In an interview with Roger Ebert, the Black American boxer Muhammad Ali had famously said, “I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my [Black] image in the ring.”

Much has been said and written about the image of Muhammad Ali as a Black boxer knocking out anyone and everyone in an openly racist America. The impunity of structural racism in America enabled the White man to kill the Black man indiscriminately without consequences. In the face of this, the image of Ali as a Black man, who possessed an unmatched physical prowess, threatened the arbitrary superiority that this racism ascribed to the White man.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali

A similar case is presented by the rise of the women boxers such as MC Mary Kom from the Kom community and Lovlina Borgohain from the Tai-Ahom community from the North-Eastern Region (NER) of India. With their unapologetic “racial features”, which have been codified into the obsolete racial categorisation of “Mongoloid” and the racial slur “Chinky” in Indian mainland, the images of these boxers represent a challenge to the logic of racist ideology and racial superiority in India.

We need these figures to believe in the possibility of a dignified life as people from the “Mongoloid” ethnic communities in this country. We need them to believe that there could be a success story despite racial profiling and prejudice. We need them because, in a massively militarised and constitutionally undermined region like the NER, such beliefs are very hard to come by.

In the mainland, the “Chinky” woman is exotified and considered “loose” and “available” for Indian men, while back in their home frontiers, they are violently dominated by the Indian military through AFSPA. The adulation for these “Chinky” women in India right now is not the norm but a once-in-a-million accident.

In terms of popular representation, the people from the NER are often stereotyped as workers in the service industry such as spas, malls and restaurants with servile and “feminine” expressions. Against this backdrop, the image of “Chinky” women dominating the globe in a combat sport that is mired in expressions that are generally considered as “masculine” presents intimidation to this masculine military nation-state.

MC Mary Kom, from Manipur’s Kom community

This argument is not limited to the boxers alone and practitioners of other physical sports such as Saikhom Mirabai Chanu from the Meitei community also presents the case of representation of “strong women” from the region. In regards to the necessity of these figures, Parismita Singh rightfully writes, “There aren’t enough stories and images of woman of strength, especially with our eyes and physical features. And we still, unfortunately, need them — these heroes and icons.”

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We need these figures to believe in the possibility of a dignified life as people from the “Mongoloid” ethnic communities in this country. We need them to believe that there could be a success story despite racial profiling and prejudice. We need them because, in a massively militarised and constitutionally undermined region like the NER, such beliefs are very hard to come by.

There is immense self-belief in the images of Lovlina Borgohain punching into the camera as she stepped into the ring to face the mighty World No 2 in her quarterfinals match at Tokyo. There is humility in the way Mary Kom choreographs her towering personality as a living legend. There is ambition in the images of Mirabai Chanu attempting to lift record-breaking weights rather than being satisfied with a podium finish.

Lovlina Borgohain from Assam’s Tai-Ahom community

Self-belief, humility, ambition — these are qualities that are not associated with the “barbaric savage” of the frontiers and even less so with the female “savages” of this region. In embodying them at one of the most viewed spectacles on earth, these incredible women present an optics that has at stake so much more than just sporting glory.

In the mainland, the “Chinky” woman is exotified and considered “loose” and “available” for Indian men, while back in their home frontiers, they are violently dominated by the Indian military through AFSPA. The adulation for these “Chinky” women in India right now is not the norm but a once-in-a-million accident.

Of late, the Hindutva Right Wing and the Ambedkarites have shamelessly jumped on to appropriate Mirabai Chanu into their respective discourses of the patriotic Hindu “Chinky” or the “Bahujan” symbol of resistance without engaging with the specificity of Chanu’s location in terms of ethnicity and nationality. Unlike them, my intention is not to appropriate our “Chinky” athletes into the discourse of anti-racism or anti-militarisation but instead to point out the connotations that arise because of their specific relation to India.

I am simply talking about the optics of their presence as women from these ethnic communities subverting the masculinity of a nation that has been excruciatingly violent to its “Mongoloid” communities and women. Their personal politics is theirs to articulate and not for others to appropriate. In spite of (or despite) this, what is more pertinent for us are the implications of the politics of optics that their presence creates.

Saikhom Mirabai Chanu won a gold in the women’s 49 kg category

The success of figures like Mary Kom, Mirabai Chanu or Lovlina Borgohain is not in terms of the medals or championships that they win, but in the dreams that they inspire, the lives that they dignify and the communities that they empower.

Endnote: regarding Hollywood’s invention of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa to counter the image of Muhammad Ali, Bollywood has already yellow-faced Priyanka Chopra into Mary Kom and probably, the yellow-faced representations of Chanu and Borgohain are not too far either. However, as Father Time has it, the image of Muhammad Ali has far outweighed that of Sylvester Stallone’s and I believe, sooner or later, so will those of Mary Kom, Mirabai Chanu and Lovlina Borgohain.

(The author is a first-generation Tai-Ahom student based in New Delhi. They studied English at Ambedkar University Delhi and writes about language, literature and popular culture.)

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