OPN Indian boxer Nikhat Zareen
Indian boxer Nikhat Zareen, who won gold medal at the 2022 IBA Women's World Boxing Championships, laughs during a felicitation ceremony for Indian women boxing team in New Delhi. Image Credit: AP

“Am I trending on Twitter? It was my dream to trend on Twitter.” For a brief moment it was easy to forget that the newly crowned boxing world champion Nikhat Zareen was also Generation Z, with a keen eye on social media and a glint of a movie star.

The confluence of both — the easy ability of a generation still unencumbered to speak their mind and the power of success is a breath of fresh air in India.

India’s Thomas Cup winning boys proved a point — that it is possible to both fight and play hard and not be coquettish about either. But despite her aggression in the ring, Nikhat’s win is more nuanced for inadvertently the years she spent in training, the country expended in going down a path where people are ‘identified by the clothes they wear.’

If an activist is arrested because she is a Muslim, if a 14-year old Muslim boy is violently assaulted for drinking water, then in all fairness her glory is not without Nikhat’s background.

Sports has no religion but when divides are deliberate and deep, unpackaging those silos can’t be as per convenience.

Owning Nikhat's victory

Can every citizen in the country really own her and her victory? Haven’t we made them Muslims first and Indians last as fake messages of Muslim population spurt threatening an ancient civilisation are shared primarily by the educated?

Then what right does a collective celebration have for she is, what they are — a Muslim, who ‘must pay for the plundering of the Mughals’. Those with a conscience will feel the unease, not surprisingly, most won’t.

Like moths to a tube light, the media that instigates violence and hate on most days has also swarmed around Nikhat, never questioning if her friends and relatives are also at the mercy of a majoritarian belief that considers Muslims to be the deepest cut.

Sports and the body politic are anyway inseparable, ask Sachin Tendulkar, Saina Nehwal or Gautam Gambhir.

Mohammad Shami though can caution Nikhat, all it takes is one bad day in office to be reminded of who ‘they’ are — or not, as he was a T-20 World Cup game. Former cricketer and coach Wasim Jaffer had his entire career questioned.

It also takes a strong one to defend one, as Virat Kohli found out when he stood against those trolling Shami. In Jaffer’s case, barring Anil Kumble and Irfan Pathan, those who didn’t speak up are the first ones to congratulate Nikhat.

A ray of hope

Hope though is the fairy dust, especially when the embers are still hot and the next strike could come against even an aged milkman in an obscure village. Muslim girls and women navigate everything from Bulli to Sulli Bai apps that attempted to ‘auction’ some of them earlier this year. 

For those who now live in fear of speaking their mind, Nikhat is more than just a boxing champion. From Salman Khan to misogynist relatives, her punches are a promise of someone who may go the distance — not just in her game.

The timing of Nikhat’s win couldn’t have been better, the country needs real heroes. The Khans of Bollywood have withered away, silenced and the rest including sports personalities can be identified from their copy paste tweets. The boxer got one thing wrong though, her social media interaction with Salman Khan was more his fan moment than hers.

The world champion has shown that she brings more to the table than just her gloves. Her fight for identity has been on many levels — whether it was taking on Mary Kom or playing a sport in the spotlight of overt patriarchy. It is this confidence of a journey that reflects and is a far cry from the banalities overheard at Cannes of India being on the ‘cusp of greatness.’

The more Nikhat succeeds, the bigger though will be the challenges outside the ring.

Nikhat’s story is beyond the sacrifices most athletes and their families make to succeed. She is a Muslim in a country where violence against the community can sometimes be legitimised through a distorted lens of the past, where prices are high but the majoritarian misconception of being in danger is higher.

If anyone can fight the good fight, it is a 25-year old woman from Nizamabad.