INDIA'S STAR cricketer MS Dhoni found a smart short-cut to become the country's chest-thumping nationalist hero by displaying on his wicketkeeping glove the emblem of the army's Paratrooper regiment during the match.
Media cameras paid special attention to the "Balidaan" logo, every nationalist and dyed-in-saffron television anchor hailed Dhoni's fauj-prem and recalled that this cricketer is also an honorary Lieutenant Colonel in the parachute regiment of the Territorial Army.
But the International Cricket Council (ICC) was not impressed, and told the BCCI to tell Dhoni to desist from such superlative fauj
display on the cricket ground.
All debates about the exact language of Rule x or subrule y apart, it needed only little common sense to surmise that on a future date, the Pakistani team might also start displaying emblems of the various formations of their country's army. Other countries too can then follow suit. Also, the displays will not remain limited to the respective country's army. Someone might want to display a sign related to some regressive cause in some country. How will you stop a player who might actually believe that all climate change talk is a fraud and display a slogan to say Al Gore is enemy of humanity?
But Dhoni and his ilk do not think that far. The here and now of the perception war is simple: portray yourself as a fauj-premi nationalist and there is a crowd outside ready to scoop you up as a role model for the country. Dhoni could not resist the temptation. The glove came in handy - pun only incidental.
Dhoni's fanboydom approach to army is simple to understand. Children brought up to hero worship authority figures usually admire aggressive authority-oozing uniforms. Not long back, Dhoni was the mastermind behind the team donning military caps. This time it was the commando dagger-military insignia on his gloves. No one can have an objection to Dhoni's obsession with the army, but the decision to use the sport of cricket to advertise his obsession as the ideal of the youth is not cricket.
Dhoni is welcome to his armed forces fixation as to his long-haired Tarzan look, but he is not welcome to use grounds built with public money to further an agenda.
For years, Dhoni's PR team's strategy was to publicise him as a very private person. The public at large was told that he doesn’t take phone calls and avoids in-depth interviews. Of course, few people have the capacity to juxtapose it with the fact that he has a huge agency to manage his image. Soon, the PR team decided that this uni-expression recluse needed to be projected as a superstar and voluble desh-bhagat fauj-premi hero. So, Dhoni could not stop talking about his army connection and proclivity to tilt at the fatigues, or Balidaan badges.
The private person was suddenly too public about how he now owns olive greens and spends time with troops. He would underscore his love for troops 24 x 7, post pictures with guns, visit J&K in uniform, and then claim the right to display a badge that he never earned.
emblem represents the elite Special Forces of the parachute regiment whose members pass gruelling tests, undergo arduous impossible-to-imagine-for-a-civilian training — both physical and psychological — to earn that badge.
Dhoni was just being a fan boy on the sidelines, the kind who think they are heroes because they just got clicked a selfie with the cut-out of their hero at a mela ground.
But there have been players in sports who donned gloves that posed far greater risk than what Dhoni faced. It is a pity that the national media of India, or the nationalist media of India, did not deem it fit to inform its readership that gloves have been used to make far more risky statements on the playing field than the adventure that Dhoni undertook.
Dhoni's was a conformist dare that only made puddles in the Indian street. When two black Olympic athletes raised their black-gloved fists at the Olympic medal ceremony, protesting during the "Star-Spangled Banner,” they shook the world beyond continents and oceans.
Dhoni endeared himself to the ruling establishment. The black American athletes faced massive hardship, lived under the shadow of the FBI agents, were shamed and pooh-poohed by the loud rightwing American media and public but did not flinch in advocating using the Olympic platform to express outrage about racial inequality in America.
Statement-making gloved on a sporting field can be no-risk Dhoni gloves, or life-threatening black gloves of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
If you know about the Dhoni story, it is time to know the story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Smith smashed the world record with 19.83 seconds while Carlos was third. Peter Norman, an Australian, won silver. No one would run under 20 seconds in the Olympics again until Carl Lewis in 1984.
While approaching the victory stand, Smith and Carlos held their running shoes in their hands, sported black socks, clearly not the mandatory look for medal winners. All three wore large buttons that read, "Olympic Project for Human Rights.”
When the American anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner” sounded, Smith and Carlos raised their right and left arms, respectively, in the air. Each was wearing a single black glove, covering a clenched fist: the black power salute.
Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. The Australian Peter Norman is at left.
There was no social media in those days, but the image went viral. Till date, it is a photograph often seen in hostel rooms of young boys and girls, and wherever people love to hang their idols and ideals on the wall, or wear them on the sleeve.
Both Smith and Carlos had been angry for a long time. Both athletes came through tough routes to the San Jose State University, known as the track powerhouse.
The campus talk in those heady days was much about the ways in which America was divided. Black studies classes were being monitored. The Sociology instructor, Harry Edwards, was queering the pitch, engaging students and inspiring them to ask hard questions of their peers and of themselves.
Both Smith and Carlos were professional athletes but they would question how sports and television advertising were raking in the moolah while anti-poverty programmes were resource crunched.
Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell
The months and weeks leading up to the 1968 Olympics were tough. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April that year. The air was rife with top black athletes taking a stand against racism. Among them were Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. Ali had apparently thrown his 1960 Rome Olympic medal into the Ohio River after a whites-only restaurant in his hometown, Louisville, refused to serve him. Black Americans were hardly given any TV time. Only time they got was when Blacks would make a mark on a sports field, so Smith and Carlos decided to use theirs.
They knew that if they won the 200-metre race, they would have to shake hands with Avery Brundage, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee. To avoid that, they got hold of a pair of black gloves each.
Brundage, a white American, was a racist and too friendly with the anti-Semitists. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was untroubled by Nazi salutes. He was a proponent of the America First movement and opposed the US' intervention in World War II. He was clueless about the ways in which the debate about race was engaging younger people.
France was still to recover from the student protests, Czechoslovakia was dealing with the Soviet tanks that had rolled into the country in August and cold war was at its peak. Mexican students were talking loudly about this thing called democracy. On October 2, just two weeks before Smith and Carlos were to run the 200-metre race, hundreds of students were killed at a rally in Mexico, but even violence of this scale did not derail the Olympics.
Americans loved democracy, but of a certain kind. When Czech gymnast, Vera Caslavska, turned her head away while the Soviet anthem played, they cheered her. But when Tommie Smith and John Carlos lodged their protest, they booed them.
Smith and Carlos were quickly shunted out of the Olympic Village and sent back packing, only to face serious backlash, including death threats.
Media went hysterical. Instead of reminding America that it had forgotten how to take care of the poor, particularly the black urban poor, about black dignity, about Frederick Douglass' great essay -- "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” -- it started projecting both as anti-America.
Each age gets its own Arnab Goswami.
But what did the third athlete do? Peter Norman decided to stand tall and broaden the meaning of the moment. He was the one who had advised Smith and Carlos to each wear a single glove (Carlos had forgotten his pair). The three formed an arch of unity and humanity.
It was an arc that went far beyond Dhoni's fauj-prem. Dhoni paid no price for his Balidaan emblazoned glove. These three winners of the 1968 Olympics suffered in multiple ways for their role in forming that arch with just a pair of black gloves.
Norman was never allowed to return to the game and was repeatedly rebuffed. When he died in 2006, still unfairly neglected, Smith and Carlos flew down to Australia to stand up one more time, as his pallbearers.
When Dhoni went to receive his Padma Bhushan
, he wore his army uniform with all its accompanying glitter, and marched towards the dais inside the intimidating grand Durbar Hall where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the audience.
It was a risk free walk -- left-right-left-right, half-step turn, left-right-left-right - pinning of the medal - then repeat the return walk to your chair. Now imagine the walk of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Shoes in hand, black socks getting the eyeballs, clinched fist in the air, heads cast down. Boos all around. That takes bravery. Perhaps what Peter Norman did was even braver. He did one more thing: that day, that week, upon his return to Australia and for the rest of his life, he refused to disavow his fellow winners. He didn't need the glove.
There was no media to tell Dhoni that his military uniform looked awkward and out-of-place in that Durbar Hall, that a blazer with a BCCI logo would have been apt. Imagine wearing NCC uniform to your law degree convocation!
Militarising machismo is unwarranted baiting. Ridiculous becomes nationalism. An act of courage a la what happened on that Victory Stand in Mexico City that day makes you a pariah.
By hailing Dhoni and his Balidaan glove, players like Milkha Singh, wrestler Sushil Kumar and former teammate of Dhoni, Sreesanth, were using it to climb the likeability ladder.
"Today, if Milkha Singh is renowned in the world and if India is known in the world, it is because of the army,” Milkha Singh wrote. Really? And here we thought it was because of great Indians, like you!
Public perception of Smith and Carlos began to change by the 1980s. Both became emissaries for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and were inducted into the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame. In 2005, a 23-foot statue depicting the Mexico City protest was unveiled at San Jose State, their alma mater.
Carlos, when asked "why?", put it so succinctly: "We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard."
Dhoni, if he wanted to use the glove space better, should have used it to make public the voice of those who are not being heard.
Today, Dhoni's desh prem is being acknowledged all around. Norman died without being acknowledged for his contributions to the sport.
Years later, we acknowledge him for what he did for humanity. he ran a race for us, and won. Then he used the win for us.
Dhoni fell far short.
Carlos once famously said: "In 1968, we were on a program for humanity—we are still on the same program today.”
What program is Dhoni pursuing?
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