Roshan Kishore, in Hindustan Times, 29 October 2021, with this title “Cricket and patriotism: What links them in India”
Pakistan’s victory over India in the ongoing T20 cricket World Cup match on October 24 has kicked up a political storm in India. First there was uproar over online trolling which targeted India’s pace bowler Mohammad Shami along religious lines. Many Opposition leaders came out in Shami’s support, and several cricketers and the Board of Control for Cricket in India also spoke up for him. Meanwhile, reports of Muslims celebrating Pakistan’s victory started doing the rounds. Those who did so will be booked under sedition charges, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath said in a tweet on October 28.
Politics around India-Pakistan matches is not new in India. But what drives such politics? Is it just social media noise, or does it have widespread resonance in the country ? Do most Indians see supporting India’s cricket team as the litmus test of patriotism? Is there a difference in how Hindus and Muslims think about this question? What about political rhetoric which tries to portray Indian Muslims as pro-Pakistan? Is jingoism around cricket the most dangerous communal threat in India?
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, a Washington based “nonpartisan fact tank” provides some answers. The survey, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, is based on 30,000 interviews conducted between November 2019 and March 2020.
1. Supporting the Indian cricket team is not the biggest test of being Indian, but the idea has large traction
One of the questions the survey asked was what one has to do in order to be considered “truly Indian”. 56% of the respondents listed supporting the Indian cricket team as an answer. While this was not the most popular answer to this question ( 70% cited having Indian ancestry and 69% said having knowledge of India’s freedom struggle matters), it is still significant.
As it to be expected, the response to what makes someone truly Indian varies significantly across religion and region. Cricket nationalism is more prevalent in the northern and eastern regions of the country and among Hindus and Jains. India’s non-Muslim religious minorities (Sikhs and Christians) are less receptive to the idea of supporting the Indian cricket team being sacrosanct to one’s Indian identity than Muslims.
2. The realpolitik constraint to fighting jingoismon cricket
Whether or not reports of Muslims supporting the Pakistani team are true, there is a realpolitik problem when it comes to the issue. Not only do a majority of Indians associate supporting the cricket team with being Indian, an even bigger share agrees that “respecting India” is essential for even being considered a part of one’s religion.This number is as high as 70% among both Hindus and Muslims. What this means is that when such incidents do erupt, and there is an attempt to extrapolate alleged celebrations over Pakistan’s victory beyond cricket as disrespect to the country itself, attempts to downplay or criticise such politics (liberal positions do exactly that) are likely to have very little traction even among minorities.
3. Tripura violence was a bigger communalism red flag than cricket jingoism this week
While liberals might find these statistics depressing, communal dog-whistling via cricket nationalism was not the most alarming this week, as far as India’s secular fabric is concerned. What went relatively unnoticed were reports of large-scale communal violence in the northeastern state of Tripura, a first for the border state. The Tripura incidents come on the back of violence against Hindus in neighbouring Bangladesh during Durga Puja.
Pew Survey findings portray India’s North-east as the most communally polarised. More than 30% of both Hindus and Muslims perceive that they are discriminated on religious lines in this region, where there is also a distrust of outsiders, irrespective of their religion. While this number is higher for Muslims in northern India, it is abnormally high for Hindus. This makes the North-east a fertile ground for communal clashes. The growing number of communal flare-ups in this region should be a bigger concern among those who care for India’s secular fabric. But no one should be arrested for supporting or not supporting a particular team.