Mainstream media’s preoccupation with the recent ‘turban ban’ controversy in basketball can do more harm than good. [This feature was originally published in Tadpoles Magazine on July 28, 2014 and can be accessed here.]

Amrit Pal Singh. Image credit: FIBA Asia

Amrit Pal Singh. Image credit: FIBA Asia

Anmol Singh touched his forehead on the cool white marble floor inside the Golden Temple Complex in Amritsar. The sun was just setting behind him, sending ripples of gold shivering across the surface of the giant pool of water known as the ‘Sarover’. Anmol visits the Harmandir Sahib, the holy shrine of Sikhs, often, to pray for his sporting success. Earlier this year, the 18-year-old was selected to the junior Indian national basketball team.

The 6ft 10 inch Anmol idolises fellow Sikh basketballer Amjyot Singh Gill, the 22-year-old power forward who is one of the rising stars on the senior Indian team. Gill had hit the form of his life during the 5th FIBA Asia Cup earlier this month, despite an unwanted incident that threatened to throw him off his game.

Moments before India’s opening match against Japan, the international basketball association (‘FIBA’) disallowed our Sikh players from wearing their traditional ‘patkas’—a harmless piece of undercloth— to tie up their long hair. As a result, India’s two starters Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh sat out the first few minutes of the match. While Amjyot was subsequently allowed to wear a ‘patka’, Amrit Pal played the entire tournament, six games in total, with his hair open.

Once the Indian contingent returned after a successful outing—finishing  seventh after toppling Asia’s highest ranked team China, leading against eventual champions Iran at halftime and falling to Asian powerhouse Philippines in the quarterfinals by just four points—the ‘turban ban’ story began spreading like wildfire across international print and television media.

Indian news channels, which to this date haven’t breathed a word about the basketball team’s hugely successful campaign, have been quick to latch on to this ‘controversial issue’ that was an ‘affront’ to our Sikh Community.

India’s small but passionate basketball fraternity is bemused by this sudden ‘concern’ displayed by mainstream media towards their sport. “It’s funny that the electronic media never gives any importance to Indian basketball when we win or lose… (but) they gave importance to the turban crisis. They did not talk about Amjyot and Amrit Pal having played so well. I do not understand how turbans became so important to create national news! Show some interest for the hard work that players put in when they play for India.” posted Divya Singh, former Indian women’s basketball captain on her personal Facebook page.

No doubt, the intense media scrutiny is welcome as it pressurised the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and the Indian Sports Ministry to issue public statements condemning this discriminatory practice. After all, players from Punjab have been the backbone of our national basketball programmes for many years. “There have been nearly 60 Punjabi players on the senior Indian men’s team since 1951,” Secretary of Punjab Basketball Association (PBA) Teja Singh Dhaliwal tells tadpoles, asking us to refer to the data publicly available on the PBA website.

“There is no such thing as bad publicity. This story has brought worldwide interest in the Indian basketball team. It is not good that this Amrit Pal Singh2 Image credit FIBA Asiahappened but there is lemonade to be made from lemons! ”, says Cathy Scholl, an American photojournalist who has keenly documented Indian basketball events over the last few years, with a special focus on basketball in Punjab.

However, Indian media’s bias towards ‘negative’ reporting when it comes to our ‘other’ sports like basketball, hockey or football ends up doing more harm than good. It fuels the perception of  ‘sadness’, ‘poverty’ and ‘corruption’ which in turn aggravates the already precarious struggle these sports face towards attracting top young talent.

The constant grilling of Amjyot and Amrit Pal for ‘exclusive’ soundbytes could well be one of the precipitating factors behind Amjyot coming on record as saying that he will refuse to represent India in future international events, until the head gear ban is lifted.

Amjyot and Amrit Pal are flag bearers of the sport in India and looked upon as role-models by thousands of other Sikh youngsters from small towns and villages in Punjab. A turban ban therefore would not only affect the composition of the current senior Indian team, but could also force other kids who follow their lead, to move away from the sport.

As many as 20 ‘turbaned’ youngsters currently represent Punjab state in the various age categories (u-13, u-16, u-18 and senior), and the ramifications of Amjyot and Amrit Pal’s dissent is already being felt. “If Amjyot has refused to play without a ‘patka’ then I will too. For me, my religious symbol is more important than playing for the country,” says Anmol, who has a strong chance to be selected to the Indian u-19 team that heads to Doha, Qatar next month for the junior FIBA Asia Championship.

BFI has now lodged an official complaint at the recent FIBA Asia Congress, which in turn has promised to review the rule at the earliest possible.

Sikhs give first, and ask later. Sikh langars serve food for free without any discrimination or hierarchy. As proud soldiers in our armed forces, Sikhs are always ready to protect this nation, and lay down their lives if need be. All they ask in return is to be allowed to wear turbans.

Gopalakrishnan R
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