The growing politicisation of Indian cricket

The tournament has played out against a backdrop of Indian nationalism, on the ascent since the BJP, a party with a strong Hindu nationalist tinge, won their first general election. 

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The roads to the Eden Gardens Stadium were choked with traffic. Hours before India faced their great foes Pakistan in a crucial match in the World Twenty20 in Kolkata, the streets overflowed with fans riding motorbikes draped in the Indian flag. Even in the stultifying heat, thousands queued obligingly for tickets, while the police, some armed with lathis, others with weapons altogether more dangerous, looked sternly on.

“Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British,” the author Ashis Nandy famously wrote. Nowhere is that truer than in T20, the shortest format of cricket, which perfectly tailored to India’s burgeoning middle-class: cash-rich and time poor, and with a craving for celebrity and Indian triumph.

When the match eventually begun, the national anthem brought none of the self-conscious air detectable when many countries sing them. Instead the whole ground rose in unison, bellowing out the words while thousands of Indian tricolor flags waved proudly. Faces painted with the colours of the Indian flag were ubiquitous; so were I love my India hats.

Many thousands had their smart phones out to record the moment for posterity: Indian national pride meeting Indian commerce. “National identities are commercial playthings,” the author Mike Marquesee observed two decades ago when covering the 1996 Cricket World Cup in the subcontinent. So it is in India in 2016.

In six years, India will become the most populous nation on earth. Yet, like the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the WT20 has raised serious concerns about India’s ability to host global events. The schedule was only announced on December 11, less than three months before the start of the tournament, while tickets did not go on sale until two weeks before the first match and have seldom been available to buy at the ground. At an early match in Nagpur, Scotland fans were told they had to go to the city’s old stadium, 18km away, to get tickets.

The chaos is not merely explained by the cliché of India being a country that lives in the 11th hour: it is a manifestation of the intrusion of politics on the national sport. India’s match with Pakistan was originally awarded to Dharamshala, a remote Himalayan city with poor transport links and security infrastructure where, in any case, it often rains in March. A Pakistan security delegation ruled that Dharamshala was not safe enough to play in, and, at ten days’ notice, the match was moved 2,000km to Kolkata.

The game had been awarded to Dharamshala largely for one reason: it is the home state of Anurag Thakur, the Honorary Secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and a Bharatiya Janata Party MP in the area. Thakur had made a great play of bringing such a prestigious match to Dharamshala. The chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, a political rival, repeatedly said that he could not guarantee the safety of the Pakistani team, seemingly to embarrass Thakur.

This is been just a small example of the politicisation of cricket. The tournament has played out against a growing backdrop of Indian nationalism, on the ascent since the BJP, a party with a strong Hindu nationalist tinge, won their first general election majority two years ago. A row over use of the saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ ("Victory for Mother India"), which has been appropriated by Hindu nationalists, has been playing out during the competition. A meeting of the BJP national executive recently decreed that “refusal to chant victory to Bharat is tantamount to disrespect to our constitution itself”, while the RSS, another Hindu nationalist organisation, have said that the young should be taught chanting the slogan to inculcate in them a love for India. But minorities, especially Muslims, are often made to feel uncomfortable by the Bharat slogan, seen as embodying a Hindu vision of India. Tweeters have taken to calling the row the #PatriotWar.

Indian politics has never been immune to events on the cricket field. Two years ago 66 students were expelled from a university in Kashmir after cheering for Pakistan in a match against India. During this tournament the Bharat chant has featured prominently at Indian matches, while there have been rather Orwellian signs reminding fans they would be punished for any “wrongful display” of the national flag. There have been other incidences of tension between those who see the cricket field as a vehicle for wider Indian advancement and those who do not. After the match with Pakistan, a Bollywood star criticised a leading commentator for not focusing enough on India during the game. In a press conference, captain MS Dhoni told a journalist "I know you aren't happy that India won today", words widely interpreted as an attack on the media for not being supportive enough of the national cricket team.   

Yet the politicisation of the tournament has not quite been complete. In Kolkata, many Indian fans applauded the Pakistani anthem as opposing fans sat side-by-side in a display of subcontinental unity. After India sealed victory, the roads around the stadium were jammed once again, but this time with jubilant fans riding around in celebration.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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