| A chirpy guy at the immigration counter in Lahore some years ago, delighted to see my Indian passport, tried to engage in a friendly chat and drive
the point that there was not much difference between Indians and Pakistanis and that there was a natural sense of bonding the two peoples shared. He, however, believed there was a rule of exception when a match is going on between India and Pakistan, when there is no common ground can stand on. Cricket has in recent years evoked such strong but narrow approached patriotism that his description of a South Asian sense of patriotism imprisoned in the cricketing grounds where two teams with 11 players each are pitted against each other is so apt. Even the Kargil war couldn’t create similar levels of jingoism, hyper-nationalism and chauvinism as a cricket match can in this day and date.
Once a gentleman’s game, the game’s rising popularity in the sub-continent has injected in an unwanted burden of patriotism to the extent that the game ceases to be sport and all rationality is lost on that 22 yard pitch where two men stand with their bats guarding the wickets, one man bowls and the other ten follow the ball as each move resonates in the hearts of millions on either side of the India-Pakistan borders, invoking a sense of pride or humiliation, as if nothing else matters and as if the future of our survival depends on that very game, as if nationhood has reduced itself to an insulting level of being defined by the country’s team. What national pride remains unscathed with tumbling skeletons of ugly scams, bookies and match-fixing?
Having loved the game in my childhood and teenaged days, when it wasn’t yet a crime to cheer both for Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan together, playing against each other, I never knew when amidst all this ugly display of patriotic heroism and hooliganism during and after every cricket match, I developed a kind of aversion for it (at the risk of sounding unfashionable and even unpatriotic). At least, it did inspire dread of the game; evoked in a far greater measure during a journey between Peshawar and Rawalpindi in a public bus while the commentary was switched on.
Does one need to be thankful that in this sub-continent it is solely cricket that enjoys the privilege of being the sole mascot of patriotism and jingoism; the other sports are so far spared. And, that is not simply something to do with the popularity of the game but its excessive political patronization and increasing commercialisation. And while there are a handful of people making a great deal of money out of the game, rest of the millions are going berserk making the game to be symbol of the nation and deeming the victory or defeat of 11 players in a team a sense of pride or shame. People go mad on streets with celebrations at sixes scored, centuries and hatricks made or newbroken, bursting crackers, dancing or indulging in sheer hooliganism. Effigies of the players are burnt and people ready to bay for their blood if they return home after a complete rout in a cricket series abroad.
This flavour is evenly spread on both sides of the borders. The Kashmiris, carrying on their shoulders the heavy baggage of a complex dispute, are no exception and use their anti-patriotism as an expression of their anger against India at every cricket match. So it was in 1983, when bid was made to dig up the cricket pitch in broad daylight when India played West Indies in Srinagar. Indian team is jeered at for the simple anger against Indian regime’s repressive policies and Pakistan team is cheered for, not because Kashmiris want to be part of Pakistan but because they see it as their support and hope against an oppressive Indian state. Cricket continues to be conditioned with extra doses of a locally driven sense of patriotism, not freed of it by virtue of a political dispute that lies at the heart of disenchantment with both India and to some extent with Pakistan as well. The fervour of cricketing patriotism has only increased in recent years, corresponding with the levels of repression and the anger of the people against the Indian state.
It is in this background that the present cricket patriotism controversy regarding the 67 Kashmiri students studying in a Meerut University needs to be contextualised. Absurd and tyrannical as it was, the sedition charges against all the 67 students may have been dropped and mercifully saved us from the shocking orgy of making cricket patriotism legal and officially stamped, with no space for either dissenting fans or the indifferent beings. However, the criminalization of the Kashmiri students rooting for Pakistani team or Shahid Afridi is far from over. The students were collectively punished and rusticated without being given a chance of hearing even as they allege that it were a bunch of Hindu right wing students who resorted to hooliganism, violence and ransacking. Why is it that hooliganism does not deserve disciplinary action whereas cheering for the team of another country invites criminal and unjustified action like arbitrary expulsion, rustication and marching orders without ensuring that the students had enough money to travel does? Are we trying to make a case for hooliganism that can be justified– induced for a ‘good and patriotic cause’, and eventually for the victory of intolerance over liberal attitudes?
There is nothing morally, ethically or legally wrong in cheering for a team of another country. But all this cheering business, from all sides, stems from a rather political conscience highlights the need to free the game of patronizing politics. This cricket jingoism is going too far and obsessively pervasive, dominating and controlling minds and could have been a legally endorsed, had it not been so widely opposed from within Jammu and Kashmir as well as outside. The game does need to be freed from a senseless obsession and perversion. There is something seriously wrong in the very concept of expecting an entire nation to be on the right by cheering for only the official team. To treat a cricket team as an icon of nation and nationhood is an insult to the nation, which is far greater, richer and meaningful. Educational institutions rather than endorsing this culture can help in reducing this through awareness and education. Shameless defence of this culture of intolerance is unacceptable. Jugglery of words will also not solve the purpose and at the end of the day simply amount to hypocrisy, whether it comes from Omar Abdullah who opposed the sedition charged but called the youth ‘misguided’ or from Pakistan, which welcomes the ousted students who cheered for Pakistan team but has a poor trackof treating its own minorities in educational institutions. Is there a way out from this intolerant madness?