Loneliness of Irfan: Has history turned a corner?

Nostalgia has been the only booming industry during the ongoing global pandemic. For the first time in the post-globalisation era, the restless world has come to a halt and that has made us realise all that stays with us is memory — not just the good ones. If you are a black man or woman in the United States, or a Muslim or Dalit in India, a large part of your memory would be of discrimination. But unlike the US, hardly any celebrity from those communities has ever talked about those in public. India’s marginalised never had their Muhammad Ali, who proudly declared before the world that he has got more reasons to fight white Americans than the Vietcong. That void was filled somewhat when Irfan Pathan spoke out.

The amiable former cricketer has not uttered anything half as rebellious as the boxing great but his gentle June 9 tweet has been enough to invite abuses which reinforce the point he was making: “Racism is not restricted to the colour of the skin. Not allowing to buy a home in a society just because u have a different faith is a part of racism too… #convenient #racism”.

The experience described in this tweet is a regular one in bustling Indian cities. Hindu housing societies do not let Muslims in, vegetarian societies do not let non-vegetarians in, so on and so forth. Literally, no part of the country is immune to this kind of discrimination. Even the Bengalis, who pride themselves in being more progressive than other communities in India, indulge in this practice. A few minutes through Bengali Facebook throws up numerous cases of Bengali Muslims turned away by Hindu landlords just for their name in different parts of West Bengal. In August last year, ‘The Times of India’ reported about four doctors whose neighbours were against having them in the society because they are Muslims. This was happening at the heart of Kolkata, which claims to be the cultural capital of India.

This proves no matter how noble a profession you are in or how much you have contributed to the society, the religion of someone from the minority still becomes bigger than the man in our country. But over the years no celebrity from the minority community has talked about this. That is what makes Irfan’s act heroic. He has spoken out at a time when this country has become more inimical than ever for Muslims. Call it hypocrisy or courtesy, Muslims who are the face of the country were kept outside the realm of regular abuses even five-six years back. The usual escape of the Islamophobe when pushed back used to be, “I don’t hate Muslims. I love Mohammad Rafi, my favourite cricketer is Azharuddin.” Many replies to Irfan’s tweet show that period is over. The good Muslim-bad Muslim classification to camouflage Islamophobia is no longer needed.

The fearlessness that probably prompted Greg Chappell to ask India’s supremely gifted swing bowler to become an attacking batsman at No. 3, came through when Irfan tweeted on June 10, “My opinions are always as an indian and for India,I will not stop…” This at a time when the whole world was talking racism, except the Indian cricket board and cricketers. Even none of Irfan’s illustrious former colleagues came out in support.

To get an idea about how absurd this silence is, look at FIFA. An organisation which has always discouraged political gestures on the football field, issued a directive on June 2, asking the football federations to take a “common sense” approach in deciding whether to punish footballers showing solidarity with George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatter protests. Premier League followed suit. Taking the knee almost became a norm all over the world in the sporting events that started after the COVID-19 break.

Later the International Cricket Council, on June 11, issued a statement taking the same stand and saying, “The ICC stands against racism and is proud of the diversity of our sport. We support players using their platform to appropriately express their support for a more equitable society.”

But there was no word from BCCI.

More importantly, not a single word from India’s star cricketers who tweet about everything from demonetisation to preservation of rivers. Here one of their own was talking about something people of his community, even he, has had to face in this country, not a faraway land like the US, but nobody bothered. It became clear from Irfan’s interview to ‘Mumbai Mirror’ later on that he was taunted for his religious identity during his under-16 days. Even that revelation could not break the deafening silence of the cricketing fraternity. His words were only echoed by Abhinav Mukund and Dodda Ganesh, who revealed being taunted for their skin colour.

Apparently, while tweets about this innings that year or that spell on this day X number of years ago are delicious, memories like the ones Irfan, Mukund or Ganesh have are pieces of inconvenient nostalgia. The despair in Irfan’s June 12 tweet “Mein mere makaan se mohabbat karta hoo lekin usme mein rehne wale sabhi logo se nahi…ye kese ho sakta hai? Or agar hota hai to nuksaan kiska hota hai? #unity #love” is hard to miss. But none of his long-time colleagues came up with a soothing answer while unknown people ganged up to abuse him for his identity.

However, this sad story has a silver lining to it. Taunts and social discrimination is not new for certain sections of Indians but they never found a popular figure who used his position to articulate the pain of his/her community. Neither the Khans of Bollywood nor the famous people from other walks of life. History may have turned a corner through the Irfans and the Mukunds.


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