She had a modest message about peace and solidarity to share, and then it was confiscated from her.
Something perturbing happened to my friend at the cricket.
It was, on the face of it, a minor act of censorship that went unnoticed by most. It might have been something and it might have been nothing. It’s hard to tell.
The scene is Hagley Park Oval, a test match between India and the Black Caps. At the edge of the boundary, a woman in a flowery dress, a keen cricket fan, is sat on a folding chair.
This woman, she’s that friend of mine, doesn’t want her name or face revealed for reasons which I feel are justified. But she does want this story told
It’s a fortnight before the one-year anniversary of the atrocity in Christchurch.
In the weeks that followed March 15, 2019, much was made of a new spirit of tolerance and cultural understanding.
The good from the horror.
My friend told me: In the crowd there would have been Muslims there from all different countries and they were feeling safe enough to be at the cricket. The Al Noor mosque is close, maybe 500 metres away. Perhaps with a big six, a very big six, you could land a ball on the roof.
My friend attended the match with a small placard. It urged solidarity with Muslims. It pointed out that there were both Muslims and Hindus playing together in the Indian team. Innocuous enough you’d think. She wasn’t even waving it. “It was just sitting on my chest.”
My friend’s husband took a snap – and she sent it to friends and relations around the world. They replied effusively to her call for peace. Lots of thumbs up and envy (“You are so lucky to live in NZ!”).
She had been quietly watching the game for an hour and a half, maybe two hours, when she was approached by a venue security guard.
At that point I was just curious, my friend told me. My husband thought they might want me to pose for a photograph or something. I thought perhaps someone had found my lost phone. I had no idea what this was going to be about. What follows is her recollection of the conversation.
Security Guard: Can I talk to you?
Security guard: I’ve had to report the sign. They’ve said it’s not OK.
Friend: Who are “they”?
Security guard: New Zealand Cricket.
The guard beckoned her to come with him.
Friend: You’re welcome to talk to me here.
Security guard: I don’t want to do that.
She went with him carrying her handbag and the sign. He walked her 10 metres behind the crowd to the outer edge of the oval.
Friend: What’s the problem with it?
Security guard: It’s political.
Friend: And the problem with that is?
Security guard: You’ll have to talk to New Zealand Cricket about that.
The security guard reiterated that she could not display the sign.
Security guard: You can’t mix politics with sport.
She later told me what she’d wanted to say was: don’t you remember the Springbok tour? But then realised he probably wasn’t born.
The security guard then confiscated the sign.
This is what it said. (My words in parentheses.)
Mr Modi (prime minister of India and leader of the BJP)
They Are Us (Jacinda Ardern’s call for unity after last year’s mosque attack)
Kohli (Indian cricket captain, a Hindu)
Shami (Another Indian cricketer, a Muslim)
Bhai-Bhai (An Indian phrase meaning, We are brothers)
My friend said: Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami, both great cricketers, a Muslim and Hindu playing together in a world-beating team – even though the Black caps whipped their asses – that last line is about being brothers, two hearts beating as one.
Why did you write it, I asked
Because, she said, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to talk about Hindu-Muslim relationships in the way in which they were intended, in the secular Indian dream.
Some context. This year has seen outbreaks of violence against Muslims in India, with dozens of lives in the northeast of New Delhi. Prime Minister Modi of the Hindu Nationalist party the BJP pushed for constitutional changes which barred Muslims from countries neighbouring India from seeking refuge in the same way as refugees of other religions. So, yes, there’s some politics involved.
My friend is an atheist now, born a Hindu. She’s holding a placard promoting brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims. A message of peace addressed to Mr Modi. It names two cricketers, one Muslim, one Hindu. It quotes Jacinda. It even has two hearts on it.
The main thing for me, she said, is why would someone have an issue with love and peace. Maybe I’m being obtuse and don’t get it, she said. She saw it as an act of love. An act of solidarity.
She said: It might sound extreme, but I felt frightened. Scared of being targeted.
She said: Formal authorities that would curtail my day to day life, and my family’s. My son has a Muslim-sounding name and I worry about that. As I say this to you, I feel naive and utopian, I feel a bit silly. Years ago, my Sikh brother was killed by a mob of Hindus. I know this isn’t that, but it brought it back. I wish these things weren’t a thing.
But for my friend they were a thing, they are a thing. The confiscation of the sign was a thing and the visceral fear of repercussion is also a thing. A little thing and a big thing.
I asked New Zealand Cricket about the removal of my friend’s sign. A spokesperson said: We don’t allow signs or banners of a political nature in our venues. Although this one seemed harmless enough, we had been criticised during some previous games this season for not removing or confiscating signs that were provocative but, given their overseas context, not immediately understood.”
On the eve of the mosque shootings, a message about peace and unity, about brotherhood with the Muslim community was deemed unacceptable at the cricket.
And, at a time we all need to be talking about it, a conversation about cultural understanding, diversity and inclusion was shut down before it even got started. Paradoxically, the security guard who invoked the historically flawed sanctity of sport to grab that sign probably thought he was keeping the peace.