Many African footballers in Kolkata would get Darren Sammy's point. "Kalu", "kalia" or "Kala aadmi"—different variations of the colour black—is how they are referred to by fans and have been described by some coaches and officials. On enclosed grounds in the Kolkata Maidan, where stands are close to the pitch, Renedy Singh remembers hearing, "Ei, kalia tah ki korche (what is this black man doing)?," if an African player erred. It was normalised to the point that in 2008-09 an African footballer once told an Indian teammate, "you take care of one 'kalia' and I will deal with the other." Both were representing a Kolkata club that is over 100 years old.
It took Sammy to call out what is a common and casual practice in Indian sporting circles—singling out people with dark coloured skin.
It affected Dhanraj Pillay. "When I started playing for the country, I suffered from an inferiority complex—'arre mein bahut dark hu, mein kaala hu (I'm very dark).' How will I talk to everybody else with confidence, especially those with white skin," said the former India captain whose 339 international appearances include four Olympic Games.
"So, automatically an individual, even if he is a sportsperson, tends to stay within himself," said Pillay who led India to the Asian Games gold in 1998.
"Fair isn't the only lovely or handsome guys," former India batsman Abhinav Mukund had said in 2017 ending a post on racism and how 'name-calling' toughened him. On June 3, by when many renowned sportspeople had spoken against the death of George Floyd in USA, another former India cricketer talked about his experience.
"The story of @mukundabhinav, reminded me of the racial jibes I went through in my playing days. Only an Indian legend was witness to it. It only made me strong & didn't deter me from playing for India & over 100 mts (matches) for Karnataka," wrote former fast bowler Dodda Ganesh on Twitter. When contacted, Ganesh declined to elaborate.
It is not difficult to understand why Pillay, Mukund and Ganesh have spoken about how dark skin affected them—India has an obsession with fairness.
Men's fairness products was a ~400 crore industry in 2015, according to a Quartz India report, and poised to grow by 6-8% between 2018-2023, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com which listed 14 companies operating in the fairness cream and bleach segment. A 2016 report in Mint pegged the total market of fairness creams for men and women at ~ 2000 crore.
"Skin colour inadvertently comes into our description of any person. Many of our gods are depicted as fair and having so-called Aryan features. So there is definitely a prejudice about colour and physical features," said Kushal Deb, professor of humanities and social sciences at IIT, Bombay.
"Casteism is still ingrained in many of us. And somewhere, casteism gets into racism because the upper castes, especially in some of the northern states of India, take pride in having fairer complexion," said Deb.
Irfan Pathan has spoken about this. "I have seen that in domestic cricket, some of our brothers who come from South India, when they come to play domestic matches in North or West India, they do sometimes get taunts, " the former India all-rounder told ANI on Tuesday.
Sportspersons from India's tribal belts too have felt excluded. "Remarks of me being Adivasi were made not in a good way at camps," said Dilip Tirkey, former India captain, who is from Sundergarh in Odisha.
"Players from tribal areas usually had little formal education and found it difficult to interact with others. When I first made the India team, I was generally ignored by team members," said the former Rajya Sabha member who has a stadium named after him in Rourkela.
For athletes from the North-east, it's not skin colour but their features that leads to them being singled out.
Singh, who has had the rare distinction of leading Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, spoke of being in a train to Guwahati at Howrah Station. As cadets of the Tata Football Academy, they had returned from a tour of Germany and hence had big bags.
"A policeman began banging his lathi on the bags and kept yelling at us, saying 'you can't travel with such a lot of luggage.' He didn't abuse us; he was just rude. But after all these years, I can't help wondering whether he would have been so mean had all three of us not been from North-east," said Singh who was 14 then. Both Lolendra Singh and Sushanto Majumdar, Singh's companions that day, went on to have long careers in football.
"Train journeys used to be difficult. I remember once I fought with the ticket collector who made some remarks. We were looked upon as easy targets, just because of our different looks," said Sarita Devi. "Just the stare itself would be so bad that they would check you from top to bottom. I had a temper and when such things happened, I used to fight. Things changed once I became known."
Playing in Kolkata had its perks, said Singh. "The fans put you on a pedestal and you were never called 'chinki'. Playing for Bengal meant being respected but I have heard people looking at the Manipur team and asking 'who are these Nepalis?'," said Singh. Last month, during an Instagram chat between India captains Virat Kohli and Sunil Chhetri, a user had posted: "yeh Nepali kaun hai (who is this Nepali)."
"Even if Bhaichung Bhutia walks in somewhere where he is not recognised, someone could make a racist comment," said Singh. Former India skipper Bhutia, who played for both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, scored 41 goals in 82 games for India.
"People from North-east living in different parts of India face racism every day," said Singh who now coaches in Manipur.
Singh said he is more vocal now about racism than in his playing days. "Indians raising their voice against Floyd is commendable but I would be happier if more Indian families taught children to not differentiate on the basis of colour, what you wear or the way you speak," he said.
Jwala Gutta too advised sportspersons to be heard. "The thing to learn from the George Floyd incident is how everyone—from celebrities to sportspersons —have condemned the incident…. There is a lesson for us – how to stand united against such atrocities and injustices," said Gutta who has a world championship bronze and gold and silver in the Commonwealth Games.
Gutta, whose mother is Chinese, is racially vilified regularly. "Such things will not stop me from speaking my mind and raising issues. Sportspersons should be vocal," she said.