Considering that the Monkey God is one of the revered idols of Hindu mythology and worshipped by millions, it is surprising it was considered a racist term. Even more surprising is that the word 'monkey' is considered by the match referee serious enough to slap a three-match ban on Harbhajan Singh.
Tomorrow's SMH publishes this response from me:
The president of the United India Association, Raj Natarajan, says "monkey" is not a racist term in India ("'Monkey' not racist: Indian Aussies", smh.com.au, January 7). This is very easy to believe - it is not commonly used in that way in Australia, either, probably because the racial group that it is most often used to abuse is not a significant part of the population.
I can easily accept that many Indians would not think of the term as racist. However, if any player used the word to address Andrew Symonds, just months after spectators in India had been arrested for similar behaviour, then, at the very least, their actions were incredibly stupid.
It is ridiculous to suggest that placards referring to Symonds were comparing him to the Monkey God. It is equally ridiculous to suggest that the Indian team were not aware of these incidents and the subsequent commitments to clamp down on racism in cricket crowds.
This is all true, but I think the point was in what I also wrote, but was not published,
In this context, it is hardly surprising that a ban was handed down by a match referee from a country where these issues are now taken particularly seriously.
Perhaps a suspension was not the best solution, but we should also consider the possibility that one of the factors damaging relations and leading to these incidents is the way that supporters and others on both sides immediately leap to the defence of their team and accept any excuse, however unbelievable. We should acknowledge that our star spinners are not perfect, whether the issue is drugs, a hot temper, or racism.
It seems to me that there are several people in cricket administration, as well as supporters, who are quite happy to throw around accusations of cheating and racism, but go quite mad if similar accusations are officially laid against (a member of) their own team. It is one thing to appeal an decision that you think was wrong, it is another to say, as the BCCI secretary did, that "we will not tolerate" any accusation of racism.
I am still not sure how to respond to our culture's emphasis on racist actions at the expense of any other wrongdoings,1 but it is there, and the Indian team had plenty of reasons to be aware of this. True, Symonds didn't seem to think it was a big deal and Ponting seems to have made it one out of a desire to make a point or have some sort of revenge, but you would have to have your head in a hole to think that the match referee would not take this sort of allegation extremely seriously. There's nothing "surprising" about that! The only question is whether the allegation about what was said is true.
Neither Ponting nor Kumble come out of the recent exchanges looking good at all, but I'm more disturbed by the mass of irrational defenders on both sides. As long as that goes on, it will always be about nationalism, not a sporting contest.
1Remember the judge who said "fat bastard" is ok, just don't mention his colour?