The poison of the Hindutva fascists runs deep. It contaminates everything, even victory in the sporting arena.
India pulled off an unbelievable win against England at Lords in the NatWest series final on July 13. Set to chase a target of 325, India romped home with three balls to spare. There has been jubilation all over the country over this incredible win. Commentators as well as fans have noted that the win came in a game in which both Tendulkar and Dravid failed to get going, scoring less than 20 between them. Amongst the seniors, only captain Ganguly had an important role to play, scoring a lovely 60 and sharing a blistering century opening partnership with Virender Sehwag. But the game belonged to the young turks: Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif.
It is a measure of how communally charged our times have become that many have noted that the win was fashioned by a Muslim youth from UP, and the winning runs were scored by another Muslim from Gujarat. Coming as this does in the context of the genocide unleashed by the Hindutva brigade in Gujarat, this fact has been occasion for some rejoicing. That the patriotism of the common Muslim is beyond doubt was again proved by the manner in which Kaif partnered Yuvraj in that scintillating century stand, and after the latter’s departure, took over the role of the senior batsman to play with great skill, pride and courage to take India to victory. At the end, Zaheer Khan (who took 3 important wickets when England batted) also made his mark keeping his cool under pressure to score the winning hit.
But consider, for a moment, an alternative scenario: imagine that Kaif, instead of Yuvraj, had got out with the team at 267, imagine that Zaheer, instead of Harbhajan or Kumble, had buckled under pressure and thrown his wicket away, and imagine, finally, that India had lost. Nobody with any sense could have blamed the Indian batsmen for losing what was in any case thought to be an unwinnable match once England has piled on that huge total. But again, who knows? Who can be absolutely certain that allegations and rumours would not have circulated that the Muslims have, yet again, let India down?
Many will protest that we are mixing up cricket and politics, and that the two are best kept separate. In an ideal world, maybe. Yet, the fact remains that like all other areas of human endeavour, sport – and cricket in particular – has always been ‘mixed up’ with politics. When C L R James, the Marxist from Trinidad, wrote the finest book on cricket ever written, Beyond the Boundary, this was the fundamental point he was making: that the drama of cricket is enacted as much inside as beyond the boundary of the playing field, that issues of race, class and colony are inextricably bound up with the sport, and that great players become great when they not only play with skill and craft, but also embody in their playing the hopes and aspirations and achievements of their people.
Thus, for instance, when cricketers like Learie Constantine played for the West Indies, they played not just for their respective islands, or even for the Caribbean nations as a whole, but also for all black people. Therefore, when the campaign to make Frank Worrell the first black captain of the West Indies team was successful, it was a great victory for the entire race. Closer to our own times, Viv Richards is famously quoted as saying that every time he played the English, he was not merely thrashing a leather ball, but avenging an entire history of colonial exploitation.
In India, the matter of cricket and politics has been more complex. On the one hand, there is no doubt that cricket has remained, in spite of its very great popularity, a sport more or less constrained by boundaries of class and caste. Most cricketers who have made a name for themselves have been from the middle class or above, and sometimes from the royalty. Rarely if ever has a working class or poor peasant boy made it to the Indian eleven. The boundaries of caste have proved even more impenetrable. To the knowledge of this writer, not a single dalit or adivasi boy has ever represented the country at Test level. On the other hand, however, the representation of religious communities has been fairly even: some of the finest Indian cricketers have been Muslims and the team routinely includes one or two Muslims; Sikhs have made a name for themselves at the international level; Christians have represented India frequently (and even, as in the case of Chandu Borde, led the national team); and Parsis have of course been amongst the pioneers of the game in the subcontinent.
There is some truth in the cliché that cricket unites Indians as nothing else does. When Mansur Ali Khan led the team to its first ever overseas test triumph, the entire nation rose as one to salute its fine captain. When Azharuddin slammed three centuries on debut, the entire nation marvelled at those steel wrists and their silky touch. And now, young Mohammed Kaif is the newest hero on the cricketing scene.
With one difference. When we admired the aristocratic captain instilling in a bunch of erratic individuals a sense of the collective, when we were seduced by the stunning beauty of the Hyderabadi master’s batting, we did not necessarily think of them as Muslims. They were Indian sportsmen, proud to represent their country, and carrying with them the hopes of millions of their countrymen and women. No longer. When Azharuddin was implicated in the match-fixing scandal, questions were raised about his loyalty to the country because of his religious affiliation – questions that his co-accused Ajay Jadeja, son-in-law of Jaya Jaitley, never faced. And today, even in victory, one cannot help but think of a Kaif or a Zaheer as representatives of a community under siege. To their credit, the young heroes have shown no awareness of this. They went out to win for their country, and they did that in the face of overwhelming odds, with style and panache. And after the win, when they celebrated, nothing separated a Kaif from a Yuvraj or a Harbhajan from a Ganguly.
One wonders, though, how long the age of innocence in Indian popular culture will be allowed to last. Already some of it has eroded, and we are no longer allowed to savour a superb sporting achievement unconditionally, without prejudice or fear. The poison of the Hindutva fascists runs deep indeed.
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