Vinay Lal

Published in “Humanscape” Magazine, Mumbai, September 1999 issue, as “Why Indians Should Have Supported Pakistan in the World Cup Final”)

In the World Cup of cricket that concluded earlier this summer, Australia soundly thrashed Pakistan in the final and lifted the game’s most prized trophy. Pakistan’s defeat was a matter of great rejoicing in India, as if India herself had triumphed. Arriving in Delhi from Osaka the day after the final on June 20, I heard from my friends that some people had even exploded fire-crackers in the streets and distributed sweets. In the culture of the Indian subcontinent, sweets are distributed, as is widely known, on the most auspicious occasions, such as the birth of a child or a marriage, to mark success in examinations, or to felicitate friends and neighbors on holy days. However, some years ago, the exchange of sweets began to take on new meanings, and at the time of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, it was widely rumoured that some Sikhs, seething with the spirit of revenge for the attack launched by the Indian army upon the Sikhs’s most venerable shrine, the Golden Temple, celebrated the news of her death by distributing sweets in the streets of Delhi. However groundless the rumours may have been, they were enough to instigate some Hindus, encouraged by political leaders, to create a reign of terror for Sikhs in the nation’s capital for a few days. Not less than two thousand Sikhs, and possibly many more, were killed in that short pogrom. Fifteen years later, less than a handful of convictions have been obtained, and the killers and their bosses are still in business. Sweet must have been that revenge which was spurred on by sweets, calamitous alike for the eaters and givers of sweets.

Of course sweets were never just sweets, since in any system of signification the signifier (sweets) is likely to signify many things at once. We know that sweets are tempting, but in their irresistibility is all too often a shade of the corrupt. That infernal box of mithai, which may have in it more than just sweets, has led one too many policeman, civil servant, bureaucrat, politician, or the clerks who man the offices of the utility companies down the road of bribery and corruption. But the notion of how sweets might corrupt us is rendered with far more subtlety in Premchand’s short story, “Motelal ka Satyagraha”, where Motelal, who has embarked on a fast in the cause of the nation, and to provide the masses with exemplary leadership, rips in the stealth of the night into boxes of barfis and containers of rasgullas dripping with sugary syrup. The travails of the stomach, in the common estimation, are of greater consequence than the rumblings of the nation; and certainly Gandhian-style satyagraha demands compliance with more exacting standards of discipline than is suggested by abstention from sweets. One suspects that Gandhi would have been deeply aware of the semiotics of sugar, just as he was of the semiotics of salt. How else can we understand his march to the sea at Dandi, the grand finale of which consisted of no more than Gandhi bending down to the water, collecting some salt, and so breaking the salt laws? A pinch of salt, it is said, broke the back of the empire, and Gandhi might have ruminated on how sugar, on which the British and French empires built their wealth, became the prime killer in the ‘advanced’ countries of the West.

Our sweets have never been just sweets, but they were that much. Alas, so deeply has the insidious politics of the nation-state system enthralled us that even our sweets are no longer sweets. We have become incapable of thinking beyond the nation-state, as if any other form of community is inconceivable. There have historically been many other ways in which people have organized their affairs, and in the scale of things, the nation-state is a relatively new form of political arrangement, an enfant terrible. The nation-state system arose in the conditions of internecine European warfare in the mid-seventeenth century, and was bequeathed to the colonized part of the world as the European powers beat a retreat. The transformation of a nation into a nation-state has seldom been anything but a bloody affair, and nearly everywhere people, whose inheritance includes multiple linguistic, religious, and cultural identities, were cudgeled, usually with brute force, into speaking the same language, adopting the same dress, declaring their affinity with one religion, or otherwise rendering themselves into one species of human being, under one flag and one national anthem.

In the Indian sub-continent, the process of nation-state formation was accompanied not only by the ferocious blood-letting, mass migrations, the abduction and rape of women, and uprooting that are encompassed under the word ‘partition’, but since then by the vivisection of Pakistan in 1971, the memories of which for some victims and perpetrators alike are intertwined with the earlier holocaust, and even by the numerous secessionist, dissenting, and working-class movements that characterize the social and political landscape of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. How the politics of cricket conspires with the politics of nation-state war mongering should be amply clear from the fact that both the Pakistani cricket team, after the abysmal loss to Australia, and Nawaz Sharif, after his meeting with Clinton in Washington at which he agreed to exercise his influence with the mujahedeen (guerrillas) to withdraw to the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, dreaded to return home. One can scarcely doubt that a victory on the cricket-field would have been followed by a tumultuous homecoming, just as an emphatic declaration by the United States of support for Pakistan, instead of the cold reception that awaited Nawaz Sharif, would have encouraged him to return home at once, where he would have basked in the warm glow of mass approbation. Instead, much like the aeroplanes that momentarily disappear from the radar scene, both the Pakistani team and Sharif vanished, as if in muted testimony to the famous Indian rope trick, and surfaced a few days later. The homes of the Pakistani cricket players were stoned, and the effigies of Nawaz Sharif were openly burned on the streets of Lahore and Islamabad: each form of disgrace spoke metonymically for the other loss, for the defeat of the nation-state. Let us recall, too, that in Bangladesh the earlier defeat of Pakistan on the cricket-field at the hands of what was formerly its other, feminized half, was at once celebrated with the declaration of a national holiday, and Bangladesh’s triumph in cricket was likened to the wresting of independence by East Pakistan from West Pakistan.

No one should imagine, consequently, that Pakistan’s defeat was welcomed by Indians only because of the small-scale war that was then going on in the heights of Kargil, and the feeling of betrayal experienced by many Indians at the aggression of Pakistan and Pakistani-supported forces. Pakistan’s defeat on the cricket field in these times of conflict is doubtless sweeter to many Indians, but cricket has been a battle-field of rivalry between the two nations-state since at least the late 1960s. Indeed, when the two countries met in an earlier qualifying match, Pakistanis and Indians imagined that this was the final of the World Cup. India handed Pakistan the defeat that least of all it can tolerate, and to some it no longer mattered if India reached the final: the World Cup had been played out, and the celebrations on the streets in Indian cities were on a grandiose scale. The last time sweets were publicly distributed to such fanfare was when India tested the nuclear bomb and so declared itself a nuclear power. It is a sign of our times that our sweets have now become so charged, vehicles of masculine prowess and nation-state jingoism. Some families do not announce the birth of a girl with sweets, but perhaps the government will now institute a national policy ensuring that sweets are only handed out when a boy is born. Boys of what the colonial regime described as the “effeminate” races, such as Bengalis, the Hindus of the Gangetic Plains, and the rice- and idli-eating Tamilians, will doubtless pose some tricky problems.

No longer are our sweets sweets, even our games are no longer games. The hard-edged professionalism that accompanies international sports rivalries, the sheer power play that so firmly characterizes professional sports, the ruthless competitive urge which sends players and fans alike into a frenzy, and the nation-state triumphalism that follows the return of each successful athlete to his or her country, have all taken the spirit of play out of the game. The millions, indeed billions, of “dollars” – rubles, rupees, and rupiahs are not the currency of international sport, any more than they are of world commerce — that are at stake in these sporting bonanzas, from the World Cup (of soccer, that is) and the Olympics to the various self-aggrandizing American sporting events – the Super Bowl on Super Sunday in the ‘greatest country on earth’ — have transformed sports into a commercial venture that brings it into stiff competition with the armaments industry for the amount of revenues it generates. If the merchants of death can have no better sales pitch than to advertise their own fighter aircraft or artillery guns as the most effective destroyers of the enemy, the most eminent sportsmen and sportswomen of our times are those whose attraction resides in their power to vanquish their opponents. He who does not play to win, must face the opprobrium and humiliation of defeat. The modern world is particularly disdainful of losers. Yet, if one plays to win, then one is no longer playing a game; one is only making a statement, displaying one’s might, acting on behalf of other interests, serving out an ideology, and allowing oneself to become a vehicle for the expression of debased expressions of national greatness.

In the interest of altering our conception of games, and from thence of politics and the meaning of the nation-state, it becomes necessary to step outside the established cognitive framework. To this end, I wish to suggest, and will shortly elaborate on the point, that it was a sad day for India when Pakistan went down to Australia in a crushing loss. Many Indians, particularly those who pride themselves on being modern, rational, and patriotic, will be outraged by this sentiment, and I will rattle their tunneled nationalism and further disturb their sensibilities by stating that Indians were morally bound to lend their support to Pakistan, even while a battle may have raging between the two countries on the peaks of Kargil. Let me state at once that it is perfectly possible to adopt the view that the best side should win, though doubtless nationalist and cultural predilections will enter into any assessment of what counts for “best”, and even more reasonable to take the view that one should not support any side at all. The latter may appear to be more consistent with the argument that we should restore to sports the spirit of games, but this alleged neutrality is also consistent with the pretension, which advocates of sports hold with firmness, that politics and sports have nothing to do with each other. Quite to the contrary, if sports and politics are tied together in a blood wedding, as I have suggested, it becomes imperative to create a different political reading of sports, and to open it up to moral and cognitive spaces which would, in a manner of speaking, make a merry sport of sports. There is also the consideration that, as a matter of course, most people will support one side rather than the other, and so it behooves us to consider what should be the basis for the political choices that we in effect make.

A Pakistani friend of mine, a prominent Muslim intellectual who has been settled in London for over thirty-five years, once told me that his son, then ten years old, asked him whether he should support Pakistan or England in a cricket match. His son was born in Britain, and like the greater majority of his peers, speaks English at home and otherwise ‘identifies’ with England. In reply, his father set up three scenarios. If Pakistan and Australia were playing each other, he advised his son that he should lend his support to the English team. England is the “nation-state” to which the family now belongs, and one has obligations, as a citizen, as a moral subject, and as someone who claims rights and receives services, to the state to which one belongs. But what if Pakistan and England were playing each other, his son asked, anticipating the second scenario. His father explained that, in this case, he was bound to support Pakistan. England may well be the nation-state to which he and his son furnish their allegiance, but the “nation” is an entity in which a human being is more comfortably and reasonably housed than in the “state”. People surely commit violence in the name of the nation, though here the nation is usually inextricably intertwined with the notion of the nation-state, and it is also useful to remember that what makes a state a state is the monopoly it exercises in law over the right to use force. In common parlance, the nation-state speaks to us from the “head”, but the nation touches our “heart”; the nation-state is disciplinary, but the nation is a site of communitas: thus nearly in every language and cultural tradition, though there are exceptions such as that of Germany, the nation is rendered as the “motherland”. The state demands our political loyalties, but the nation moves us in myriad ways that affect our lives as social and cultural beings.

My friend then set up the third scenario. What if India and Pakistan were playing each other on the cricket field, whether in Britain or elsewhere? His son assumed, as would most people if similarly placed, that he ought to support Pakistan, but his father explained that the matter is more complex. Though Pakistanis lay claim to their own nation-state, civilizationally speaking they are Indians as much as those who live in India. There is no such thing as a Pakistani civilization, and though Pakistanis might like to believe that their civilizational moorings are derived preeminently from Islam, they should apprise themselves of what middle eastern Islam, which has set itself up as the true and authentic version of the faith, thinks of the Islam of South Asia. They might be shocked to learn that the most eminent scholars of Islam in the West and the middle east are likely to think of South Asian Islam as highly contaminated, as little better than the Hinduism with which it has lived in close proximity for over a millennium, and perhaps worse than Hinduism on account of its apostasy. The true civilizational home of Pakistan is the Indic world, the culture of South Asia as a whole, but a recognition of this does not in the least strip Pakistanis of their Islam. It would, on the contrary, make them more confident of their Islam, and they might recognize that the greatest Muslim scholars and reformers since the nineteenth century, with notable exceptions such as Shariati, have emanated from the Indian sub-continent. Likewise, the Hindus in India, if they were not so accustomed to thinking of India as a nation-state, might begin to think of Pakistan as an inextricable part of Indian civilization; they might even, however unthinkable it sounds, recognize in Islam a part of themselves.

Civilizational loyalties, howsoever hard to cultivate, should take precedence over the jejune attachment to the nation-state with which we are all so comfortable. The idea of “civilizational loyalties” may not be so easy to grasp, and today the vast majority of the world’s people, especially the young, have only grown up with no other idea but that of the nation-state and the hatreds that the nation-state system fosters. The word “civilization” is likewise burdened by a lamentable past and the histrionics of history. Everywhere the march of the colonial powers was trumpeted with the resounding call of the ‘civilizing mission’. The nineteenth century even instituted a ‘civilizational scale’, and where one stood on this scale, say at the top or the bottom, could have something to do with the shape of one’s nose, or the contours of one’s hair. But if people can kill in the name of God, religion, and humanity, it is scarcely surprising that oppressions should have been unleashed in the name of ‘civilization’. That can, however, be no reason to abandon the idea of ‘civilization’, for civilizations, unlike modern states, have great resilience, and can entertain a plurality of often conflicting ideas. Though the nation-state, for example, is firmly tethered to discourses of history and science as it came to be shaped in the modern West, a civilization entertains a notion of the plurality of sciences, just as it is more hospitable to non-historicist and a-historicist modes of comprehension and narration, whether construed as folktales, prophecy, oral literatures, proverbs, mythological tales, epics, puranas, or mother’s wit. To grasp this idea of ‘civilizational loyalties’, consider further that among Pakistanis and Indians, the generation that lived at the time of the partition still speaks fondly of the closeness of Hindu and Muslim relations, the manner in which ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ (when they were openly known, especially to children, to be such) partook of each other’s festivals, and the almost imperceptible ways in which Muslims and Hindus shaded into each other. Among the younger generation, which was spared the pains of the partition and migration, and which could have been expected to work towards healing the divisions, the hatred often runs much deeper.

There are certainly other, equally compelling, reasons why Indians should have been supportive of Pakistan in the final with Australia. Though my principal argument scarcely requires any props, Australia, a country which has seldom shown any interest in sharing the world-view of the South or signifying its affinity with the people of the formerly colonized world, cannot inspire hope among people who aspire for justice or equality. The architect of the Australian win, Shane Warne, has on more than occasion shown his profoundly racist leanings, and a great many members of the Australian team are similarly afflicted with racist sentiments. Vivian Richards recalled in his autobiography that nowhere did he face such intense racist animosity as in Australia, and no one can forget the intense heckling that the Sri Lankan team encountered on its recent visit to this continent, which is barren in more than one way. Finding it difficult to play Murlitharan, the spin bowler who sent England reeling at the Oval last year with a haul of 16 wickets in one match, the Australians accused him of ‘throwing’ the ball, and the player had to suffer the indignity of having a laboratory test, where it was confirmed that a deformity accounted for the particular manner in which Murlitharan bowled. All of this transpired to the accompaniment of unabashedly racist pronouncements on television and in the print media; and though Murlitharan was cleared of the ‘charges’, and had his reputation restored to him, there was scarcely any apology from the fanatic Australian public. To have a country nurtured in the genocidal mentality lecture an ancient civilization on ‘sportsmanlike’ behavior is an intolerable idea, but few Indians (or other South Asians) have given thought to this matter. Somehow Australians think that, having become ‘multicultural’ in the American fashion, pressing forth with a puerile conception of identity politics, they have become the very embodiment of pluralism.

Thus, there is in the tale of the misbegotten sweets, a great many more tales to which we should be sensitive. Though it has not been my intent to furnish a semiotics of Indian sweets, such an exercise can alert us to the manner in which the most complex questions can arise from a consideration of seemingly little things. Far more germane for the present is the sobering thought that if we have reached that nadir where the gift and exchange of sweets is itself beginning to follow the contours of the debased nation-state system, our sweets should be treated like poison. We should call our games battles, fought with escalating venom and intensity, and perhaps we might find that on the battle-field of guns and mortar, even amidst the senseless artillery duels, there is an iota more of the common sense of humanity, a jot more of the spirit of games that has largely vanished from sports. Kargil awaits its Manto, and in South Asia we should await the return of cricket to what passes for cricket in the World Cup.