Misguided patriotism and India-Pakistan cricket

Controversy over Kashmiri students who cheered for Pakistan and faced sedition charges, highlights perversity in sport.

Shahid Afridi
Pakistan defeated India in a limited over Asia Cup match in Bangladesh recently [File: EPA]

As international sport takes baby steps towards disentangling itself from jingoism – supporters of Formula One and the Indian Premier League (IPL) teams aren’t always led by this – the cricket fan sometimes clings to what George Orwell called the “lunatic habit of identifying with larger power units, and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige”.

Patriotism should have no role in a sporting contest, even if that is what gives competition the edge, and attracts eyeballs to television.

Thus if India lose to Pakistan it becomes a commentary on their political system, literary heritage, the charm of their beauty queens, the strength of their dams. And doubtless, it is the same in Pakistan. This way of judging a nation by the strength of its leg spinners or middle-order batsmen is not unique to Asia, but is at its perverse best, in an India-Pakistan encounter.

The passion is often not so much for the game as for winning. After Pakistan lost to India in a World Cup match, a fan fired at his television set and then turned the gun on himself.

Skipper Wasim Akram received death threats and the plane bringing the players home had to be diverted to Karachi when news got out that unhappy fans had gathered at Lahore airport with abusive banners and rotten eggs.

Sporting contests give rise to passion, yet it is difficult to imagine an Australian being jailed in Sydney for supporting England during an Ashes Test, or a New Zealander being considered unpatriotic for supporting South Africa.

Sedition charges

It was irrational of the Meerut police to book a group of students from Jammu and Kashmir studying in a university there for sedition.

Their crime? Cheering for Shahid Afridi and possibly Pakistan in the Asia Cup match which India lost.

The Uttar Pradesh government dropped the charges, but that knee-jerk reaction says something for the times we live in and the psychology of those in power.

In the 1980s it was possible for an Indian to cheer for an Imran Khan or Zaheer Abbas on the field of play without having the “Mind-Police” telling him that this was wrong.

Things began to change in the mid-nineties, and for an Indian cricket watcher one of the most embarrassing moments occurred during the World Cup in 1996, when the great Javed Miandad was booed off the field by the crowd in Bangalore – then the most civilised of venues.

A couple of years later, Chennai restored some dignity by giving the victorious Pakistan Test team a standing ovation – a gesture that still brings a lump to the throat of the then captain Wasim Akram.

Sachin Tendulkar was always a big hero in Pakistan, and I know a few Pakistan supporters in Sharjah who would pray for him thus: “Please let Tendulkar score a century – but Pakistan win.” It was a way of reconciling hero-worship with patriotism.

For decades now, India and Pakistan have seemed to be two countries separated by a common culture, common language, and common interest in cricket. Some of that is a legacy of the politics, some the result of commercial practices.

“By 1996,” wrote the historian Ramachandra Guha, a witness to the Miandad fiasco, “it seemed clear that cricket matches between India and Pakistan stoked rather than subdued nationalist passions. This might have worried the peace-mongers, but it was greatly to the liking of commercial sponsors.”

Cricket and politics

The language of discourse in India-Pakistan cricket in recent years has been borrowed from the military. Thus, one of the more contentious issues between the neighbours, the LOC (Line of Control), has been the title of a television programme except that this LOC stands for “Love of Cricket”.

Cricket is a sport and should not be expected to carry the baggage of unsorted relations. Unfortunately, it is made to take the shape of whatever emotions politicians pour into it

by Suresh Menon, Author of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer

On either side of the border, politicians think they can earn their stripes by adopting aggressive postures towards the other. After the bomb blasts in Mumbai in 2008, relations dipped further and the most lucrative bilateral cricket series in the world has not had much play. Economics has had to take second place to politics.

Thus, history, geography, economics, psychology have all played roles in kneading India-Pakistan relations into different shapes at different times.

Sport does not exist in a vacuum, divorced from political realities, and this mix has affected cricket too.

The first time I travelled to Pakistan to report a cricket series was in 1989, the year Sachin Tendulkar made his debut. The warmth and hospitality was wonderful. The ordinary citizen went out of his way to make the visitors feel embarrassingly comfortable.

Yet even in the midst of all that warmth, there was the occasion in a Faislabad marketplace when a rabble-rouser made a speech exhorting people to come to the stadium the next day, “to create trouble”.

Indians have responded warmly when Pakistan visited too – from the time Imran Khan was given superstar status in 1979.

In an election year, politicians get jumpy. There is no way that an Indian fan would be arrested for supporting England when these two countries play.

You can appreciate the stroke-play of a David Warner without an ominous knock on your door.

Misguided patriotism

But [Shahid] Afridi, who hit the winning runs for Pakistan in the latest encounter, is a different matter. And that is the saddest aspect of an India-Pakistan series. The sedition charges have been dropped, but the stench of misguided patriotism remains.

Cricket is a sport and should not be expected to carry the baggage of unsorted relations. Unfortunately, it is made to take the shape of whatever emotions politicians pour into it.

If the students deliberately set out to create trouble, then that needs to be investigated.

It is not unheard of in India for people to encourage communal disharmony in order to shake things up. The majority of people in both countries want peace and harmony.

But, there are fringe elements who realise that would marginalise them. India-Pakistan rhetoric validates their existence.

We may be prejudging the issue here – but sporting fandom, like religion and marriage, is a private affair, and no one deserves to go to jail if the support is innocent and there are no deep designs.