NAGPUR, 23 July-2014, Amit Sampat/TNN: The Indian basketball team had a memorable outing in the recently concluded 5th Fiba Asia Cup in Wuhan (China), as they scripted a historic win over China and gave a scare to World Cup qualifiers Iran, Jordan and the Philippines.
But what soured the campaign was the racial discrimination and humiliation which the team’s Sikh players were subjected to by the organisers of the tournament.
Two Sikh players – Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh – were asked to remove their turbans before the start of the match on Saturday, July 12. They were stopped from entering the court moments before India were to open their campaign against Japan.
The match officials informed the players that they were breaking International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules and were not allowed to play with turbans. Article 4.4.2 of Fiba’s rules states: “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.” It further says: “Headgear, hair accessories and jewellery are not permitted.”
India’s American coach Scott Flemming’s pleas fell on deaf ears and the duo didn’t figure in the starting five. Only after they removed their turbans were they allowed to play in the first quarter. Despite the humiliation, Amritpal scored a game-high 15 points in the match.
Shockingly, such objections were never raised in the past against Sikhs playing with turbans. “We have always played in turbans, even in last year’s Asian Championship in Manila and also the recently held Lusofonia Games in Goa,” 23-year-old Amritpal told TOI.
“This Asia Cup was a memorable event for all of us. But the controversy left both of us distressed. I wear a turban in practice too, and it was strange to not have it on during the game.”
For 22-year-old Amjyot – India’s consistent scorer in the championship – playing basketball without a turban was a first. “Wearing turban is a part of me. When they told us we couldn’t play with one it felt very awkward. But for the team we decided to play without turbans,” said Amjyot.
Both the Indian players were not allowed to wear the turbans in remaining six matches over eight days. “From the next game onwards we tied our hair with a band and it was really awkward,” added Amjyot.
If the rule is applied in future then India might miss the services of both the upcoming stars or for that matter any Sikh player. Parents of both the players are against their wards playing without a turban. Amjyot said, “My parents have told me to play in India only because here the turban is not an issue. So I will miss playing abroad in future.”
Even coach Flemming was shocked. “I am personally against a rule that infringes on someone’s religious beliefs. A headgear does not cause any harm to others.”
Elaborating the whole incident, Flemming said, “A day before the Japan game I spent a long time making officials understand our point. I finally thought we had got the OK for our players to wear turbans during match. But to my shock just before the start of the match I was told that there is misunderstanding on what we had agreed upon. We were left with no choice.”
He further added, “I would never ask my players to do anything against their religious practices. It was up to them. It was very difficult but I think they both handled it well.”
Surprisingly, Basketball Federation of India (BFI) was unaware of the whole episode even after two weeks.
“This is a very serious issue. I will seek the manager’s report immediately and will lodge a strong protest with the governing body, both Fiba Asia and World. I will also follow it up with the ministry of sports and see to it that this never happens again.”
Gill gave example of a Canada-born Sikh player who had raised voice against similar discrimination. “When a Sikh player approached the law of court in Canada against the turban rule the court asked the federation to amend the law. Since then all the Sikh players are allowed to play with their turbans,” Gill informed.