Hours after India’s women’s hockey team lost to Argentina in a tense Tokyo Olympics 2020 semi-finals last week, a few men started circling the house of one of its players in India. Vandana Katariya, the 29-year-old who has played over 200 matches and is India’s top goal-scorer, had just made history. Despite her team’s loss, she became the first woman hockey player to score an Olympic hat-trick.
But nearly 5,700 kilometres (3,541 miles) away from Tokyo, in the northern Indian city of Haridwar where Katariya’s family home is, men threw firecrackers and danced in mock celebration.
When her family stepped out, the men hurled slurs reserved for a community considered as outliers of the ancient Hindu caste system: Dalits. They make up just 17 percent of India’s total population of 1.3 billion, and were once considered “untouchables” because the grimy jobs of cleaning and scavenging were historically assigned to them by the caste system.
“[The men] said the Indian team lost because too many Dalits have made it to the team,” Katariya’s brother Chandrashekhar told Times of India. “They [added] that it’s not just hockey but every sport that should keep Dalits out.”
“It was a caste-based attack,” Chandrashekhar added.
The ancient caste system in India is 2,000 years old, but a majority of Hindus follow the rigid social hierarchy that brazenly excludes Dalits, even to the point of violence. Caste has parallels to America's racism problem, a comparison Martin Luther King Jr. made after visiting India in 1959. Unlike the U.S., though, India outlawed caste-based discrimination in 1950.
“[The men] said the Indian team lost because too many Dalits have made it to the team,” said Indian hockey star Vandana Katariya’s brother Chandrashekhar. “They [added] that it’s not just hockey but every sport that should keep Dalits out.”
Casteist slurs like the ones used against Katariya’s family merit a penalty of at least six months in prison. It remains common despite strict laws.
“[The incident] reflects the deeply-entrenched caste hatred that upper caste people have against those belonging to the Scheduled Castes (official term given to Dalits),” Riya Singh, an anti-caste activist who works for the advocacy group Dalit Women Fight, told VICE World News. “The savarnas (upper castes) do not have the capacity and tolerance to see our people in those fields from where they have been historically secluded.”
In the past, Dalit athletes like international-calibre veteran cricketers Vinod Kamble and Palwankar Baloo also faced casteism in their days. Recent data show a rise in reported cases of atrocities against Dalits, but a conviction rate of only 27 percent. Some cities recording zero cases highlight a culture of underreporting.
Boxer Thulasi Helen, who was once dubbed “Lady Muhammad Ali of India” by news outlets, fought against sexual harassment by a state boxing association official. She is reported to have said that she faced it because of her caste. “Because I was born a Dalit, I’m expected to stay at the bottom,” she said. “But I dream of a different life.”
In a country where most athletes come from humble or marginalised backgrounds, Katariya’s case shocked the public. “The fact that in 2021, this kind of treatment was meted out to an international sports icon blows my mind,” said anti-caste activist Sankul Sonawane.
The week Katariya’s case went viral – the ace forward player was trending on Twitter – news outlets reported at least four cases of crimes against Dalits. In New Delhi, four upper-caste men including a temple priest were arrested for allegedly raping, killing and burning a nine-year-old Dalit girl’s body.
“The fact that in 2021, this kind of treatment was meted out to an international sports icon blows my mind,” said anti-caste activist Sankul Sonawane.
Katariya’s case further fuelled public outrage. Although the men who verbally abused Katariya’s family were accused of violating India’s Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, they were not formally charged with the crime, a police official looking into the case told VICE World News. “The investigation is still underway,” he said.
As Katariya’s family came under police protection, they retreated from the limelight. “Whatever happened has happened. There is nothing more I can say,” Chandrashekhar told VICE World News before turning down an interview request. Another brother told a local TV media crew that the perpetrators might get away because of their caste. He added that if the punishment is not harsh enough, members of the family will self-immolate.
VICE World News tried to reach Katariya independently but received no response. Three days ago, Katariya tweeted that her family was going through a “very tough” time. “It’s a humble request to some people to not increase my troubles,” she added.
Many in the sports community have not addressed the casteist abuse against their fellow athlete. A lone criticism came from Indian Women’s Hockey captain Rani Rampal, who called the abuse of her teammate's family “shameful” in a virtual press conference.
"We give it our all and sacrifice a lot to represent our country. But when we see that this is what is happening to our families back home… I just want to tell people to stop doing all these things," Rampal added.
VICE World News reached out to Hockey India – the governing body of the sport in India – for comment but did not receive a response.
“The silence of the sports authorities is really shocking,” said Sonawane. “Even athletes from popular sports like cricket stayed silent. I believe that it’s a moral obligation, more than anything else, that you raise your voice when your fellow athletes are being targeted. Silence is endorsement.”
Several anti-caste activists drew parallels with the overwhelming support English football players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka got when they were racially abused online after missing penalties last year. In 2020, one Indian cricketer showed solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.
There have been conversations about introducing caste reservations in sports, much like the racial quota policy of the South African cricket team to allow more participation of non-white players. The idea hasn’t even materialised, but it is already facing resistance among some quarters.
"We give it our all and sacrifice a lot to represent our country. But when we see that this is what is happening to our families back home… I just want to tell people to stop doing all these things," said Indian hockey team’s captain Rani Rampal.
Singh, the anti-caste activist, said sports authorities should have a “targeted budget” for candidates from Scheduled Castes, recruit more Dalit coaches and trainers, and track caste discrimination.
“During games like the Olympics and other international events, the families of vulnerable candidates plus candidates coming from atrocity-prone districts or areas should be given police security,” she added.
In the meantime, there are worries about how the Katariya incident will impact her family and other Dalits across the country. “The hostility against Dalits is right on our faces every day,” said Singh. “We live in perpetual fear that people will know our caste and then humiliate us.”
Sonawane added that the community might be discouraged from pursuing sports or other fields of excellence. “This is why we need to keep talking about these cases,” he said.
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