On War, Peace and Cricket: Reflections on the India-Pakistan World Cup Encounter

By Ravi Rajan

Like millions of my compatriots, I was up all night ó from midnight to eight thirty in the morning - watching the wonderfully unscripted drama unfold on the cricket field in Pretoria. And like millions of my compatriots, I watched with bated breadth, as Pakistan took hold of the early contest, then India, then Pakistan, and then, in a finale that could have been the envy of writers and directors in either Hollywood or Bollywood, the moment of victory, as India overturned the tables and romped home with 26 regulation balls yet to be bowled. Again, like millions of my compatriots, I broke out in celebration ó high fives and all ó as Dravidís pull crashed onto the boundary ropes.

Like many cricket lovers, I will forever savor many wonderful moments from this electrifying match ó the excellence of Anwar; the pyrotechnics of Tendulkar; the captaincy of Ganguly and the leadership of Younis; and the countless stupendous moments of breathtaking batting, bowling and fielding by the players of both teams. But when all is said and done, my two most lingering memories of this match will probably be those that happened off the pitch. They couldnít strike a greater contrast. The first was the sight of the two teams lined up on the ground before the match, with the players shaking each otherís hands and wishing each other the best. The second was the email buzz after the game ó in which cricket was sadly reduced to a proxy war.

Here is an example of a more extreme comment, posted on the ESPN Star webpage: ìhey u stinkin pakis. how ru? i hope u all have not committed suicide after seeing ur players being *****ed by Indian maestros. well what more to say. where r all those ******s pakis who were saying "india is gonna loose". where r they. are kahan gaye woh kutte? why dont u speak now. i can understand. ur tongue is slipped into ur stinkin ****** u ******s. just pack ur bags and go home and ***** ur mothers and sisters whores.!!! unko jaake apni haar kii daastaan sunao!! three cheers for india. they have done it again.  hip hip hurray!!! hip hip hurray!!!hip hip hurray!!!  congratulations to all the indians from me who supported india and wrote against these stinkin slaves of Mr.Bush.!!!î Ironically, the penname of the author of this rant is: ìsunnyshiningindian.î

Reading such sentiments, I canít but help feel for the 22 young men brave enough to take the field sporting the colors of their national teams. Here they were, boys who had spent much of their adult lives perfecting the art and science of cricket, and indeed learning from each other ó witness the words of gratitude of the Indian pacemen, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan for their Pakistani mentor, Wasim Akram ó being forced, against their wishes, to bear the angst of thousands of hateful, spiteful people. As they lined up to face each other in the pre-match ceremony, these unwilling gladiators knew that what they were about to embark upon was after all just a game ó and that, like any between evenly matched sides, it could go either way. And again, every one of these twenty two wonderfully talented men knew deep down that defeat in this match could mean just about any unimaginable thing ó from brickbats to attacks on their lives and property ó from zealots back home.

On the night of the match, I had gathered with a group of cricketers to savor the cricket. Like connoisseurs of good wine, my friends had a taste for the good thing. They appreciated the nuances and subtleties such as the changing ground and atmospheric conditions ó grass, soil, moisture ó  that give this game an extraordinary diversity and unpredictability absent from organized sport in America, with its homogenized, orchestrated, and canned character that make it seem more like a soap opera than reality TV. Like passionate sport lovers anywhere, they had a deep knowledge of the history of the game. And being cricketers themselves, and subcontinentals to boot, they knew and appreciated the talent, hard work and sacrifice it takes to make it to the worldís highest stage. While each had a team he supported, there was no absence of admiration for any cricketer who performed ó regardless of whether he played for Australia or for the minnow teams such as Namibia or the Netherlands.

Against this backdrop, I could not help but be struck by the contrast between the passion of my mates, on the one hand, and of those among the correspondents spewing hate on the internet chat rooms, on the other. How can the same game evoke such contrasting sets of emotions and meanings? Needless to say, it is not just cricket, or indeed an India ó Pakistan contest, that provokes such fervor. In soccer, for example, the periodic bloodbaths unleashed by the infamous ìhooligansî in England, are testimony to the fact that the human species, seen in evolutionary terms, is a tad young. Again, the so called ìsoccer-wars,î in which two countries ó Honduras and El Salvador - actually went to war in 1969, has been explained by the anthropologist, William Durham, in terms of the politics of resource scarcity that was symbolically transformed onto the football field.

Arguably, the fervor behind the violent emotions in India-Pakistan cricket encounters has both these elements ó primordial tribal loyalties, on the one hand, and simmering day to day conflicts for survival, on the other. However, the increasing ferocity of the violence ó whether verbal, as illustrated by the quotation cited earlier; or the physical ó for example, the attacks on the homes of the Indian cricketers following the defeat to Australia two weeks ago or the riots between Hindus and Muslims in Indian Gujarat following the Pakistan match, forces a more wide ranging analysis. One can argue that there are at least three sociological phenomena that frame the sheer intensity and the potentially catastrophic fervor of subcontinental cricket following.

At the outset, cricket is but one manifestation of the mainstreaming of hate more generally. The Talibalization of Pakistan, and the ìSanghificationî of India during the past decade has meant that it has become increasingly legitimate to openly preach hate and commit crimes against the constructed ìother.î The state has, in both countries, been either incapable or unwilling to contain those who spew hate. Secondly, hate groups in both countries have become spitting images of each other, and have also, in the process, begun to mass-produce and mass-market their divisive rhetoric and violence. In each country, the masses have been either mobilized to kill, paralyzed by fear, or numbed into indifference. Last, but by no means the least, the unending proxy war being fought at the border, and the ceaseless stream of body bags that arrive week after week into the villages and muffasil townships, has created a climate of sheer anger and disgust on both sides. Put simply, people in both India and Pakistan want the stalemate broken somehow. Cricket, as the only visible sport at which both nations excel at the international level, has, in this context, become the ultimate proxy war ó one in which the stalemate can be broken, and that too, within a matter of eight hours.

Predictably, the euphoria of a cricket victory in an India-Pakistan encounter is always short lived. Defeating the Pakistanis in Pretoria will not stem the flow of Indian, or for that matter, Pakistani blood in Kashmir. With news of the next carnage in the battlefield, the cricket victory will be forgotten. And the next time that the two nations meet on the cricket pitch ó they will be watched, as they were this time, not only by overzealous fans, but also by the millions of massed soldiers on both sides of the border. It will not take a rocket scientist to predict that the tornado of vitriolic hate will once again touch the cricket field.

To people on both sides of the border not yet smitten by the passion of pathological hatred, it is evident that the state of affairs is, to put it mildly, far from healthy. Indeed, many, especially the cricketers, have spoken out for peace or at least for reason and sanity. It is significant that a day before the India-Pakistan world cup match, Wisden, the torch bearing trade journal named for a Victorian cricket mercenary, carried an article by Sanjay Manjrekar, a former Indian international cricketer, on the camaraderie between players of the two sides. Particularly noteworthy is the following quote: ìOff the field we have always been great friends. No two international teams have the kind of interaction before a match that the Indians and the Pakistanis do. You may be friendly with the odd Australian or South African player and exchange pleasantries with a lot of others, but the camaraderie and kinship between Indian and Pakistani players is real. It has always struck me how open and forthright the Pakistanis are about their feelings: some of them have shared their deepest secrets with me after just a couple of meetings.î

As a member of the Indian diaspora, I have myself been struck often by the effusive warmth of Pakistanis. On at least three occasions, Pakistani cab drivers in England and the United States refused to accept their fare, and on one memorable day, a Pakistani cabbie, driving me into downtown Manhattan from New Yorkís La Guardia airport, insisted on giving me a free sight-seeing trip of the city. And who can forget the rousing applause that the Pakistani captain, Asif Iqbal, received from a full house Eden Gardens audience as he walked off the ground having played his last innings; or indeed, the standing ovation that the Pakistani cricket team got from the spectators at Chepauk after it had defeated India in the opening test match of the last series played between the two sides. And again, who can ever forget the sheer anticipation as the two countries braced themselves for the visits of Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Mussharaf? It is almost as though beneath every gun shot or a bomb blast, there is a warm embrace and a rapprochement waiting to happen. Despite the efforts of the hate mongers on both sides, ordinary Indians and Pakistanis have not quite attained the seemingly irreproachable hostility of the Israelis and the Palestinians. When I think of these moments, I do tend to get carried away by the image of a gaggle of doves perched on a large nuclear bomb, waiting to peck away at its wires.

I am however a realist, and know that the emotive equation has the potential to tilt either way. But what will it take to coax the pendulum toward peace? Being a soft liberal, I had taken it for granted that such a shift in attitude could only be brought about by well meaning progressives. As it turned out, a sharp conversation at an upscale restaurant in downtown Palo Alto a couple of hours before the match forced me to re-think my premises. During the dinner, the conversation meandered, touching cricket, the world cup, Indo-Pakistan relations, and sectarian violence in India. My interlocutors were Indian liberals like myself. As I read it, there were three trends that overlapped across the opinions expressed on each of the topics.

At the outset, there was a sense of what can perhaps be described as the anti-politics of atonement. One close friend at the dinner, whose intellect and judgment I have long admired, to take an example, stated that she was going to root for Pakistan. This was no knee jerk statement. I knew, having worked with her over the past few months, that it grew out of a deep felt angst (that I fully share) about a particularly ugly manifestation of Indian nationalism. In declaring her support for the Pakistan team, she was, in my book, trying to atone for the sins of her compatriots. Very admirable, very Gandhian, and ironically, quintessentially Hindu! However, I couldnít help but think at that time of the consequences of an Indian defeat. I couldnít help be petrified by the thought that many Muslim lives might be lost in riots that would have ensued, especially in Gujarat. As it happened, my fears were well founded, as mobs clashed in Ahmedabad and Baroda in the aftermath of the match, resulting in arson, and at least one reported death of a Muslim person.

Against this backdrop, I couldnít help wonder: ìWhat do sentiments such as those expressed by my friend, achieve?î Obviously, in the company of like-minded friends, they engender emotions ranging from a friendly stare to a pat in the back. But what if such sentiments are stated in the public sphere ó such as they are by many Indian ìprogressivesî who offer unequivocal support for ìthe Kashmir struggleî ó and in the process find a simple villain ó the Indian state ó in a complex history of conflict? I canít help think that they will only serve to marginalize the liberal voice further, for a nation fed daily, and if I might add, with true, stories of body bags from the border is simply not prepared to accept that its side is the sole perpetrator. In the absence of Mowglis in the contemporary subcontinental political jungle, is it good strategy for the few with the ability to be vocal and heard, to put forth a message so out of tune with the raw and naked emotions on the ground?

A second, related trend in the conversation can perhaps be described as the politics of scapegoating. The complex multivariate history of the rise of sectarian violence in the subcontinent was sought to be explained, by another friend at the table, with reference to specific causes, such as the aspirations of particular castes. While he was indeed correct in pointing out the significance of the correlation between the interests of certain upper caste groups and sectarian politics, it is also important to notice other trends, some contrary, and others, such as the alliances between sectarian parties and lower caste groups, that are arguably contradictory. As with the case of the anti-politics of guilt and atonement, uni-linear analyses serve only to scapegoat, and in the process, to conceal the more complex realities that demand and deserve more than ìradicalî expressions of dissent.

In some respects, however, it was the third trend that I found most disturbing. In rather crass caricature, it can be described as an inability to listen and converse. Facts and arguments that were contrary to oneís core assumptions, such as the afore mentioned case of the reasons behind the rise of sectarian violence, were either ignored or dismissed. This was by no means the first time I have sensed such a response from Indian ìprogressivesî in the Bay Area. Barely a few months ago, an attempt at intervening in a debate on the Kashmir question was similarly brushed aside. In each case, instead of engaging the message, the messenger was attacked, in the time and tested fashion of the Indian Left, for failing to toe the party line. A tactic in both instances was to laugh away an argument by referring to it as ìacademic.î Then and now, there was a palpable anti-intellectualism, juxtaposed with an almost apodictic self-righteousness. There was only one truth, and it was, one couldnít help feel, already revealed. To oppose this truth was to be a heretic.

Walking out of the restaurant, it became evident to me that many Indian progressive liberals suffer from several critical disabilities that prevent them from being effective catalysts of social change. To begin with, they sound, in many respects, almost exactly like the people they deplore. Like their nemeses ó the religions fanatics, they fail to reason with those whose opinions they do not agree with, choosing instead, to use a lyric from an old folksong, to deny, defy, or crucify. Sadly, unlike their opponents, they neither have the power, the resources, the medium, the idiom, nor the method, to communicate with the masses. In the end, they end up being just another shrill voice in the din, a cacophonic tin drum amidst the triumphant clashes of cymbals and trishuls, a school of Walter Mitties dreaming the revolution while the world spins on the forefingers of the zealots they plot to depose. Indeed, one canít help wondering: if an elite is incapable of even dialoging with fellow travelers, leave alone the masses, however wrong their interlocutors might be, what good can they really do?

Is everything lost? I must admit that on the drive to the match, it did indeed seem that way. But then, that wonderful act by the players of the two teams before the match ó the simple, beautiful, banal, mundane, and yet profound act of shaking hands before and after the game ó showed me that there is a different future to dream. I canít help suspect that this is a future in which self-professed ìprogressivesî will have but a side role. In this future, it wonít be reason that will drive passion, but the other way round. In this future, emotions, raw and naked, and common, ordinary people, will rise in concert. They will force the masters of reason and rhetoric ó the politicians and the spin doctors, not to enslave the masses, but on the contrary, to be enslaved by the people and for the people. But again, I am a realist. I realize that while the young boys who represented India and Pakistan on the cricket field on March 1 have shown the way; trodding their path demands courage, and perhaps most important, an army of everyday catalysts who can enable a billion symbolic handshakes. Are there any takers?

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