On Thursday, athlete Hima Das raced to history winning a 400-metres gold at the IAAF World Under-20 Championships in Finland. No other woman from India has done what the 18-year-old daughter of a farmer from a small village in Nagaon, Assam, has: grab a gold medal in a global track and field event. It wasn’t just the fact that she won the event. The manner in which she left the rest of the field behind in the final 50 metres had the nation applauding.
But even as congratulatory messages were pouring in for the teenager, including one from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s athletics body got trolled on Twitter for an embarrassing social media gaffe. Posting a video of journalists interviewing Hima Das after her semi-final, the Athletics Federation of India tweeted: “Not so fluent in English but she gave her best there too.” That raises a question: Is Das’ s core competency speaking in flawless English?
More than five decades after Milkha Singh, the best quarter-miler in Asia, was ridiculed for his inability to speak good English (remember the Milkha Singh/relaxing jokes?) we still seem to be struggling to get our priorities right.
It isn’t a mere coincidence that PT Usha, the most celebrated Indian woman athlete was also at the receiving end of such misguided judgement. Usha, hailing from a small village in Kerala called Payyoli, was dubbed Payyoli Express after superlative performances at the Asian Games and the Olympics. But her heroics at the Los Angeles Olympics weren’t enough for an intrepid TV journalist who suggested that she get a makeover since she wasn’t good looking enough.
Does anybody have the gumption to question African middle-distance running champions about their looks or diction? Are French footballers, considered the best on the planet for excelling in their core competency, forced to speak in English?
Should Hima Das have to put on a fake accent in interviews the way many talented cricketers from Pakistan do? Kapil Dev Nikhanj, arguably our greatest cricketer ever and the captain who lifted India to another league by lifting the World Cup in the summer of 1983, never let his inability to speak flawless English come in the way of his poise and confidence. Many of India’s high-profile sportspersons – including those from non-cricket sports such as boxing, wrestling and badminton — come from the hinterland and don’t speak the Queen’s English. Why should they?.
Without the trappings, sports agents and media handlers that India’s cricketers enjoy, Das need not conform to the demands made of her after her triumph. As long as she continues to blaze the track and make India proud in athletics, perfect diction and Twitter-happy officials are of no import at all.