Jaspreet Oberoi: Indian Hockey Team Needs To Stand With Farmers And Challenge Modi

Sportspersons worldwide have used their clout to not only promote sports and physical literacy but also to raise awareness about important social and political issues. 

Jaspreet Oberoi
August 11, 2021 | 5 min. read | Opinion 

The Indian men’s field hockey team rewrote history on August 4 in Tokyo when they defeated Germany to bag the Olympic bronze. India had last won an Olympic medal in the event during the 1980 Moscow Games. 

With this victory, the whole country erupted into celebrations, and India regained its old spot in the group of international hockey powerhouses. Such feats do not go unnoticed and carry immense influence and power, both in inspiring youth and gaining awe from the general public.

It is expected that members of this team will become household names in India, with their faces plastered on the TV screens, posters, and billboards. This is essentially how celebrities are born, and with great popularity and fame, comes great responsibility.

Sportspersons worldwide have used their clout to not only promote sports and physical literacy but also to raise awareness about important social and political issues. 

Recent examples of political activism from acclaimed athletes can be seen in plenty, especially in the United States and Canada. 

To add some background context for non-North American readers, the major professional baseball, basketball, American football, and ice hockey leagues in the United States and Canada are the highest and wealthiest professional competitions of those respective team sports in the world. The four major professional leagues are Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL). 

When the Black Lives Matter movement was at its peak, top athletes from all of these leagues stood, and continue to do so,  in solidarity with the Black community against state oppression. 

One of the prominent ones, who took an unapologetic stand, was the NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. In his first act of defiance, he sat on the bench while the US national anthem was being played. 

When asked to explain his actions, he said, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Kaepernick later transformed his stance from sitting to kneeling during the national anthem, which subsequently became a trademark for protests around the world. 

Players from NBA, MLB, and NHL followed his suit and have consistently done the same since then. In fact, the current 2020-21 season for all three leagues was kicked off by players from the participating teams kneeling as a mark of protest. 

The solidarity shown by American players is not limited to kneeling alone. During President Trump’s tenure, half of the teams (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, college football, men's and women's college basketball) who won championships, were either not invited or declined the invitation to meet him at the White House. The ceremonies for the other half were marred by various reasons including the absence of notable players.

The obvious conclusion is that Kaepernick’s activism worked.

His protests not only stoked passion and awareness in the public consciousness; they went beyond that within the Black community. A Cambridge University study shows that sports fans possess or develop affective attachments to sports celebrities. It proves that Black sports stars who engage in political protest are especially well-positioned to influence racial in-group members. 

Importantly, there is a consensus in political circles that Kaepernick’s heroics helped bring down Trump and changed America.

The present Indian political discourse is in desperate need of its own Kaepernick. The ruling government is far more fascist and inept than the Trump administration and the lack of a strong and well-intentioned opposition has added to the woes of the electorate.

The Indian hockey team that has recently returned from Tokyo is well-positioned to step up in Kaepernick’s role, and for multiple reasons.

One, they have achieved something phenomenal and have the public emotion and support on their side. Two, they are scheduled to meet PM Modi on August 15, when not only the nation, but the world would have its eyes on them because of India’s Independence Day celebrations. Thirdly, and most importantly, they have an extremely pressing issue to anchor the potential dissent around - the Farmers’ Protest.

With negotiations between the government and the farmers' unions at a standstill, the protests do not appear to be ending anytime soon and with each passing day, the Modi government is turning more and more insensitive and apathetic to the sufferings of the farmers.

From the get-go, these protests have been spearheaded by farmers from Punjab, with support from those of Haryana and UP, and it is worth noting that out of the 18 member squad of the winning hockey team, 13 members are from these three states - ten from Punjab, 2 from Haryana, and 1 from UP.

Also, at least three of the team members from Punjab, namely Shamsher Singh, Gurjant Singh, and Harmandeep Singh belong to farming families and are actively involved in the trade.

These players fully understand the daily struggles and difficulties that farmers face and the high-handedness and callousness with which the Modi government is handling their complaints and concerns.

On August 15, they will have the stage, the audience, and the antagonist, lined up and all they need to do is take a firm stand. Whether they refuse to meet PM Modi citing dissatisfaction with his government's stance, or they meet him and use the opportunity to give voice to the farmer’s demands, doing something and shifting the status quo is the need of the hour.

Going on the stage, shaking hands, smiling for a photo, and returning to the seat, is by no means a befitting chain of events for the brave and determined Olympic bronze medalists, as we know them now.

For the hockey stars to do this becomes even more important because the celebrities from the sport of cricket have turned into political pawns, not just silenced on grave matters concerning people, but backing the state to derail a people's movement like the Farmer’s Protest. The Twitter episode regarding Rihanna and Greta Thunberg is a prime example of the same.

The hockey team can also take inspiration from none other than the greatest Indian hockey player ever, Dhyan Chand. During the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Dhyan Chand and India’s Olympians very plainly and bluntly refused to salute Hitler as they marched past the Nazi dictator.

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Jaspreet Oberoi was born and raised in Patiala, Punjab, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He is a columnist focused on socio-political issues concerning India and Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @ijasoberoi.


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