Today’s hyper-nationalism is the consequence of a challenged identity riven with doubts. Sport is an important component in this project, used to demand the persecution of our threats on and off the field.
The last time India met Pakistan in an International Cricket Council (ICC) tournament final, it was in 2007. Interestingly, it remained the only such instance until the teams made their way to the ongoing Champions Trophy finale, to be played on June 18. Shrill jingoism was very much par for the course then but at least the matchup did not feel unusual.
In the three-and-half years preceding the World Twenty20 final in South Africa, India and Pakistan had participated in three bilateral series. The Indian team’s crowning as the world champion in the shortest format of cricket was followed by another series at home against the arch-rival. After a long time, it had become common to see the two sides face off against each other in international cricket.
The situation, of course, has been very different since the 26/11 attack in Mumbai. India did host Pakistan towards the end of 2012 for a one-day international (ODI) series but it was a rare uptick in their relationship. Of course, it did not help matters that Pakistan could not host international cricket at home after Sri Lankan cricketers were attacked in Lahore during the 2009 tour.
Over the years, it has become a politically convenient position for both sides to advocate a boycott of the other. In fact, in the aftermath of the Lahore attack, major talking heads on television channels in Pakistan were convinced that it had been orchestrated at the behest of the Indian state. Kamran Khan, who used to host a widely-watched daily news show on Geo TV, categorically demanded back then, “Pakistan now should not sit idle. Instead she should highlight the issue at international forums the way India highlighted Mumbai.”
Torn between boycott and chest-thumping
Of course, such rhetoric is familiar to anyone who wades through the morass that is television news coverage in India. However, a fortnight ago, new ground was broken. Multiple networks decided to either boycott the India-Pakistan group game or give short shrift to the match. Zee Media left everyone behind when owner Subhash Chandra announced that there will be no coverage of the contest. The irony was very much lost on him and his foot soldiers as special shows and discussions were broadcast about the match to repeat the message ad nauseam.
Indian cricketers and those who supported them were branded traitors while the families of deceased soldiers were paraded thoughtlessly. They were props for the hyper-nationalist agenda. The family members were allowed to speak but not in their voice. Those who chose to go on air and disagree with the boycott were shamed for their refusal to toe the line. The anchors tried hard to explain why they will not be doing their job.
Another thing soon became obvious. Duplicity was in vogue. Wrestler Babita Phogat first rooted for India’s boycotting the match but then could not help herself from celebrating the victory later in the day. News channels like Times Now and Republic were equal to the task. The hyper-nationalists wanted to affirm their loyalty to the cause while secretly hoping that Pakistan gets thrashed. It must have been a tough day.
So now that the final brings India and Pakistan together in London, it represents another opportunity for the warmongers to recreate the tawdry drama. One wonders if India’s cricketers and those who stand by them are still traitors.
It is a bit strange to see, though, that some television channels went after the cricketers. It seems that their readiness in promoting hallowed institutions like the military or destructive moves like demonetisation was not enough. There can be no dissent.
However, it would have certainly made the torn nationalists feel better that an ex-cricketer, who now possesses mastery in spouting nonsense, is propping their cause up. After India confirmed its spot in the final with a victory over Bangladesh, Virender Sehwag reminded everyone that the Indian side had defeated its ‘grandson’ and will play its ‘son’ next.
It is the kind of language ethnic nationalists will approve with vigorous nods. Akhand Bharat, where India lords over its conquered neighbours, is a rosy dream for those who want to take the country back a few centuries. A rebirth built on an imperialistic ideal which will demolish any opposition. But these thoughts only offer us the conflicts that lie at the core of the Indian state’s hegemonic aspirations.
Replacing doubts with noise
The divisions in our society have laid bare the lack of confidence in it. It certainly provides fertile ground for majoritarian ideas to flourish. But the hyper-intensity of present-day nationalism is a consequence of a challenged national identity riven with doubts. A cultural agenda informed by hyper-nationalism is an attempt to wish away these apprehensions. Sport is an important component in this project, used to belittle the greatest imagined threat and demand its persecution on and off the field.
This is why Zee Media’s latest gimmick was to ask why India will play a Pakistan side which made its way to the final thanks to alleged match-fixing. It did not matter that there was nothing to back this ridiculous claim. The fact that Pakistan defied expectations to reach the final was enough for another campaign of untruthful reporting, duly backed by Zee News.
So as we prepare for the final, we should also be ready for the tiresome commentary on Indo-Pak cricket. The hyper-nationalist voices in the media regurgitate the same old opinions, demonstrating their lack of commitment to honest journalism. In a political climate where misinformation and blatant lies have come to occupy a position of unprecedented prominence, it probably does not feel ridiculous to equate terrorist organisations with the Pakistani cricket team. To wit, in 1974, India took an exemplary stand by boycotting the Davis Cup final against South Africa to protest the apartheid regime. Such moments of political sanity seem withdrawn now.
Of course, sporting encounters with Pakistan have always been accompanied by regressive opinions. The Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray had once seen cricket as a ground for testing the loyalty of Muslims to India. It was their duty to do so, he said, by crying whenever India lost to its derided rival. If they do not, they might as well go to Pakistan, according to Thackeray. Coincidentally, his funeral in 2012 took place at Shivaji Park in Mumbai – a place that holds symbolic value for arguably every cricketer in the city.
So what remains of the charm that India-Pakistan cricket matches are supposed to evoke? Even when the political situation appeared relatively benign in the past, cricket could only attempt to paper over the cracks. Today, that does not exist as a possibility. In fact, if anything is bringing India closer to Pakistan, it is the unabashed celebration of the military and its increasing influence in civic and political life.
So, go on then, Zee Media and its bedfellows. Pakistan’s surprising resurgence has allowed such networks to once again spread fear, hate and lies. While there are some who draw joy in the mercurial displays of Pakistan, their voice is rarely pushed in mainstream media. Even India’s excellent displays in the Champions Trophy stand to be overlooked on account of its opponent in the final.
For the organisers, it is another chance to accumulate the gains from a marquee clash. We are often told that India-Pakistan contests are the stuff of everyone’s dreams. On the other hand, the forces energised by this encounter are responsible for producing the worst of nightmares. It is apparently the best possible final. It cannot be, for another outlay of nauseating programming has arrived. It is, of course, not just about cricket. It has never been. But now, those long months without an India-Pakistan match do not seem so bad.