Wickets and Missiles

[11 February 2004]

By Priya Lal

“As long as Pakistan continues its terrorist activities against India, the question of friendly relations does not arise . . . Games and cultural relations can be developed with friends only.”

51; Jai Bhagwan Goel, a leader of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu Nationalist organization, in 1998.

“It is just a game and has nothing to do with the common man.”

51; RSS spokesperson of the 2003 India vs. Pakistan cricket World Cup match.

An examination of the history of cricket in South Asia comprises a fascinating study in the wondrous malleability of culture itself. It was one of the strange but remarkable qualities of colonialism that many of the inevitable cultural exchanges that occurred between the occupier and the occupied indelibly altered the nature of each party even after the disintegration of the colonial relationship itself. Compulsive tea drinking, for example, first initiated by Englishmen in the hill stations of Darjeeling, became an integral component of British culture and has become most identifiable today as a peculiarly English custom. Transfers in the other direction occurred as well; thus cricket, introduced to the subcontinent by white sahibs as the civilized man’s leisure activity, became the equal-opportunity pastime that captured the popular imagination of most of South Asia in the postcolonial era.

The year 2001’s internationally acclaimed Bollywood flick Lagaan writes a filmic account of this cultural phenomenon through the story of a small Gujarati village’s discovery and use of cricket as a mode of resistance to British oppression in the late 19th century. In one of the film’s most memorable (if contrived) moments, the Aamir Khan character of villager Bhuvan scoffs incredulously at his British ruler, Captain Russell, when he first sees the Russell playing the game of cricket. In Bhuvan’s eyes, this alien sport is no better than some ridiculous variant of gilli-danda, a wonderfully simple village game that has been played throughout the subcontinent for time immemorial and requires no more equipment than a few sticks of wood. When, later, Bhuvan teaches his fellow villagers the rules of this new sport, he succeeds in doing so only by introducing cricket to them on their own terms, relating this high cultural activity of the white man to the most basic of games played by even the lowest Indian subjects. The villagers thus accept cricket as their own and, naturally, go on to kick some royal British ass at their own game in the high-drama match that occupies the second half of the film.

Bhuvan’s imagined experience, while good for a laugh, is actually quite instructive. In his reaction we can read something broader: that it was not only India that was altered by the introduction of cricket, but the idea of the sport itself somehow changed as it entered the matrix of South Asian culture. Indeed, in 21st century India, cricket is so much more than the upper-class gentleman’s game of its former incarnation among the manicured greens of Oxbridge. Rather, the sport has taken root in the subcontinent as an everyman’s diversion, classless and open to all. Today, in fact, cricket has come to rival gilli-danda as the game most likely to be found being played by the poorest of children in the most rural of areas throughout India.

Lagaan is full of such symbolically rich instances as Bhuvan’s first encounter with the cricket of Captain Russell. At its heart the film expands such symbolism to actually offer the possibility of cricket as a forum for anti-colonial resistance, spinning a simple story about a single sporting match into a larger story about colonialism itself. Lagaan‘s effort to present a (though undoubtedly reductive, in its case) narrative of national history using sport as a metaphor is, perhaps, a bit risky, but it is also laudable. If a movie locates power struggles writ large in the enclosed universe of cricket, then can we not do the same?

Cricket as history. The metaphor actually seems viable to those seeking to decode the meanings of cricket in modern India, where the game has not only lost its exclusive origins but become a virtual national obsession — comparable in scope and intensity to soccer in Latin America. The Latin American comparison is indeed apt, because it is as spectators that Indians are the most active participants in a game that lives in the country’s collective imagination — primarily in the incarnation of the players of its national team.

It’s true: every day that the Indian national team competes is like a large-scale Super Bowl Sunday of its own. On such occasions, life on the streets of the smallest towns and largest cities visibly slows while everyone from trash sweepers to IT execs crowds around television sets to track the game’s progress. The increasing sophistication and wide reach of live television has determined the way cricket is consumed in India. “Consumed”, some say, is an apt word for a sport that is becoming a commercial industry, a sinister spectacle fueled by advertisements and product endorsements. To others, though, the infiltration of capitalism into the game of cricket is merely the latest twist in the sport’s subcontinental evolution. It’s only natural, they return, that as India has begun to move into a new type of consumer capitalist economic reality, so has its national sport.

An examination of the sport’s early days in South Asia does lend itself to the argument that cricket is actually a sort of mirror for the socio-political realities of the state of India. The first official matches that Indians participated in were Presidency matches in the late 1890s between Parsis and Europeans in Bombay. In 1907 a Hindu team entered the tournament that had become the Bombay Triangular, which soon became a quadrangular with the emergence of a Muslim team. The separation of teams along religious lines quite accurately reflects the divided political climate of what was then still a colony at the time. It wasn’t until 1932, when the idea of a secular, inclusive India had come to exist in a meaningful way in the increasing momentum of the independence movement, that these religiously disperse “native” teams united to compete against their common colonizer. But then 1932, was the year that this new Indian national team played its first official Test match against England.

From the beginning, then, cricket in India was more than just a sport. Just as capitalism has left its footprint in the game at the turn of the millennium, so did South Asian politics more broadly constantly manifest itself in the game at the national level.) No longer confined to tournaments with its former ruler, India competed as an independent team on the global stage against such teams as Australia (1947) and the West Indies (in 1948, but the stakes were highest in 1952, which was the year of the first Test match between India and Pakistan).

If Lagaan brought us a cricket game as an allegory for subject vs. empire, then the modern universe of South Asian cricket can serve as a symbol of the impact of another colonial legacy: the partition of the subcontinent at the conclusion of British rule. For since the early days of independence, the India-Pakistan rivalry has replaced the colony-ruler dynamic as the opposition at the center of the sport’s subcontinental existence. Has the added drama of the intersection of regional tensions with athletic competitions enhanced the popularity and intensity of the latter? Or is it the other way around; does the action and naked aggressiveness of sport contribute to the deterioration of relations between the two countries at a larger level?

Without falling into the (obnoxiously ubiquitous) trope of reducing the complex and specific history out of which the India-Pakistan conflict arises into a 1-2-3 arms race paradigm, we must acknowledge the stakes of the same conflict today. Everyone now knows about South Asia’s nuclear weapons. Just mention the “n” word and the whole world understandably snaps to attention and dons its concerned coat of global political consciousness. India and Pakistan, yes, have both tested nuclear missiles in the past decade. And soldiers and citizens on both sides continue to die in the endless skirmish over the disputed territory of Kashmir. In the midst of these considerably bleak political realities, one might wonder, what’s up with cricket?

The cricketing landscape of the past 50 years has been rocky, at best, with respect to India-Pakistan relations. The two countries played each other in a series of edgy Test matches following their first encounter in 1952, but between 1961 and 1978 the countries didn’t meet at all in a normal match on the cricket ground. Why? This 17-year period saw a translation of restrained diplomatic tensions into a full-blown war over disputed territory in 1965, and over the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971.

Though the cricket freeze melted eventually and the two countries went on to engage each other regularly as sporting opponents for over 21 years, the second “thaw” eventually came to a halt in 1999. You may remember that 1999 was a year after the infamous nuclear tests conducted by the two countries, and the year that India alleged that Pakistanis intruded into the former’s territory on the peaks of Kargil in Kashmir. Though the Pakistani team visited India at the start of the year, after the Kargil incident the Indian government refused to send its players to Pakistan. To revisit our earlier question, the fact that it was the government and not the Indian cricket board that insisted on this decision indicates that the cricket sanctions were motivated by the fear that sports might push politics over the top, not vice versa.

It seems that the public, though, wants nothing more than to see the two countries compete. Earlier last year India and Pakistan came face-to-face in a World Cup game; the World Cup is the only tournament in which the government has allowed the two teams to compete since the 1999 freeze. The number of Indians who sat riveted to television sets to view the said seven-hour India-Pakistan match was estimated to have exceeded the entire population of Europe! The popular sentiment appears clear — the people want their cricket. At the same time, though, there are some Indians that don’t want to give it to them.

In the past few years it has become obvious that the Muslim-bashing right-wing Hindu extremists of organizations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and Shiv Sena are doing everything they can to prevent an easing of Indo-Pak cricket relations. Once again, we see national trends reflected in the state of cricket — the monstrous juggernaut of Hindu nationalism has begun to make its force felt in the sporting world as it has in the country’s political theater for the past decade.

On January 6th of 1999, for example, Shiv Sena [“Army of (Hindu God) Shiv”] militants dug up the cricket pitch of the Ferozeshah Kotla Grounds in New Delhi to protest the upcoming match against Pakistan at that location. Weeks later dozens more extremists stormed the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) headquarters in Bombay to protest the same tour of the Pakistani team in India. The logic for the violent acts? Apparently, as per Shiv Sena leader Goel’s quote (see above), Pakistanis are all evil Muslim terrorists and thus not the “friends” of (Hindu) Indians. And games, he stated, are only for friends.

But are they? The fact that these Muslim-hating Hindu nationalists have gone to so much trouble over just a game indicates that cricket really does have some kind of real, potentially transformative power, symbolic or otherwise. It’s not quite clear what the militants are afraid of, though. Are they afraid that India will lose? In 2003, for example, the Shiv Sena issued an official statement commanding the Indian team to win against Pakistan. The rest of the World Cup didn’t matter, of course, but beating the Paki team did. And there are certainly those who are even members of the Indian government, affiliated with the ruling right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), who use such matches as opportunities to exercise their jingoistic hysteria. To them, the Indian national cricket team competing against Pakistan is tantamount to a cadet of soldiers using the cricket ground as a sort of battlefield, bringing home victory against the heathens for the Motherland.

Concurrently and interestingly, a spokesperson for the equally insidious Hindu nationalist RSS stated dismissively that the same 2003 World Cup match was “just a game” and had “nothing to do with the common man” (see above quote). Hmmm. Contradictory statements and highly flawed logic are not rarities among the rhetoric of Hindu extremists. But which argument is right?

We’ve gone over some of the reasons that cricket is more than a mere “game” and can appreciate the myriad ways in which the people of South Asia participate in national-level cricket, and how national-level cricket enriches their own lives. But if the sport is such a powerful cultural force, then why should India and Pakistan continue to compete in such a climate of political hostility? Those who are on edge about immediately disastrous possibilities, thereby ignoring also potentially negative long-term implications of such matches, are not entirely delusional. The recent spate of communally-motivated attacks and bombings in public places (as in Bombay and Gujarat) and the frighteningly real risk of fatal riots (as in the infamous stampede at the South African soccer game) certainly give one good reason to pause.

But it is precisely this sort of fear that Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists of the ongoing Indo-Pak dispute feed off of, and it is precisely this fear that opening up cricket relations for once and for all will help to overcome. To all those who respond to the threat of nuclear war by tiptoeing around anything potentially disruptive like a cricket match, can we not respond thus: could it be, rather, that cricket is a path to peace?

India and Pakistan have been going for each other’s throats as long as they have both existed, and as long as they have had their own cricket teams. Today the people of these neighboring countries — countries that just over 50 years ago fell within the same set of borders — still share a long and beautifully rich history, yet now live truly separate lives. Borders are tight, international cultural relations are limited, and citizens in both India and Pakistan are egged on by myopic, power-grabbing leaders to feel threatened by their Other across the Kashmiri mountains. What the region needs to break this downward spiral (at the nadir of which sits the horror of nuclear war) is contact, opening, and genuine détente at the level of what the RSS leader cited earlier so nicely termed “the common man”.

What could better achieve this type of cultural thawing between Indian and Pakistani people than an invitation to them all to share their passion for the game of cricket? After all, didn’t Hindus and Muslims come together in the pre-independence era to compete on a common colonial team against their British oppressors? That said, the point to be made is not merely that it is through being on the same “team” that real, lasting solidarity can be built. Perhaps just the collective experience of loving the game itself can alone accomplish that.

The fact that the Indian government has agreed to allow the Indian national team to tour Pakistan in a cricket series at the start of this year (the first such Pakistani tour since 1989) is nothing less than a testament to the possibility of a peaceful future in the region. The cultural flexibility for which South Asian cricket stands — an exclusive leisure activity of the rich white man that the entire spectrum of the former “native” population has appropriated and embraced — is what will ultimately turn away the dark forces of the war-mongering, chauvinist nationalists. For that reason I issue forth this message to those highly-placed folks in India and Pakistan who have the power to make such decisions happen: Give the people what they really want. Give the people their cricket.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/lal040211/