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Why is Indian cricketer Arshdeep Singh subject to online hate?

A 23-year-old Indian cricketer, Arshdeep Singh, is subject to brutal online hate for dropping a catch in a nerve-wracking cricket match against Pakistan on September 4. He’s facing abuse for paving the way for Pakistan to clinch victory in 2022 Asia Cup’s Super 4 round against India in Dubai.

It was the second meeting between the two Asian rivals in the tournament and tensions were running high. 

India had earlier returned the favour from its last year’s defeat at the hands of Pakistan in the World T20 game at the same venue as it got better of its nerves to snatch a final over win in their first meeting on August 28.

So, this game became a celebrated event, with media build-up and hype created on both sides of the border, as it was being played in the important Super 4 stage, where the two top teams at the end of the round would proceed to the final.

Far from being a one-sided affair, the game had its fair share of turns and twists, with the most noticeable one coming in the 18th over, when Singh dropped a sitter by Asif Ali, giving the Pakistani batter a reprieve at a crucial juncture. 

Ali would then go on to lay the foundation for a Pakistani victory.

The dropped catch shook the Indian crowds, and the post-match saw Singh getting a lot of flak, where he belonging to the Sikh faith became a target of hate. ‘Khalistani’ started to trend on Twitter.

The reference comes from a violent secessionist struggle that peaked in the 1980s in India, where Sikhs led a movement to carve out a separate, sovereign homeland for the people of their faith in the Indian state of Punjab.

It was implied through the ‘Khalistani’ hashtag that Singh, being a Sikh, dropped the catch on purpose so that India would lose the match to its rival, Pakistan.

“Be it any player, and not just Arshdeep, he would have faced similar backlash on dropping the catch,” says Prakhar Gupta, 20, student of law and an avid cricket fan.

But he is quick to add that this isn’t how one should look at the sport. “Arshdeep was the third most economical bowler, and even after dropping the catch, Arshdeep took Pakistan to almost the last ball. It was a good comeback by him,” he says.

“I would be very brutally honest, those who post such hateful comments don’t deserve such cricketers. Such people are not here for the sport. In the dugout, I’m sure they wouldn’t have talked about it. Cricketers don’t pay attention to it and true sport fans shouldn’t either.”

Former Indian captain Virat Kohli and others did come forward to show their support to the young bowler.

Shriya Roy, 26, multimedia journalist covering sports and gender, says, “Cricket is a game of little margins, and yes while the margin for error is less it can happen to anyone.”

“But we have to be honest, even as fans, to admit that post the BJP government coming to power, and especially since 2016, cricket in India has ceased to be just a game of sport. And things have only turned worse after 2019.”

Roy tells TRT World that India-Pakistan matches have always been exciting and emotional, with both teams faced with a lot of pressure on and off the field. 

“But to imagine that in a World Cup semi-final match in 2011, the prime ministers of both the countries sat together to watch it in the stadium, to a Virat Kohli being trolled relentlessly for sharing a hug with Pakistan players in World T20 last year, we have to admit that it is far from the sports now,” she says.

Roy blames the Indian cricket board and its “very right-wing representation” for not helping the cause. 

“We saw what happened with Shami last year, and the moment that catch was dropped we all knew young Arshdeep Singh would be facing the same hatred,” she says. 

“It honestly feels extremely disheartening, disturbing and sad to see that a game that is still so loved in the country, that once got so many people together, has now become a battleground for dirty politics and religious bigotry.”

Sukhchain Singh, 28, who hails from Ludhiana in India’s Punjab and serves at Gurudwara Singh Sabha in Copenhagen, Denmark, says, “I don’t have much interest in cricket since there is so much hate in it. It’s not about love anymore. People are at each other’s throats.” 

“If Pakistan wins, it wreaks havoc in India. And if India wins, then we are teased by being called ‘Pakistanis’. The spirit of sport is to bring people together, but that’s not how it is in India,” he adds.

Singh says things started to get worse following the success of the 2020-21 farmers’ protest, which was mainly led by the Sikh community. 

“Though it concerned farmers all over the country, irrespective of their faith, the Sikh community led the struggle for about a year and a half, and as a result, were labelled ‘Khalistanis’ and ‘traitors’,” he says.

Origins of the ‘Khalistani’ trend

Saikiran Kannan, a Data Analytics professional and an OSINT analyst, says, “It is always important to see where a campaign or a trend originates from. I only focused on the first three hours of the hashtag trend – right from the drop of that catch.”

“India did take part in this vicious campaign (stupidly), but the seeds came in from USA, Canada and Pakistan. The intent was nothing but sinister and to create a divide and make it a vitriolic atmosphere.” 

Kannan says there have seen similar incidents in the past, most notably when another Indian cricketer, Mohammed Shami, had been subjected to similar taunts.

How would such a culture of going after a person through bots and targeted campaigns affect an individual has been the subject of much debate among cyber experts and digital rights activists.

For Kannan, it is “of course bad” but nothing new. He thinks the onus is on companies like Twitter and Facebook to use more resources in fighting this culture. “It can really lead to a lot of trouble, especially in multicultural nations like India. We do not want things to escalate owing to social media trends,” he tells TRT World.

But there’s also an urgent need of increased social media literacy among online users to understand the workings of the internet to be better able to differentiate and distinguish between organic and targeted trends.

“People ought to know how they can be manipulated. How their emotions can be stoked by fake news and propaganda, whether it is being done by the right or the left,” Kannan says. 

“Social media companies have to do more in fighting this. They have done a lot of work on fighting fake news but need to do more to counter such inorganic and irrelevant trends,” he adds.

Kannan acknowledges that Indian accounts did take part in furthering the hashtag, but maintains that the trend’s origins lie elsewhere. He says he would like to see “Indian handles who took part in such exercises are subjected to lawful punishments”.

Some users argue that a virtual private network (VPN) is an easy tool to manipulate by setting a different location from where a post is being made. Kannan, too, doesn’t rule this out, saying bots and fake handles can manipulate location through VPNs.

“Bots and fake handles are another way of inciting emotions. But there are parameters based on which we can identify their fakeness or legitimacy using analytics and artificial intelligence,” he adds.

Ramsha Jahangir, a cyber expert who works on the intersection of technology and human rights, says it’s not as simple as it meets the eye.

“It’s tricky,” she tells TRT World. “There has been a lot of activity concerning the Khalistani trend from big accounts originating and operating from India. Big accounts populating such trends have only amplified its reach.”

Jahangir says it’s hard to be sure about these things. 

“If anybody uses a VPN and sets Pakistan as location then only the platforms can verify – rest are all assumptions. Some of the big (Indian) accounts that tweeted Khalistan trends have now deleted their tweets,” she says.

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