Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that the moral grandstanding on the Indian Premier League, or IPL, cheerleader controversy has the elements of a pre-written script with the dramatis personae mouthing predictable lines? First, the cast of characters: Siddharam Mehetre is Maharashtra’s minister of state for home. He finds cheerleaders and their performance “absolutely obscene” and out of place in a country where “womanhood is worshipped”.
Next up is Nitin Gadkari, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, leader in Maharashtra who more or less echoes Mehetre (“vulgar”, “obscene”, etc.) even though they are politically on opposite sides of the fence. He wants to go a step further and wants cheerleaders banned.
In West Bengal, the natural home of protest and demonstration, the state BJP’s Rahul Sinha arranges demonstrations against the cheerleaders, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Sharad Pawar. Sinha wants cheerleaders to be replaced by Indian dances by local artistes at Eden Gardens, a sentiment echoed by Girija Vyas, chairperson of the National Commission for Women.
Then you have a host of other players in two-bit appearances: The Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh decries the nangapan (nudity), BJP’s Shatrughan Sinha doesn’t want their “indecent dance” and suddenly everyone and their uncle is breathing fire and brimstone.
But the girls have their supporters, and the supporters have their reasons. IPL and BCCI officials are convinced that they are changing the rules of cricket for the better, so Lalit Modi says if it is alright to have dancers on stage shows, what’s wrong with cheerleaders? Owners who’ve invested crores of rupees in buying up franchises, players and importing the girls, also jump to their defence. Shah Rukh Khan, who owns the Kolkata Knight Riders, says he’s a “family man” and sees nothing wrong with the cheerleaders, while Charu Sharma, chief executive of the Bangalore Royal Challengers—the team that imported the Washington Redskins—dismisses the protests from “small, maverick groups” but says he will tighten security for the girls.
Why? Because the girls themselves say they are having a horrendous time. Cheerleader Tabitha from Uzbekistan tells the Hindustan Times, “I am shocked by the nature and magnitude of the comments people pass here. We are living in constant fear of being molested.”
Because it’s so easy to slam the moral police for its ridiculous double standards, we’ve ended up focusing on Mehetre and Co., giving short shrift to what should have been the real issue: Are cheerleaders out of place at a cricket match?
First, you don’t have to be a super sociologist to know that cricket is India’s No. 1 religion. To draw people to matches, you need good play, not cheerleaders and Bollywood stunts. Yet, despite the cheerleaders, the Bollywood stars and the cricket on the field, ticket sales are reported to be slow. The full houses we see on our TV screens are said to be courtesy of free passes or throwaway price tickets, distributed just before the game begins.
Second, to come back to Mehetre’s claim that in India women are worshipped, hence scantily clad women are out of place (what’s the connection, anyway? Our goddesses are ample-bosomed and our temples don’t shy away from the birds and the bees), the minister might want to reflect a bit on National Crime Records Bureau statistics for 2006 that show that on average, every hour at least 18 women in the country were victimized. If you want the break-up, the per hour rate of crimes against women is two rapes, two kidnappings, four molestations and seven incidents of cruelty from husbands and relatives. But cheerleaders are soft targets and attacking them guarantees instant publicity. So why bother with the real issues?
Third, isn’t the whole notion of using women with pompoms on the field exploitative, a throwback to the days when the “little lady” stayed home and rooted for her man? Or worse, a return to the days of the conquering warrior whose spoils of war included ownership of the women of those he had vanquished?
A photograph taken by The Washington Post newspaper shows the girls performing in Bangalore. The girls are in the foreground and you can see hordes of men clearly making asses of themselves in the background. How can any right-thinking Indian not cringe?
Of course, cheerleaders are scantily clad: that’s why they are there, despite Shahid Afridi’s plea that they are distracting to the game. They’re there because they look good, guarantee headlines (almost every major newspaper has put them on Page 1) and with a bit of luck, will bring in the crowds.
Reports now indicate that the imported cheerleaders are busy picking and training their Indian successors. But cheerleaders do not equal progress even if they do equal entertainment of a pretty low order. A mindless import from the sports traditions of a foreign country has little relevance for cricket here. IPL and the team owners would do well to focus on bringing in the crowds and showing us some serious cricket instead of serious skin.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org