21 September 2020 07:54 AM



The Other War: India- Pakistan Sports Showcase Our Fraught Ties


Sport is visual, not a fairy tale. We care for the action, not the impulses that drive it. Sport is also social, making heroes and villains of us. Fighting without bullets does not make it anything less, because this fight too can tear through us.

Goalkeeper Mir Ranjan Negi was destroyed by India’s 1- 7 defeat to Pakistan in the 1982 Asian Games hockey finals, becoming a pantomime villain for the ages.

We are unforgiving of error and overly generous towards success. It is so, just so human.

There is a historical and sociological explanation to the India- Pakistan sporting rivalry. Ask Pakistani or Indian hockey players, they are likely to sidestep historical issues. Sportsmen feel they are self- aware ambassadors hailing sport’s healing touch.

This image- building camouflages darker desires and dreams. Thus, the same players who carry messages of peace also brawl and rant on the field. Spectators at the India- Pakistan game in the cricket World Cup may have been amiable, but they were watching the game under curfew, fearful of penalties for social transgressions. Decode our behaviour, and we see a different agency.

South Asia’s two primary civilisations, the Hindu and the Islamic, have co- habited for over a millennium. Pakistanis draw their heroes, inspiration and memory from spiritual mentors to the West (the missile Ghauri, named after an Islamic invader, pokes Indians in the eye). Indians are rooted in the soil, where their profound philosophies and multifarious deities flowered (the Agni missile is named after the Hindu god of fire). Cultural separation between Hindus and Muslims is not new. Remember the battle for minds between the philosopher prince Dara Shukoh, an admirer of Hindu philosophy, and the purist Muslim zealot Aurangzeb?

Yet, there are examples of co- existence, even co- operation. Humans truce up hostilities after they are exhausted from fighting. The Iran- Iraq war ended when Iraq employed chemical weapons, degrading the Iranian will to fight. T.C.A. Raghavan, India’s former high commissioner to Pakistan, says in his book The People Next Door: “neither the extent of goodwill nor the extent of hostility in each country for the other can be underestimated.” It is possible to make deals with Pakistan, he asserts. Partition poisoned it all, but normalcy limps in from time to time. Thus, we see the paradox of two equal truths. There were scuffles at an India- Pakistan game in Busselton, Australia in 2011, and the showering of rose petals by Pakistani players on Indian spectators at another game.

Encounters on the hockey (or cricket) field can be friendly, or not so friendly. From both sides, sportsmen protest that it is only sport, that they get along well. But denying something means it is happening right beneath you. The emperor Asoka conveys sermons on the need for harmony from his numerous rock and pillar edicts.

This means there were sectarian tensions in the society he led, as historian Romila Thapar argues. So, for sportsmen to deny tension exists does not hold up. Hockey player Balbir Singh writes about former comrades at the 1948 London Olympics: “The Indian and Pakistani teams were billeted at different places. We first met at Wembley Stadium during the ceremonial opening of the Games. Niaz Khan, A.I.S. Dara, Shah Rukh, Mehmood and Aziz saw us, but I was surprised to see that our old friends were deliberately keeping a distance from us. The openness of old was gone.”

India- Pakistan sporting contests closely shadow political ties. There is enough data to connect behaviour on the field with the state of relations. India now sets the mood, and Pakistan responds. After the terrorist attack in Pulwama, India refused visas to Pakistani athletes in a shooting World Cup, triggering a cautionary review by the International Olympics Committee of India’s right to host events. Indians are simmering at the terror slights from the western neighbour, so we have bravado, machismo and bluster. P.R. Sreejesh made the “my blood boils” statement not so long ago.

Cricket, the sport that shows the India- Pakistan rivalry at its extremes, is the platform to throw slights, air grievances, and take symbolic actions. Former cricketers urged the Indian team to boycott the India- Pakistan World Cup game, while others put pause, arguing that the best score to settle would be to defeat Pakistan and extend India’s World Cup record to 7- 0. The Indian team wore olive green camouflage- style caps in a one- day international game against Australia in March, 2019 to express solidarity with Indian police officers killed in attacks in Kashmir. The Indian cricket board made unsuccessful attempts to isolate Pakistan ahead of the World Cup.

The Indians are now cutting through the Pakistani psychological stranglehold of the 1950s and 1960s, when Pakistanis were a “warrior” race turning the tide of communism. India in contrast was baffling and muddled. With India’s economic surge, the diplomacy has turned upside down. Pakistan has become the wrong kind of state, and India is no longer the under- achiever (think of spacefaring). In cricket, India is rampant, because it controls the cash flows.

Waqar Younis said after Pakistan’s loss to India in the World Cup: “we had good sides in the 1990s, but now I think this India team intimidates Pakistan.” This was not always the case. Both in hockey and cricket, Pakistanis won considerably more in the past (according to hockey statistician B.G. Joshi, Pakistan won 47 games in the 20th century, while India won 29. In the 21st century, Pakistan has won 35 games and India 33). In the 1950s and 1960s Pakistan was going through decades of high growth. Now it's India’s turn.

Even a few who draw their ancestry to Pakistan now tilt towards India. Mehran Marri, a Baluch human rights activist, tweeted after India’s World Cup victory: “Congratulations to India from the people of Balochistan for their outstanding defeat of Pakistan. We Baloch are celebrating your victory as if it was our very own. Jai Hind. Jeeay Balochistan.” This is toxic and provocative to Pakistanis, yet they display a curious passivity. The “Crush India” sentiment ahead of the 1971 war was different. To- day, the mood on the field puts India half a step ahead.

Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador. He advises the government of Odisha on sports and is a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia.

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