The Spectre of Cynical Politics is Haunting Indian Cricket

First Mumbai and Chennai and now Dharmasala, the venues where political agendas dictate who can play and who can’t is slowly increasing. Worse, an Indian player, Suresh Raina, is now in the cross-hairs of hyper-nationalist trolls.

Suresh Raina. Credit: vijay_chennupati/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Suresh Raina. Credit: vijay_chennupati/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“I do not, of course, suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism. Still, you do make things worse by sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides that whichever nation is defeated will ‘lose face’.”
– George Orwell,
The Sporting Spirit

In the ongoing duel over the location of a Twenty20 match between India and Pakistan, the loss of face has occurred outside the field of play. Different political interests have combined to demonstrate a weirdly unified intolerance of the visiting Pakistani side. A compromise has been achieved but rancour hangs in the air. India will play Pakistan in Kolkata on March 19; the match will go ahead, so will the ill-will.

Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) secretary Anurag Thakur was left embarrassed by the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh’s refusal to host the match in Dharamsala. The timing of the decision left him in a difficult position, said Thakur in righteous indignation. But this isn’t the first time an India-Pakistan match has led to an angry response by the BCCI secretary. When there were talks of India playing Pakistan in a bilateral series last year, Thakur was unequivocally opposed to the idea. He tweeted, “Dawood [Ibrahim, India’s most wanted criminal] in Karachi. NSA wants to meet separatists here. Are you really serious about peace and you expect we’ll play cricket with you?”

Now, BJP MP Thakur is the regional political rival of the Himachal Pradesh CM. Political point-scoring was probably inevitable in the current political climate. In the wake of the Pathankot terrorist attack, CM Virbhadra Singh refused to allay Pakistan’s genuine concerns over the safety of its team. The ongoing debate over nationalism only made the ground more fertile to settle scores.

The HP CM didn’t cover himself in glory but he should shoulder only part of the blame. Even though the BJP-led government is in alliance with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, no World T20 matches were scheduled for Pakistan in Mumbai. Shiv Sena protests had ensured that Pakistani umpire Aleem Dar and commentators Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar were unable to perform their duties when South Africa toured India last year. Fearing such protests would be repeated, Pakistan’s fixtures were moved outside Maharashtra. Yet, Dharamsala proved to be an unwelcome host too.

Thakur defended his change of heart by saying that a major international tournament is different from a bilateral series. Yet, he could not convince the BJP-led government in Maharashtra to do his bidding. There’s nothing to suggest a concerted effort was made to host Pakistan matches in Mumbai or Nagpur. BJP MP Thakur could not even persuade his party colleagues in the Centre to issue statements assuring safety of the Pakistani cricketers. While the confusion has gone on, the Central government has chosen silence as its ally.

Is sport good for everyone?

It would be useful to let our minds wander to a time when Pakistan visited India. It was 1999 and months before the Kargil War, a two-Test series was followed by a tri-series involving Sri Lanka. A month ahead of the Test match in New Delhi, Shiv Sena activists surreptitiously entered the Ferozeshah Kotla Stadium and dug up the pitch. Now, the BJP politicians currently in power would do well to remember that it was their party in charge at the Centre then. Despite the disgraceful act by one of the party’s allies, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was  prime minister at the time,  personally pledged to ensure the security of the visiting Pakistani cricketers. Narendra Modi could learn a thing or two from that episode.

For now, a compromise has been reached because the state government in West Bengal has displayed common sense when the country seemed to be running out of it. Perhaps Voltaire was right after all. Yet, it’s time to reflect on a dangerous trend that’s gathering steam.

Pakistani cricketers are barred from playing in Mumbai, Dharamsala, in the Indian Premier League and there will probably be a few additions to the list if and when the situations arise. Sri Lankan players are prohibited to play in Tamil Nadu. And if some would have their way, Suresh Raina wouldn’t be able to play anywhere in India. Where does this end?

Perhaps Raina would prefer to return his Twitter account to his nephew. Back in 2012, a tweet was sent from the Indian batsman’s account that baited and jeered Pakistan for their loss to host Sri Lanka in the World T20 semi-final. The offensive tweet didn’t go down well with some and Raina issued an apology while claiming that it was his nephew who had used his account.

Last week the Indian batsman ran into rough weather again, this time over a Facebook post. Raina’s support for JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech upon release from jail caused a furore. A whirlwind of abusive tweets was unleashed upon him. In minutes, Raina was a ‘traitor’, an ‘anti-national’ who didn’t deserve to play for India anymore. Of course, winning the World Cup on home soil in 2011 does not count. No wonder cricketers often choose to place themselves in a bubble. If you don’t agree with the dominant politics of the day, everything you’ve earned on the field of play is liable to be questioned.

It may be that Raina will alter perceptions if he plays a match-winning knock against Pakistan in a week’s time. But what if he does not? A first-ball duck and the reaction will be infused with heavier doses of vitriol. In the current political climate, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which a group of protestors demand that he should not play in a certain city because he’s a ‘traitor’ or ‘anti-national’.

Orwell’s scepticism of the inherent assumption that sport is good for all of us seems well-founded here. “I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.” This is not a wholehearted endorsement of Orwell’s views. At times, he did speak of sport like a jilted lover. Yet his views should make us consider that sport does not necessarily bring people together. In fact, as seen in Raina’s case, it might even draw those away who are imagined as a community.

Placing distasteful restrictions

For those Sri Lankan and Pakistani cricketers who remain unwelcome in certain Indian regions, it’s a denial of opportunity to move freely and practice their labour. Politicians will play politics but can cricketers play cricket, too? In scenarios where they are not allowed to ply their trade, their right to free and fair employment is violated.

If a group’s sentiments are hurt by the visit of a certain team, it’s the state’s responsibility to stress that cricketers and terrorists are not the same. Orwell called sport “war minus the shooting”; it’s not the cricketers who are firing the shots right now.

Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi, known for his belligerent batting, provided a moment of sanity when asked whether his side will prepare differently for the encounter against India in a week’s time. “I don’t understand why people in our country are hostile to India. Why do we hate India so much? Are there no other teams? We watch Indian films and TV shows in our homes. We follow Indian customs in our weddings. Please take cricket as a sport and keep supporting us.”

As India gets ready to host a global event, it’s time we hear similar voices that seek to calm tensions. The focus has gravitated towards the match against Pakistan to such an extent that other teams are seen as making up the numbers.

It’s delusional to imagine a world of sport not influenced by politics. The various political powers will continue to determine the running of sport anywhere in the world. There’s no reason to believe that cricket should be different. However, alarm needs to be raised when the basic rights of sportspersons are violated. When Pakistani and Sri Lankan cricketers are prohibited from playing in certain parts of India, the cricketing fraternity needs to take notice and correct such transgressions.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) has a serious responsibility in this context. It’s not difficult to acknowledge that cricket’s global governing body makes special adjustments for the BCCI, the most powerful cricketing board in the world. The ongoing World T20 has been dogged by poor administration but never has India’s hosting rights been put in doubt. Even when Pakistan’s arrival was uncertain, India’s refusal to provide assurances was not seen as a violation of its hosting commitments.

Since the arrival of Shashank Manohar as BCCI president, India has sought a more egalitarian organisation of world cricket. While those plans are well-meaning, they would be less efficient if the world leader in cricket cannot provide opportunities to players from other nations to participate freely and fairly. The restrictions placed on Pakistani cricketers are undue and distasteful.

If foreign cricketers are not welcome because they hurt a group’s sentiments, soon players like Raina will be vilified too. At what point do we decide to put cricketing interests ahead of parochial ones? It’s important that cricket engages in this conversation actively. IPL franchises have comfortably accepted that they should not sign Pakistani cricketers and that Sri Lankan players are banned in Tamil Nadu. At what point does the cricket fraternity call India out on these exclusionary tactics? Perhaps it will take a Raina.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.