Communalizing Cricket

15 Apr, 2003    ·   1015

B Rajeshwari suggests that cricket matches can be used for improving Hindu-Muslim as well as Indo-Pak relations

On 3 March 2003, celebrations over India’s win against Pakistan in the World Cup cricket turned violent in Gujarat, killing a Muslim youth and leaving six others injured.  There were similar incidents of violence in other parts of the country, including Vadodara, Gorakhpur, Gajrawadi, Kolkata and Bangalore. These instances are not sudden clashes between groups of two communities.  Cricket, as a game, is being exploited by a section of the majority, especially by the right wing groups, to make the minority community feel alienated.    Any Indian cricket victory against Pakistan is a matter of celebration for the Hindus and not for the Muslims. 

In this particular case, after India’s victory, about 500 members belonging to the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Hindu Jagarana Vedike and Bajrang Dal took out victory processions in the town.   These processions were deliberately taken to areas with large Muslim population.  In Gajrawadi and Bangalore, the shops of the minority community were forced to close, and in Gorakhpur, there were protests against the fluttering of green flags, dubbed as Pakistani flags, atop houses, shops and places of worship of the minority community.  The Hindu Mahasabha objected to the fluttering of these flags and the protests turned violent. These processions and demonstrations were portrayed to give the message not only of the Indian team’s victory over the Pakistani team, but also of India over Pakistan as a nation. Therefore a clear attempt is made to give a communal angle to cricket matches, which are nothing but sporting events. 

This phenomenon of communalizing cricket originated in the last decade. Victory marches and processions were never a feature of the past, but a practice of recent years. The people who lead and participate in such processions often have aggressive body language which instigates riots and violence. In the last five years these incidents were confined to areas in Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Gujarat, now, however, they are becoming widespread. When Pakistan lost the World Cup to Australia in 1999, sweets were distributed in certain cities of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat and firecrackers were lit by Shiv Sena activists in Muslim dominated areas.

It was surprising that Bangalore, which has never experienced communal violence, witnessed violence following the 2003 World Cup Indo-Pak match. While cricket matches can be symbols of communal harmony, political parties like the Shiv Sena and groups like the VHP and Bajrang Dal have ensured that the game is viewed within the boundaries of Hindutva.

On 6 January 1999, Shiv Sena activists in Delhi destroyed the pitch at the Ferozshah Kotla stadium to prevent the scheduled India-Pakistan match from being played. The Shiv Sena’s campaign against the match was verbally supported by the VHP, Hindu Mahasabha and the ruling BJP government. The Shiv Sena activists also entered the BCCI office in Mumbai and damaged trophies of historic value; the Maharashtra government did not take any action against those who indulged in violence, and on the contrary, journalists who protested the violence were arrested. The Shiv Sena and certain groups of the Bajrang Dal threatened to disrupt the India-Pakistan test match scheduled at Chennai.

Most victory processions after cricket matches are justified as expressions of patriotic sentiments. But they are expressive of a certain kind of patriotism which aims at exploiting cricket matches to invoke the feeling of Hindu unity. Since cricket has a mass following in our country, it is targeted by the right wing groups to induce the masses.  

What is striking is the public reaction towards this phenomenon. While regional newspapers here carried reports of the violence in dismissive tones tucked away in insignificant columns, there was hardly any mention of it in national dailies. In contrast, Pakistan national dailies splashed the news across their front pages.

Communal riots not only alienate the minority community within the country, but also send a wrong message to our neighbours.  While cricket matches have the potential to improve strained Indo-Pak, they also possess the capability to exacerbate the situation further by fomenting communal riots.  And, victory processions have only resulted in reducing the level of tolerance in both the communities. 

It is important that sports, cricket in particular, be used as an ambassador of goodwill instead of assuming communal undertones. Sincere efforts should be undertaken to prevent communal violence of this nature from occurring. In most cities the police are well aware of the sensitive areas and preventive measures need to be in place to stall occurrence of violent events rather than attempt to control them after their outbreak.