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Virat Kohli’s defence of his Muslim teammate is crucial in the fight against religious bigotry

Mohammed Shami, the lone Muslim in the Indian cricket team, was subjected to vicious social media abuse following India’s defeat by Pakistan in the T20 World Cup

Mihir Bose
Thursday 04 November 2021 12:43 GMT
"They definitely outplayed us" - Kohli on Pakistan's t20 World Cup win over India

The vigorous defence by Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli of his Muslim teammate Mohammed Shami could mark an important moment in the battle against the growing tide of Hindu religious bigotry in the country.

Shami, the lone Muslim in the Indian cricket team, was subjected to vicious social media abuse following India’s defeat by Pakistan in the T20 World Cup, with many suggesting that, as a Muslim, he must have deliberately underperformed so that his fellow Muslims in Pakistan could win. The fact is that his other 10 Hindu team mates also underperformed dreadfully, handing Pakistan their first ever victory over India in limited overs World Cup competitions.

This is not the first time that a Muslim playing for India has had his patriotism questioned when India have played Pakistan. Whenever the two countries have played, whether in cricket or hockey, where they also have great rivalry, many Hindus have debated whether an Indian Muslim could really give his best against India’s greatest Muslim rival. In the 1960s, this so scarred the career of Abbas Ali Baig, then one of the rising stars of Indian cricket, that he never really recovered.

Religion, of course, has always had a very curious role in Indian cricket. In the early years of Indian cricket, teams were organised along religious lines with separate teams for Hindus, Muslims and Parsees. These religious teams played a British team where only players of pure European blood could take part, in a tournament that laid the foundations of cricket in the country. The tournament was stopped at the insistence of Gandhi, who felt it fanned religious prejudice.

However, in the 1980s, when I was researching my history of Indian cricket, I met many cricketers who had played in the tournament and they insisted it had not encouraged religious bigotry. Now, ironically, while such a tournament would be impossible, religious intolerance has increased, fanned by zealots of Hinduism who have been much encouraged since Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power.

And this questioning of Muslim patriotism has come just as the number of Muslims playing for India has dramatically decreased. In the 60s, when I was growing up in Mumbai, and became passionate about the game, India had several prominent Muslim cricketers, led by the charismatic Nawab of Pataudi who revitalised a moribund, boring game into something very exciting. He also married a famous Hindu actress, who converted to Islam. At the time, it seemed part of the magic Pataudi had brought to cricket and life.

It is a measure of how much the country has changed that, today, Hindu fanatics would probably have denounced Pataudi as a Muslim jihadist seeking to trap Hindu women and destroy the Hindu religion. So venomous is Hindu religious bigotry and anti-Pakistani feeling that, outside of international competitions organised by the ICC, the world body that runs the game, India does not play its neighbour in cricket. Pakistani cricketers are not even allowed to play in the IPL, the world’s most successful cricket tournament, which is a wonderful showcase for most of the prominent cricketers of the world.

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Some time ago, when appearing on Indian television, I suggested that, as India has diplomatic relations with Pakistan, it should also play cricket with Pakistan. I was denounced as an anti-national who was only saying it because I hoped to earn money commenting on such matches.

That, against such a climate, Kohli has chosen to not only speak out in support of Shami, but specifically denounce religious bigotry is significant. He has faced horrific abuse as a result. It is in sharp contrast to prominent former Indian cricketers, whose defence of Shami has avoided any mention of religion.

Kohli, of course, has always been his own man. Last year, he took time off from an important Test series in Australia to be with his wife who was about to give birth. On a previous tour of England, he spent time with Moeen Ali, a devout Muslim, discussing religion and how it impacts people’s lives.

In a country where cricket is followed fanatically, and with India the economic powerhouse of the game, Kohli’s voice resonates widely. But whether his intervention will persuade other prominent Indians to speak out and stem the tide of Hindu religious intolerance remains to be seen.

Mihir Bose is the author of ‘The Nine Waves: The extraordinary story of Indian Cricket

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