Sedition is an act against the security of the country. How does clapping for the Pakistani cricket team threaten security or even the interests of the Indian state? When did patriotism insist on uniforms or uniformity?
I want to begin autobiographically. As children, one of the favourite games of fantasy that we played was to construct a wish list of a joint Indo-Pakistani cricket team. In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan had great bowlers and charismatic cricketers like Fazal Mahmood and Hanif. One needed a touch of nepotism to fit in six Indian players. I varied the list to adhere to my sense of fairness and diversity.
The little exercise demonstrated two things. Even to my innocent mind, Pakistan was a double, a phantom limb we had lost recently. Like a phantom limb, which stays alive in the consciousness, Pakistan haunts us as nostalgia, as memory, as a synergetic possibility. A dream of South Asia is still a wonderful possibility and goes beyond the bureaucratic aridness of SAARC. Yet, at another level, one wants to cheer India against Pakistan, turning our cricket matches into surrogate battles. The question one asked even then was the dream of unity at one level, an act of sedition against the nation state. Is loyalty that simple that it has to follow a map, a boundary or an official diktat?
Vehicle for nationalism
I remember when I was at school the government banned the Encyclopædia Britannica because its maps showed Kashmir as a part of Pakistan. Eventually the encyclopedias entered the library with huge stamps on the page claiming the representation was false and inaccurate. I was delighted with the controversy and the official attitude. I was not interested in the border problem but the government’s official response. I cut myself a few stamps from raw potatoes and stamped away on a lot of old books feeling like a king, a lord of all that survived. Rubber stamps denoted official authority and I quickly realised their power.
My childhood also taught me that cricket was often a substitute and a vehicle for nationalism. We desperately wanted India to win and win all the time. It was impractical but at least we became less of a boring team. We were at least heroic losers and fanatic spectators. The cricket match between India and Pakistan remained a sell-out event especially at Brabourne and Eden Gardens and even as social affairs as their cricketers wooed our film heroines. I realised cricket was much more innocent then, while the hype remained. Gossips anticipated encounters between Zeenat Aman and Imran Khan. It was an innocent time pass world where spectators put together what politicians had torn apart. India and Pakistan were united by nostalgia, loss, history and alternative visions of the future.
The recent Asia Cup left me indifferent, even bored after India’s recent performances down under. Pakistan and Sri Lanka wanted to win while Indians seemed content with occasional heroism. The India-Pakistan match of course fulfilled the hype with Afridi stealing the win with two balls to spare. It was sheer drama and Pakistan deserved to win. It reminded one of a similar assault by Javed Miandad sealing the game with a six in the last ball from Chetan Sharma. It was one of the unforgettable moments which make cricket so watchable and talkable. I admit the Pakistanis deserved to win and I applauded happily. Afridi has a touch of the untameable and he brought it into full play that day.
I realised what I did could be called sporting. But when 67 students from Kashmir cheered and celebrated the Pakistani victory, they triggered an official inquiry into what was seen as an unacceptable gesture. A trace of irony runs through the narrative as the students were inmates of Madan Lal Dhingra Hostel at the Swami Vivekanand Subharti University in Uttar Pradesh. Dhingra was one of the great patriots of the nationalist movement alongside HarDayal and Lala Lajpat Rai.
A three-tier enquiry was held and all the 67 students were suspended indefinitely. The VC demanded an apology and when the expected apology did not materialise, he suspended them. I was glad I was not a student there. I would have also been suspended. Of course, I celebrated great cricket while the students “only” celebrated Pakistan’s victory. My nationalism is intact while the students since they are from Kashmir are liminal creatures who are perpetually suspect. Of course, officials might have used suspension as a preventive action against retaliation. As reports of suspended students being dropped at Ghaziabad and Delhi station under official cover seeped in, I wondered what the officials were up to. The university behaved unilaterally without consulting the local administration. One has to ask is such an act of political correctness necessary? To charge such students with sedition is not just harsh as Mr. Omar Abdullah claimed but silly. It is against the spirit of cricket and our sense of being a nation tolerant of dissent and diversity. To treat these students as a threat to security makes us both paranoid and melodramatic.
Is cheering for Pakistan in cricket anti-national? If so, a lot of us watching the Indian team perform are also anti-national. India right or wrong is a slogan that does not work in cricket or politics. Is such idiot nationalism a part of the official code of conduct? I think this event for all its primness is sinister not because of the Kashmiri students but because of such an idiot officialdom. Chauvinism and patriotism belong to different worlds. Chauvinism is a belief that the nation-state can do no wrong. Patriotism is more open-ended, it allows for error and vulnerability to a nation. It seeks diversity and does not condemn or hierarchise difference. A patriot is loyal to the nation but cosmopolitan in outlook. Patriotism in that sense embeds an individual without turning loyalties into a procrustean constraint. Patriotism wears no uniform and caters to no official ritual.
Sedition is an act against the security of the country. How does clapping for Pakistan threaten security or even the interests of the Indian nation state? When did patriotism insist on uniforms or uniformity? Are those students a potential fifth column or terrorists because of their cheering for Pakistan? One has to say something about the spirit of cricket and the spirit of democracy. The nation-state stands between them and in a deep way is sandwiched by these fertile imaginations. Cricket was a normative code. The British might have posited it as a colonial fiction, a tacit constitution they invented but did not adhere to. I remember reading W.G. Grace being dismissed once. Grace merely restored the stump, took guard and told the umpire: “They’ve come to watch me bat, not you umpire.” But cricket was a holy grail in the colony, representing the sporting spirit as an answer, even a palliative, to imperialism. One has to read classics like C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary or Ashis Nandy’s The Tao of Cricket to understand the chivalric code of cricket. A Duleep Singh would lose his place but would object to bodyline bowling.
Cricket added a sense of grace, of ethics to the colonial world. If cricket provided an aesthetic code, democracy became a play of differences which created pluralism not hierarchy. A nation-state caught between playfulness of cricket and democracy became more open and an affably heterogeneous entity. Our U.P. officials, by charging sedition, violated both the norms of cricket and the ease of democracy. It is sad that official patriotism dictates terms in India. I wish the government would release the students, drop charges, and in fact, question university officials who do not understand that the university is a place for learning, difference and debate. This has to be done quickly because this act threatens the confidence and diversity of a university and the laughter of the Indian democracy. The action of the officials is neither cricket nor democracy. In fact, it is an act of idiot nationalism which India does not need. The heroes of our national movement would have understood. A sporting instinct is the beginning of patriotism and playfulness.
(Shiv Visvanathan is professor, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)