I woke up one early morning some days back to a number of WhatsApp messages from friends in London and New York. Each one of them had forwarded the Harmanpreet Kaur story to me from media reports in their respective markets, with the inevitable question, “Is the Indian captain a cheat?”. I was flabbergasted. Bad news really travels far. And travels quick. Especially in today’s day and age. The media stories were highly negative. The headlines taunted India. The stories were equally damaging, making India out to be a country where sports people have very little options for employment and betterment, hence even the Indian eves cricket team captain has had to stoop to cheating and fraud for a living. I felt really saddened by the portrayal of Brand India in international media, that too basis a story that was still only unfolding and may well not be entirely true.
Indian media had been awash with news that the Indian cricket captain Harmanpreet Kaur had been stripped of her DSP rank by the Punjab Police as her graduation degree was found to be fake on verification. Instead, newspaper reports would have it, Harmanpreet would now be demoted to the position of a constable because she has only studied till class XII, no more. The media story had been picked up by the global press.
The Moga girl shot into the national limelight with her unbeaten 171 against Australia in the Women’s World Cup semi-final in 2017. She now captains the Indian women’s ODI and T20I teams, and has 2196 runs from 87 ODIs and 1616 runs from 83 T20s to her credit. Though not known as a bowler, Harmanpreet took 9 wickets in a Test match in November 2014 against the visiting South African women cricket team, helping India win the match by an innings and 34 runs. Kaur has played in the past for the Leicestershire women’s cricket team, played for Sydney Thunder and currently plays for the Lancashire Thunder Club in England.
Harmanpreet was earlier employed with the Indian Railways. After her superlative success in the World Cup last year, the Punjab Police offered her the position of Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) in the state force. Harmanpreet was under service bond with the Railways. The Punjab government in fact took up the matter with the Railway ministry to get the bond waived, enabling her to join the Punjab Police on 1 March, 2018. Trouble started for Harmanpreet when her graduation degree, ostensibly obtained from the Chaudhary Charan Singh University in Meerut was declared to be a fake on police verification. Immediately thereafter started an avalanche of hostile stories, negative news and ceaseless torments. The image of the Indian captian lay in tatters in no time. From hero to cheat, from star to fake, Harmanpreet was consigned to the dung heap by vicious media reports. Insult was added to injury saying she was being stripped of her DSP rank and demoted to the position of a constable.
I felt sad for Harmanpreet Kaur. Sad that a super achiever who has brought many accolades to the country was being so humiliated. That too every morning through screaming newspaper headlines muddying and mutilating her reputation. The Punjab Police was saying the degree is a fake, so it must be a fake. Period. I felt sad that no one, but no one, had even raised a voice in her support, let alone stand up in her defence.
It is quite possible that Harmanpreet’s graduation degree is actually a fake, though in recent reports last week she has stoutly and steadfastly repudiated media reports and insisted that she actually earned the degree through a genuine distance learning program. My question is why has the graduation degree become such a big issue? Kaur’s appointment as a DSP was in recognition of her cricketing achievements, not her academic prowess. I scoured the entire internet but got no information on the academic qualifications of the legendary Flying Sikh Milkha Singh. Singh too had been at a lowly position of a sepoy in the army when his exploits on the race track in the 60s got the Punjab government to employ him as an officer in the sports department. Milkha Singh went on to become Director of Sports. I am not sure if he had a graduation degree. The moot point is that when special appointments are made to honour special achievements of special sportspersons, necessary waivers need to be made. Technically, even if it is an honorary conferment, MS Dhoni and Kapil Dev are both Lieutenant Colonels in the Territorial Army. Sachin Tendulkar is a Group Captain in the Indian Air Force. Even politician Sachin Pilot is a Lieutenant in the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army. Raymond’s Vijaypat Singhania has also been honored with the rank of Air Commodore in the Indian Air Force. No one, I am sure, was really doing a verification check on the college degrees of these super achievers. Sandeep Singh who’s biopic Soorma is currently in theatres, is a DSP with the Haryana Police. He is I think a graduate. But does that really matter? Wasn’t he appointed to the position in recognition of his being the best drag flicker in the world, and making India proud?
Harmanpreet, to my mind, is more sinned against than sinning. I am not for a moment trying to condone her actions in obtaining a fake degree, presuming that the degree is actually fake. All I am saying is that there should have been no necessity to ask for her academic degrees at all. It is an irrelevant requirement when her qualifications in cricket are so impeccable. It saddens me that in our country it takes so little time and effort to go from hero to zero.
With the proliferation of the internet, bad news travels around the globe. So, news that Harmanpreet is a ‘cheat’ is now known to the entire world, whether proved or not. We have smeared the reputation of our captain worldwide. In the process we have also besmirched the reputation of our entire country. Covered Brand India with mud and filth. It may eventually emerge that Harmanpreet, after all, is completely innocent. What do we do then? How do we cleanse the internet of the stigma we have attached to Harmanpreet? The damage has already been done. For all times to come, because the internet has a non-erasable memory. Harmanpreet’s controversy will come up higher on search than her centuries.
Perhaps a little more restraint by Indian media would have helped us keep the sanctity of Brand India globally. Look at the entire ball-tampering controversy involving the Australians. Their own media has been far far more kind to their captain and others involved in the incident. The attitude has been more like, ‘it is human to err’. Not a vicious and malevolent condemnation of all those involved in the ball-tampering.
The important lesson to be learnt from the Harmanpreet episode is that Brand India is a precious brand; a fragile brand. It requires careful handling moreso since world markets today are so connected. Bad news travels far. And Western media love painting our country in ominous black. Why give them a handle till the news is really true, and proven?
(Carol Goyal is a lawyer by training. She blogs on issues that touch her heart. )