What the Celebration of Asian Games Medalists Tells Us About Indian Society

Every year, we are made to feel awed at stories of people from humble and disadvantaged backgrounds making it big on the national or the international scene, but little is done to erase the biases that they fight.

In the just concluded Asian Games at Jakarta-Palembang, India finished eighth with their best ever medals tally. This should be lauded. What is worrying, however, is the focus on some athletes who come from humble backgrounds and achieved what was considered impossible for their social class, because of the absence of training, equipment and other requirements necessary for achieving excellence in sports.

The internet has been alight with stories of athletes like Swapna Barman, Dharun Ayyasamy, Hima Das, Vismaya Velluva Koroth and Dutee Chand, enumerating the hardships they faced, the poverty they fought and yet pursued their dream of making it big on the international sports scene. These star performers overcoming social stockades is nothing less than a miracle, more so in a country which thrives on inequality and biases of caste and class. We should all put our hands together and give them a standing ovation.

Having said this, appreciation of overcoming social misfortune by some athletes – as is visible in conventional and social media – needs deeper evaluation.

As a member of civil society, this applause for the disadvantaged makes me worried, if not derisive. In his book, Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, American thinker Tim Wise coined a term, “enlightened exceptionalism”. The book, written soon after Obama had just been elected as the first black president of the US, Wise says this ‘enlightened exceptionalism’ is in itself a kind of racism (Racism 2.0). This type of racism allows for and even celebrates individual persons of color, but only because those individuals generally are seen as different from a less appealing, or even pathological black or brown rule. He feels that “enlightened exceptionalism manages to accommodate individual people of color, even as it continues to look down upon the larger mass of black and brown America with suspicion, fear, and contempt, suggests the fluid and shape-shifting nature of racism.”

Applying the same logic of enlightened exceptionalism and of shape-shifting racism to the Indian society, we can explain the appreciation of many stereotypes which are thrown upon us year after year. Every year, we are made to feel awed at stories of people from humble and disadvantaged backgrounds making it big on the national or the international scene. Remember the Dalit girl who topped the civil services exams? Or the daughter of that ragpicker who made it to IIM? The young Kashmiri girl who made it big in kickboxing? That blind boy who made it to the medical entrance exams? In the same vein, underprivileged athletes who made the country proud at the Asian Games 2018!

The enlightened ‘exceptionalists’ of Wise are plenty in India, probably because the fault lines of the Indian society are far larger and deeper than in America. Our social chasms intersect at multiple points and each point needs a new icon from the amongst the poor, minorities, schedule tribes, Dalits and women to lessen our guilt of having failed them through the years.

The privileges of caste, capital and religion in India outweigh an individual’s efforts and hence, when somebody can overcome these to shine, be it sports, education, profession, or politics, we are quick to applaud. This applause is not for the group to which the person belongs. That group still remains an unworthy entity. It is only for the individual who could fight his/her way up from the depths in which that group survives.

Those appreciating the ‘exceptionalists’ are indifferent towards the fate of Dalits, minorities or disabled. So while appreciating the Dalit civil services topper, the privileged do not feel the need to contribute towards providing equal opportunities for Dalits. On the contrary, there is a constant bid to thwart efforts towards inclusiveness (remember that anti-reservation rhetoric we constantly hear?). Similarly, while appreciating the kickboxing champion from Kashmir, houses are denied to Kashmiris in Delhi. The fear and contempt for Kashmiri Muslims thrives unabated. Such is the case with all those bright stars of a dark sky, who are picked up from among the ruble of the wretched and are put in a glass showcase as a measure of civility. There can’t be a more hypocritical position than this.

Appreciation of well-performing individuals, whichever strata of society they come from, is not unwarranted. Appreciation of those who have defeated biases of the society is also justified, but it fails us when we look down upon the very group this individual hails from. So should we stop applauding those who have overcome the hardships of their fate and excelled? Not at all. What is required is not picking up individuals as stars from a deprived group. The solution lies in ending the exception.

Shah Alam Khan is a professor of orthopaedics, AIIMS, New Delhi, and the author of Man With the White Beard. Views expressed are personal.