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Cementing Ties: Sport in South Asian Diplomacy
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In 2003, as the World Cup unfolded, passions in India ran higher than ever before. The motorbike processions, streets and parks decorated with festoons and banners, gates adorned with posters bearing photographs of cricketers, homes draped in the tricolor – all these were signs of an unprecedented interest in the Indian team’s fortunes. Amidst all this, the media and the sponsors were not the only ones delighted. The nationalist, too, had great cause for joy. Cricket had finally achieved, for the nation, that level of unity that (s)he had dreamt for so long. Even more so since the Indian version of the ‘Tebbit test’1

had finally been cracked. There were no reports of displays of support for Pakistan during the tension-prone India-Pakistan match. This great barrier to ‘national integration’ had finally been overcome. But, I would argue in the following pages, this hope is more illusory than real. Rather than a genuine increase in nationalist fervour that has been apparently witnessed, it represents other more tangible and pressing concerns for the social scientist. The ICC World Cup 2003 was the most controversial chapter in the

history of the tournament. Never before had the staging of the tournament itself been thrown into doubt. The influence of conditions prevailing in Zimbabwe and Kenya, organizers of the tournament alongside South Africa, on the cup was unprecedented. All this may have seemed a touch ironical to the organizers of the event. After all, they had made the game more responsive to nationalism. This was the first World Cup where national anthems were played before matches. Even the tournament itself was built up to showcase the new composite nation that South Africa is supposed to be. That, of course, was floored once the South Africans made their early exit from the championship. In Zimbabwe, it served to throw up the internal dissension against the

Mugabe regime, not to speak of the ‘international’ effect of England’s refusal to play in that country. What made this refusal more controversial was the lack of unanimity among the cricket playing nations, as had been the case in the apartheid years. India seems to be the bright spot for sports nationalists. Here cricket

has played the unifier’s role to perfection. The nation seemed to come together to cheer Ganguly and his boys during the amazing turnaround that started after the first loss to Australia in the pool stages. The politicians have long lost the status of heroes and the no-longerwhispered allegations of underworld links have put paid to at least some of the status that Bollywood used to enjoy. In a national life increasingly bereft of heroes, cricketers remain as the only surviving idols for the nation to worship. This time around, even the lone roadblock on this path seems to have

been removed. Leaders of the Hindu Right have long called Muslims anti-national on the grounds that they support Pakistan in cricket matches.2 But this time around, the opposite was noticeable. For instance, students of Madrase-e-Fazeelath-e-Quran, a coeducational madrasa of Bangalore’s Hidayath Nagar, took leave on the day of the match. On the eve of the game, Muhammad Tufail, a student of the madrasa, declared: ‘If India wins, I will distribute sweets to all my friends’.3 In Kolkata, as Kashshaf Ghani, a resident of Park Circus, a Muslim-dominated locality of the city, pointed out, processions of bikes and other vehicles were organized by local clubs before the match and even during the lunch break. ‘Some of these clubs’, he said, ‘had earlier supported Pakistan. But now all of them support India’.4 In Mumbai itself, the heart of Shiv Sena power, on the eve of the Indo-Pakistan match, the Muslim Council of India had special prayers for India in Azad Maidan. In what is sometimes referred to as mini-Pakistan, the south Mumbai area around Mohammad Ali Road, Muslim kids saw the match on giant screens (specifically set up for the derby) with tricolours painted on their faces. Many houses also sported the Indian flag. A restaurant in Bhendi Bazaar even served a firni embossed in the colours of the flag.5