Cricket and Communal Identities in South Asia

In the Hindi movie Bheja Fry (2007), there is an archetypal abominably portrayed Muslim Character, Asif Merchant, the caricatured Indian Muslim who supports the Pakistan cricket team over the Indian cricket team. Asif Merchant is shown as a comical, hideous, perfidious character with loyalties to Pakistan despite living in India – taunted with Yahan ke khaate ho, aur wahan ke Gaate Ho (You eat here but sing their praises). It is a well established fact that Muslims in India have from time to time been subjected to periodic tests of loyalty.  There is a rich history of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslim in independent India, in which it is mostly Muslims who have suffered. However, these tensions are exacerbated whenever there is a cricket match between India and Pakistan.

Emily Crick has pointed out that in the run-up to the India-Pakistan match in the 2003 World Cup in Calcutta a discussion was held within the police force, which decided that Muslims should be prevented from supporting Pakistan during the match. While this proposal was not carried out, it suggests that the authorities were sufficiently concerned that some Muslims would support Pakistan and that this support was against the ‘national interest.’ India went on to win the match and there were wide-scale celebrations throughout the country. Indian Muslims joined in these celebrations, but were, in some areas, actively prevented from doing so. In Ahmedabad this caused rioting.

There are several instances in which this issue had sparked communal tensions, including during the 1999 World Cup (Crick 2007, op cit).

The most recent instance of course, was in a private university in Meerut where 67 Kashmiri students were suspended and also slapped with sedition charges for allegedly cheering for Pakistan against the Indian cricket team.

Why is it that an Indian Muslim is frowned upon for cheering Pakistan? Do Muslims in India really commit sedition in cheering Pakistan against India? Can Muslims in India, who already carry the double whammy of being an underdeveloped community and frequently labelled as being anti national, afford to support the Pakistan Cricket team? Of course there are some liberals who hold that it is an individual’s prerogative to express his or her choice. They see the curtailment of this choice as an oppressive aspect of the majoritarian state to subjugate or alienate the already browbeaten minority. My attempt in this essay is to move beyond these explanations and aim for a more nuanced understanding.

Cricket is South Asia’s new found religion. India’s victory in the World Cup of 1983 was a defining moment, and the intervention of private media, as well as of Bollywood, has taken cricket to new heights.  The weaving together of cricket and consumerism has further been instrumental in diffusing cricket to the corners of the Subcontinent. Today cricket is a highly mediatised sport. The mediatisation of cricket has enhanced the meanings that cricket carries in the public sphere, to an unprecedented level. Therefore there is no puzzlement in understanding why cricket (and the politics it mediates with the help of corporatized media) is the new religion in the Subcontinent.

There is no place other than the sub-continent, at the moment, where cricket is so successful in terms of the number of admirers as well as in commercial terms. The modern cultural constructions of cricket in Indian Subcontinent in Geertzian sense are the patterned reactions to the patterned strains of history. Cricket should not be viewed separately from the wider social context in which it is situated. The excessive hysteria generated over cricket in the subcontinent is a product of the historical disequilibrium, having its roots in the past. Cricket has played an important role in shaping political debate in the Indian subcontinent ever since the time British introduced it. They exported this imperial game to their colonies, along with its highly racial and sectarian codes, as an ingredient for their colonization process. One narrative about how the natives in India received this sport is seen in the movie Lagaan. Lagaan shows a raw team of village men playing cricket against an oppressive colonial regime in the village of Champaner in Kutch to save their lives, families and land. Taking on the white sahibs and beating them at their own game is what made Lagaan a huge discussing point for several scholars.

Cricket which was introduced in India in the middle of the nineteen century by the British saw an ardent participation from the Nawabs, Jagidars and other Princes. This benefitted both the colonizers and the princes as a method of projecting their power. One eventual consequence of the introduction of cricket in India was its transformation into a communal game. The religious group in Indian to take up the game were the Zoroastrian (Parsi) community of Bombay. The Bombay Pentagular, an influential cricket tournament held in Bombay from 1912 – 1946 became the most prestigious cricket tournament in the country, where teams were divided as European, Hindu, Muslim, Parsi and ‘the Rest’. India’s noted historian Ramchandra Guha sees this development as a means for ‘communities to showcase themselves through their cricketers and thus establish an index of a community’s strength and social cohesion’. When Gandhi started his 1930 Civil Disobedience campaign, Bombay became the epicentre of the protests.  In 1938 the Bombay Pentagular came under heavy criticism from Indian nationalists for it divisive communal orientation. Gandhi was deeply disdainful of this divisive sport and therefore commented that “I can understand matches between Colleges and Institutions. I have never understood the reason for having Hindu, Parsi, Muslim and other communal Elevens. I should have thought that such unsportsmanlike divisions would be considered taboo in sporting language and sporting manners.”

Media theorist Marshal McLuhan in a live audience Q&A session hosted by Australian Broadcasting Corporation on June 27, 1977 described cricket as a ‘very organized form of violence’. To McLuhan ‘any sport is a dramatization of the typical and accepted forms of violence in the business community.’ All these games are ways of discovering and dramatizing what the society you are in is all about.

Without an audience, these games would have no meaning at all. In the recent past, the meanings that audiences attribute to cricket in the subcontinent, have transcended patriotism and developed into jingoism. The cricket teams are seen as appropriate champions to save the valour of the motherland by defeating the opponent. The biggest exemplar of this is the way people associate meanings with the cricket matches played between ‘Hindu’ India and ‘Muslim’ Pakistan. Since the partition of British India and the creation of India and Pakistan, the two counties have been locked in an unending conflict since 1947, engaging in four wars and numerous border skirmishes. Three of these wars have been fought over the disputed territory of Kashmir.  Partition is an unending process; it is a gaping wound in the national psyches of both countries that refuses to heal.

The present Pakistan and India which were born with one of the cruellest and bloodiest migrations and ethnic cleansings in history, are still struggling to unshackle themselves from the burden of the past. The present politics, religion and culture in India and Pakistan are in a large way determined by its history. Even after partition, some thirty to thirty five million Muslims stayed on in India. Similarly in East Pakistan (Bangladesh) some 23 per cent of the population continued to be Hindu. Some half million Hindus stayed behind in Sindh in what was then West Pakistan. The Muslims in India, whose estimated population now is nearly 200 million in India, constitute approximately 14% of the total India pollution. Muslims in India have played a significant role and contribute remarkably to India’s flourishing democracy and perhaps provide, the finest illustration of Islam’s multivocal culture in today’s world. However, for the ultra Hindu nationalists of India, this large minority poses a significant challenge and is seen as a hurdle in realising the foreseeable fortunes and objectives for their idealized country.

For any successful democracy, the fair treatment of minorities is one of the most fundamental and vexing responsibilities. The socio-economical plight of Muslims in India remains a measuring factor for determining the functioning of democracy in India. Now when one is born as Muslim in India, how can s/he make sense of the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world. Walter Lippman in his masterpiece Public Opinion remarks ‘we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture’.

When the medium of cricket in itself has had a communal message, it can be possible to see the refractions of its shades in the present. It is irresponsible on our part to expect those shaped by history to make radical breaks from the past. Muslims in India whose voices have sought to locate themselves within the emerging discourse on the Indian nation should have the freedom to seek also their sense of cultural difference.

From this perspective, support of Indian Muslims for the Pakistani cricket team or the support of Pakistani Hindus for the Indian Cricket Team, both make perfect sense. This recognition would not only make us comfortable with accepting the communal lineages from the past, but would also solve the complex question of identity and extra territorial loyalty. India should not resort to the Tebbit Test to quantify the ‘Indianness’ of Muslims in India. Tebbit Test refers to the conservative Norman Tebbit who suggested support for the English cricket team as a loyalty calculator, with reference to the perceived lack of loyalty among South Asian and Carribean immigrants in Britian. This kind of attitude would not only alienate minorities but would in effect result in a society functioning as an utterly oppressive displinarian apparatus.

Is support for national cricket teams a litmus test for a mature South Asia? Is there a possibility to deal with this colonial leftover in a constructive way?

Raoof Mir is a PhD scholar at Centre for Media Studies, JNU

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