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Exclusive: Rajdeep Sardesai On Politics, Cricket, And His New Book

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By Shikha Sharma and Prashant Jha:

He is one of India’s most reputed journalists, having worked in journalism for more than two decades, but deep down, Rajdeep Sardesai is a self-confessed cricket aficionado. And his new book, “Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story”, is a testament to that love: a book that looks at examining the journey of Indian cricket in the socio-political landscape of a nation that has undergone a rapid transformation in the last two decades.

Through 11 elegantly written portraits of cricketers, Sardesai’s book draws comparisons between cricket and constitutional democracy,  highlighting how the sport has turned into Indian democracy’s alter ego, mirroring the best ideals the nation was found on.

In this interview with YKA, Sardesai speaks about his enduring love for cricket, the issues facing contemporary journalism today, and why he is proud to be called an anti-national.

Q: Your last book was about the election that changed Indian politics. This one is about the players who changed Indian cricket. What made you write this book? Any particular reason for writing it now?

Rajdeep Sardesai (RS): If tracking politics as a journalist has been my profession, then cricket has been an abiding passion. I loved writing on elections but guess there has always been a bug to write about cricket too inside me. The fact that my father was a test cricketer meant that I was nursed in a cricket ambience right from childhood. A lot of my father’s generation of the 1960s and 70s is slowly ageing, I felt I should tell their stories and connect it to present day cricket, to look at the rise of a ‘new’ India through the prism of cricket by using the sport as a metaphor for a changing India. At a time when India is the number one team in the world, this was a good time to write on the journey of cricket.

Q: The book talks about the 11 players whom you believe represent the era of democratic republicanism in Indian cricket.  Are these, in your opinion, then also the best 11 players India has produced? Why/Why not?

RS: No, no, this book is not about an all-time eleven at all. This book is a personal choice of cricketers, starting with my father Dilip Sardesai, who is a sentimental choice I guess. My father is till date the only Goa-born cricketer to play for India so he is one of the original small town cricket heroes in a sense. I chose cricketers who symbolised generations and the changing face of cricket: a Sardesai and Pataudi in the 60s, a Gavaskar and a Bedi from the 70s, Kapil Dev and Azhar in the 80s, Sachin, Sourav and Rahul Dravid from the 90s and the millennium masters like Kohli and Dhoni. Maybe I should have included a few more but don’t think this is a bad list either.

Q: Cricket, you write, has become Indian democracy’s alter ego, “…one of the few largely meritocratic activities in the country”. While talent may still be the determinant on the field, the darker aspects ailing Indian democracy (nepotism, political clout, corruption) still continue to impact the sport, at least, off the field. Do you feel this can be really changed? How?

RS: Look, there will be an element of nepotism that exists at junior level, in the districts where local politics influences cricket selection, there will also be corruption when the stakes are so high… and yet, truth is, cricket is now increasingly driven by merit and merit alone: you cannot play for India unless you are one of the eleven most talented players in the country. The sport has cut across all class, caste, regional, religious barriers. That’s why cricket is so attractive and represents the democratic spirit of a changing India. To my mind, cricket symbolises an aspirational India driven by merit, not privilege or lineage. That is the central thesis of the book: this is a real-life Lagaan, driven by the energies of an upwardly mobile society.

Q: Indian cricket had its Oliver Twist moment in 1975, you write, when Kapil Dev stormed the scene and triggered India’s biggest cricketing revolution. Since then, the game has witnessed a radical transformation, yet the big cricket dream still remains elusive for some.  What in your opinion, for example, will it take for adivasi players to become more visible in the cricketing scene?

RS: I think the big challenge of cricket is to always provide equal opportunity and take quality infrastructure to every corner of India. It’s already happening but the revolution is still incomplete. To complete the revolution, you need to take cricket to every mofussil town, have a sports facility even in rural India. That’s when we will see the next big take off. Don’t forget, we already have six to seven players from small towns in the Indian team. One day, we will have tribal heroes too on the cricket field.

Q: Do you think the book could have been made more inclusive (and reflected Democracy XI more truly) had a female cricketer, like a Shanta Rangaswamy, or Diana Edulji, or even Mithali Raj been included in the book? What made you decide against this inclusion?

RS: Very good question, and it’s an omission I do somewhat regret. The fact is, Indian women’s cricket is still work in progress. And the World Cup ride came in July when my book was more or less done. Maybe, the women deserved a separate chapter (I have referred to their success in my introduction), especially as their journey has been even tougher than the men. But I didn’t want to write a token chapter either. But maybe someone will one day write a book on women’s cricket too!

Q: A lot has changed in India from the time when Kapil Dev’s team won the world cup in 1983 to when Dhoni’s team did the same. Cricket, in a sense, reflects that journey – of a nation moving from its socialist roots towards a more globalizing future. How has this journey impacted the sport in your view?

RS: I think the engine of commerce has transformed this game forever. Indian cricket is now more professional, more driven by the market than ever before, a part of the infotainment industry. The wealth creation of cricket has been an important factor in making cricket an aspirational dream. No Indian cricketer will ever have to struggle to make ends meet. Maybe, some of the innocence of an earlier semi-amateur era is gone and there is a crassness at times to the commercial engine, but let’s also accept that the competition has become more intense, and the talent quotient even higher.

Q: A lot has changed in the country in the last 3 years too, since the NDA government came to power. How has the Indian media space changed during this time? Has journalism become a more dangerous profession than it was, say, a decade ago?

RS: I don’t know about journalism becoming more dangerous in the country in last three years. Let’s not exaggerate the threat: I often say this: journalists in Pakistan are braver than us, we face only criticism and abuse on social media, they have to face guns from terror outfits. Yes, the tragic killing of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh should lead us to introspect as to what lies ahead. I do believe that there are forces of intolerance who simply will not accept dissent. These forces, some of them now in power, want the media to be a cheerleader, a foot soldier of those in power. Sadly, some journalists have, like in the emergency years, chosen to prostrate when asked to bend. The government uses its power over media owners, in particular, to get news organisations to fall in line: this is troubling and reduces the space in mainstream media for an alternate opinion.

Q: In February last year, you wrote a piece in the Hindustan Times about being an anti-national and why you were proud to be one. Do you still consider yourself an anti-national? Why/why not?

RS: If telling truth to power is an anti-national act, then I am anti-national and proud to be called one. My job as a journalist is to question those in power, to shed sunlight on that which the ruling class would like to hide in darkness. How does that make me or anyone else an anti-national? We must end this poisonous narrative of ‘nationalism’ versus ‘anti-national’ because it will end in dividing and polarising India.

Q: Social media has changed the way news is done, and the profession of journalism as we know it. What do you make of this development? And what advice would you give to aspiring students diving into the profession?

RS: Social media is the new beast in the hyperactive media jungle. It is news and opinion on steroids in a capsular form. It breeds a culture of noise and sensationalism that one needs to be wary of. Yes, we are in an age of instant communication, but can complex issues be reduced to 140 characters on twitter? Can abuse and fake news become the staple of the news universe? I appreciate the interactive element of social media but we need to call out the darker side of social media too instead of trying to ape it on tv by allowing sense to be overtaken by sensation. Young journalists who are attuned to technology must take the lead in re-defining news journalism: enter areas where mainstream media has failed to take the lead like environment, science and technology, health and education, the core issues of the future. It’s the young who must do what maybe my generation failed to do: create a healthy media ecosystem where credibility matters more than any ratings game. It won’t be easy but we must give it a shot.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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