, who had remained on tour despite the death of his father of a rickshaw driver, that caught the national imagination in India.
This is a sad, shocking incident as cricket has generally remained protected from inter-community tensions in India, said Sharda Ugra, one of India’s most respected cricket writers.
We’ve seen this kind of common toxicity play out in the politics and public forums in India, but now cricket has permeated it, she said. Jaffer is our top-scoring batsman, but this has now dragged his name through the mud and thrown his Muslim religion in his face to settle a score.
Ugra expressed disappointment that none of the cricket’s biggest names, nor the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the country’s powerful cricket governing body, had not supported Jaffer. The president of the BCCI, former cricketer Sourav Ganguly, was once a teammate of Jaffers on the Indian cricket team.
Referring to Sachin Tendulkar, a Hindu and one of India’s greatest players, Urda added: It shows us that regardless of a player’s height, being a Muslim they can be a target. No cricket official would dare to make any allegation against Sachin Tendulkar.
Dr. Prashant Kidambi, a history professor at the University of Leicester and author of Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire, described the incident as unprecedented, saying that previous religious tensions in cricket had always been isolated to fans.
This has never happened in relation to the politics of domestic cricket and especially not in relation to a cricketer’s religious identity, Kidambi said. Muslims have always been present in the national team, it has been very important to the imagination of plural secular India.
If incidents like this become a trend, it would be truly disastrous, he added. It will destroy the only thing that seems, at least on the surface, to be cut off from this kind of divisive communal politics taking place elsewhere in India.
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