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June 17, 2000


Dear Azhar...

Sajid Bhombal

For 16 years, we know you as Azhar. In 1984, we saw you as a simple Hyderabadi lad who made his debut with a bang. Since, then there were ups and downs in your life, and in your career.

Some time last year, I wrote a letter in with the headline 'Azhar -- the most inspirational force for minorities in contemporary India'. That piece was a direct result of some accusations levelled against me by my friends about me having undue sympathy for you when you were sacked as captain and even dropped from the Indian XI. The accusation was that my sympathy to you was due to the fact that you were a Muslim. I trashed those allegations. Since you were the most successful captain India has ever produced, having sympathy and admiration for a man who has done so much does not need religious, or other, excuse.

But those allegations did disturb me a bit, and after thinking over it I agreed to myself that yes, there is something, that at least a part of my sympathy for you was due to the fact that you are a Muslim - as I was. But is there anything wrong with this? I asked this of Saisuresh Sivaswamy (an editor with and a friend who is perhaps the best suited to speak frankly on these matters). He indirectly said that there was something wrong with this line of thought. His argument was, please do not see Azhar as a Muslim, but see him as an Indian. Fair enough. But I had a different point of view, and in order to argue that point I wrote that earlier piece.

In essence, what I said was this - Azhar showed to Indian minorities that if you have capabilities, you can rise to any post in this country. He set an example. And consciously or otherwise, the minorities did take note of it. Having been disappointed by the Bukhari type of leadership, of a pessimistic type, Muslims really looked at Azhar's success as a prime example of what India could do for them. It may not have been said openly, but it was surely discussed and debated in the drawing rooms (we Indians are like that only, we are something else in the open and quite different behind closed doors; if don't believe me, watch the tapes again or read the transcript on the website). Azhar, I argued, was the best force to fight the narrow-minded leadership of Bukhari and company, who were always telling Muslims how difficult it is for them to succeed in this country. Azhar showed how easy it is -- provided you have what it takes to be successful.

Well, as I said, I wrote that last year. Before that there were some allegations levelled against you. I had read about it and it was surely at back of my mind. But my point was not to prove that you are a good man, but merely to prove that you did inspire a lot of us. And you did it at the right time. In the '80s, the first post-Partition Muslim middle class was coming of age. The new generation was getting out of colleges or starting on their career and were looking forward to professional success.

Yes, before Azhar too there have been other Indian cricketers who were Muslim. And quite successful too. Patuadi was one who could be termed as an inspirational force. Kirmani, to name another. But unlike Pataudi, who was a nawab, you came from a lower middle class family, just like the rest of us. We saw you as one of us. Unlike Kirmani, who was a great wicket-keeper and a greater team man, you took on more responsibilities and succeeded, even though you were written off as a captain even before you went for your first toss. There lies the most important aspect of your success. A man who was written off as captain material even before he went for his first toss, ends up being the most successful Indian captain ever!

All these thoughts came to mind as I read your Deccan Chronicle interview. Ironically, on the same day Busybee (Afternoon Despatch & Courier) wrote: "I also like the quiet and dignified manner in which he (Azhar) has been conducting himself throughout this unfortunate episode, unlike some others, who have been blowing hot and cold".

Having followed the accusations against you and other cricketers through media, I had no reason to disagree with Busybee (dignity is something which is attached to you; even Gavaskar, whenever he wrote about you, used the word quite frequently. Of course that was what he wrote in public, behind closed doors what he thinks and says is a different matter, as we all know now). I am afraid now that Busybee must be disturbed at what he wrote about you. There is less dignity in that interview, Azhar.

What are you trying to say, when you said: "Mainly because I belong to the minority community I am being victimized and targeted......"

This one statement has completely disappointed me. I saw you as a Muslim who inspired us to succeed without thinking about the 'minority' or 'majority' syndrome. A man who showed us to think big, and to go for it. I believed, I took inspiration from the fact that you showed us a way to succeed, without making a big issue of it. You inspired us to believe in ourselves. You showed us the way to look beyond our Muslim identity. You were our best bet to counter the Bukharis and Shahabuddins.

Reading this interview shattered my most cherished thoughts and the admiration I held for you. In you I saw an inspiration to fight the inward looking leadership of my community. By playing the Muslim card, you have not only become more vulnerable, but you have set a bad example for us members of the minority communities. The people who got inspired by you, now on, may have some negative thoughts at the back of their mind that they maybe victimised, targeted and blah blah blah for being what they are. This is no different from getting into a trap laid by the negative leadership of the Bukharis and Shahabuddins. That is the last thing I expected from you.

No Azhar, don't disappoint us by doing what our politicians do -- blaming your ills on others. Not only is it nowhere near what you have done in the last 16 years, but it also negates all your achievements. You may not be aware of it, but you have surely done a great deal to inspire the minorities. Don't, please don't, let it to go waste.

I am not trying to say that what you are speaking is totally untrue -- I can't judge that. There maybe some truth in it. But, I would expect you to fight it out as Azhar, the cricketer we know, and not as a cheap politician. (In the same interview, you have also said that you do not have a cheap mentality).

I am not saying there are no double standards in our society. There are. Plenty of them. In your case also there are double standards. Here are few of them:

Prem Panicker said it beautifully when he wrote his column after Bindra's allegation against Kapil Dev. He did bring this double standards to everyone's notice that when Azhar's name was being talked about as the person who offered Prabhakar 25 lakh rupees, many among us believed. But when Kapil's name came out, many of us and our uncles started fuming. The guys who till then thought Manoj Prabhakar was doing a lot for Indian cricket, started thinking differently. The same Manoj Prabhakar then lost credibility. Why? Because he named Kapil and not Azhar.

Yes, many newspapers carried the story about your alleged involvement in a diamond trader's murder. None of them, except The Times of India , reported the Mumbai police's clarification that the murder had nothing to do with match fixing.

Yes, our sports minister did come on TV to say that there were serious allegations and Azhar should take moral responsibility and quit. And yes, the same sports minister, on the same TV channel, and on same programme and probably in the same clothes, did say that mere allegations should not stop Kapil Dev from performing his duty as a coach. Probably, our minister maybe under the impression that s mere allegation of introducing a bookie to another player is a far more serious allegation than offering money to one's colleague to under-perform. Yes, if this is not double standards then what is?

Yes, I do agree with you when you say that there are double standards. But only up to this point.

You know Azhar, in our society, as noted by respected journalist Tavleen Singh, "Perception of reality has become more important than reality itself". So our perception of cricket icons are different than those who we perceive as "little lesser icons". This has nothing to do with religion; it has every thing to do with our way of thinking.

Look at it this way. There is this perception of Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. They are seen as the guys who truly love cricket. We see that their involvement in cricket will change the game for the better. This is what we think, even though one is busy with his commentary work and other businesses, and the other is with his golf. But do we remember Vengsarkar? No. He had (before you broke it) held the record for being the second best batsman in India. He, after his retirement from the game, runs a successful cricket academy. He is doing his best to give back to cricket what the game gave him. But who cares? Vengsarkar is a forgotten force. Why, because he does not have what we all perceive as a "high profile".

Anil Kumble has probably won more matches for India than any one else in contemporary cricket. But, two bad games and we want his head. Why? Because, again, he does not possess a high profile image.

These are just two examples. And if you don't realise, both of them are Hindu, from the majority community.

What I am trying to say is this double standards business cuts across religious and regional lines.

But double standards never succeed in the long run. So don't worry, you have the fighting spirit to fight it out.

But to expose the double standards, you first need to prove yourself as innocent (yes, you will be considered guilty till proven innocent, which is quite harsh on you, but that is how it is; there is nothing you can do about it).

If you are innocent, there are some basic things which you should have done in the first place. Take this example -

There is this charge that you lead an extravagant lifestyle and you own lots of properties. You deny this, as is apparent from your interview. But some basic action will solve this gap in credibility. It would have helped if you had read Prem Panicker on Kapil Dev's now famous 'cry act' (and, I may add, his information about his feeding habits as a child or his ability to slap his ex-team mate). Prem, in that article, said instead of doing this, one would have appreciated it if Kapil had gone to the CBI with details of his finances and other relevant information and requested the bureau to clear his name. You too could have done the same. But I wonder why no Indian cricketer or official does this!

You say your house in Hyderabad is rented. This is not very difficult to prove.

You say you had bought a flat for your parents by taking a bank loan. Again, this is not really a difficult thing to prove.

You say you stay in an ordinary flat in Bombay, the lift of which does not work on many occasions, and you have to walk up six floors. (Wow, now we know the secret of your fitness!). This again is not very difficult to prove. It is easy to find out the market value of properties in Bombay.

You say you have not declared Rs 16 crores under the VDIS. This is quite difficult to prove, as the scheme itself has a legal provision for the secrecy of the declaree. But you can meet the Prime Minister and/or the Finance Minister and ask them to get your name cleared in this.

All these points need to be proved to the CBI; there is no use going to the media with your protestations of innocence. They don't take you seriously anyway! I know you are not legally bound to do what I have suggested, since no charges have been proved against you, but if you are really innocent and want to get rid of these allegations, this is what needs to be done. This, let me assure you, will also expose all those who you allege have 'ganged up against you'.

Coming back to the allegations by Cronje. I must say I somewhat agree with you when you say Cronje has no credibility. Yes, he maybe lying. Yes, he and authorities in South Africa may be racists. But this talk is zilch unless you are seen as acting to prove your innocence.

If I were you, I would have taken the first flight to Delhi, met the Sports Minister, asked him to take me to the Foreign Minister, would have asked him to call the South African High Commissioner and get permission to go to SA and depose before King's commission and get my name cleared (I know it is easier said than done, but still...).

Azhar, you maybe innocent, but please do not lose your dignity. Fight it out as the Azhar we all know, love and admire.

If you have done something wrong, accept it. Confess or face trial. Match-fixing is not a pardonable act, and I for one am sure I will not excuse you. But face the charges, fight the trial the way you have fought for 16 years. Don't act as cheap politician and play some kind of minority card.

This will not only damage your image, but that of the whole community.

As I said, you set an example for many of us. Set another example and face trial with dignity if you are in the wrong. This is a sincere request from me, as one Muslim to another, and more importantly as one Indian to another. Show us that we were not wrong in hero-worshipping you.

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